When the English writer Wilkie Collins died in 1889 at age 65, the Athenaeum published only a lukewarm tribute:

As [Collins’] health had been irremediably broken several months before his death, and as there was no prospect of his ever again producing books as good as his best of former years, it is mockery for any outside his immediate circle to profess deep sorrow at [his] death.

The magazine’s obituary paints Collins as a washed-up old hack. Reading it, one wouldn’t know that he pioneered many aspects of the detective novel and started the craze for sensation fiction, the hottest literary trend of the 1860s. Yet this obituary captures the curse of Collins’ reputation: the impression that he’s good but not great, notable enough to write about but not a genius of the era. It’s a curse in need of breaking.

An 1850 painting of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais
An 1850 painting of Wilkie Collins by John Everett Millais © National Portrait Gallery, London
An 1864 photo of Collins
An 1864 photo of Collins Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

This month marks the 200th anniversary of Collins’ birth, presenting an opportunity to revisit his legacy from a different perspective. Through his elaborately constructed novels, Collins drew attention to the challenges faced by Victorian women, showing how seemingly innocuous legal technicalities could turn them into Gothic victims and England into an archaic prison.

Collins’ early life and career

Born to a landscape painter and a former governess in 1824, Collins was raised in a conservative, devoutly religious household. Between stints at school, he accompanied his family to Italy, where he enjoyed sightseeing at ancient ruins and attempting to seduce much older women.

Collins claimed that travel taught him more than his formal education, but it was at school where his literary talent was bullied into existence. He later recounted an episode from a dormitory presided over by his oldest classmate, who acted as “captain of the room” and kept order. This “captain,” whom the burgeoning writer compared to the king in The Arabian Nights, demanded a story every night, and Collins “was the unhappy boy chosen to amuse him.” Threatened with a makeshift cat-o’-nine-tails if he refused to comply, the young Collins “learnt to be amusing on a short notice.” A storyteller was born.

The habit of turning to stories in a hostile environment stayed with Collins into young adulthood. Between 1841 and 1846, he was apprenticed to a London tea merchant—an experience he hated. While cooped up in an office he referred to as his “prison on the Strand,” the selectively industrious Collins wrote. During this period, he drafted his first novel, a romance set in Tahiti. It was rejected by publishers, leading Collins to begin studying law. He seemed to think even less of the legal profession than he did of the tea business. Two months in, he declared himself disgusted with the whole operation and went back to writing what would become Antonina (1850), his first published novel. Still, he completed his tenure as a law student, acquiring knowledge that would prove important to his future work as a writer.

The death of Collins’ father in 1847 inadvertently set the stage for his first literary success, a biography of the elder Collins published in 1848. But the real turning point of his career came in 1851, the year he met Charles Dickens. Both enthusiastic amateur actors, Collins and Dickens became acquainted while performing in the same play. They remained friends until Dickens’ death in 1870, when Collins was one of only 12 people present at the literary giant’s burial. In the intervening years, they collaborated extensively. Collins joined the staff of Dickens’ magazine Household Words, and the pair co-wrote plays and stories for periodicals. The men also traveled together, confided in one another about love affairs and enjoyed the occasional facial-hair-growing competition.

An 1857 letter from Charles Dickens, who asks his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth to send Collins newspaper cuttings related to Newgate Prison
An 1857 letter from Charles Dickens, who asked his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth to send Collins newspaper cuttings related to Newgate Prison Courtesy of Charles Dickens Museum, London
A Mathew Brady portrait of Charles Dickens
A Mathew Brady portrait of Charles Dickens Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

As important as this relationship was, it has cast a pall over Collins’ literary reputation by ensuring he is always compared to his more famous friend. T.S. Eliot, the Modernist poet and self-appointed keeper of the literary canon, once called Collins “a Dickens without genius.” Collins himself was conscious of this perception. In 1856, he wrote to his mother to inform her that Dickens was “quite excited and surprised” by his plans for his next novel, The Dead Secret (1857). But he also warned her to “keep this all a profound secret … for if my good-natured friends knew that I had been reading my idea to Dickens—they would be sure to say when the book was published that I had got all the good things in it from him.”

The rise of the sensation novel

Collins soon made his own mark on the literary world. On November 26, 1859, the last installment of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities appeared in All the Year Round, the successor to Household Words. Immediately following was the first episode of a new work by Collins: The Woman in White. Readers met the young drawing teacher Walter Hartright, accompanying him as he walked “the lonely high-road” to London. Their blood froze with his when he felt the touch of a hand on his shoulder and turned to see a young woman dressed entirely in white, who had just escaped from an asylum.

Thus began a novel that readers couldn’t get enough of. They were taken in by the beautiful Laura Fairlie and her mannish, mustached half-sister, Marian Halcombe. They eagerly followed along as multiple narrators relayed the novel’s harrowing plot, which revolved around Laura’s doomed marriage to a wicked baronet. Sales of All the Year Round soared. The work’s success brought Collins out of Dickens’ shadow, at least financially. In 1861, he advised his mother to “take a good gasp of fresh air” before reading the news that a publisher had offered him £5,000 (around $625,000 today) for a new book—a fact that he communicated with six exclamation marks. “If I live and keep my brains in good working order,” he resolved, “I shall have got to the top of the tree … before 40.

A pair of illustrations from The Woman in White​​​​​​​
A pair of illustrations from The Woman in White Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Woman in White is often cited as the starting point for a genre that enamored and terrified the public of the 1860s and beyond: the sensation novel. As its title suggests, this genre had a reputation for “preaching to the nerves” and eliciting a physical response in the reader, per the Quarterly Review. Though not technically the first of its kind—many authors in the 1850s were employing a proto-sensational style—The Woman in White kicked off a decade of “sensational mania.” Authors like Collins, Mary Elizabeth Braddon and Ellen Wood updated earlier Gothic conventions for a modernizing mid-Victorian Britain. They replaced supernatural elements with explainable mechanisms, spinning tales of family secrets, mistaken identities and the vices lurking beneath a facade of respectability.

Collins had a rare talent for combining the mundane and the horrifying. Even the famously snarky Margaret Oliphant, one of Britain’s most prolific novelists and reviewers, marveled at his uncanny power in this regard. In 1862, she noted that he occupied “an entirely original position,” adding:

Not so much as a single occult agency is employed in the structure of his tale. … His effects are produced by common human acts performed by recognizable human agents. … The more we perceive the perfectly legitimate nature of the means used to produce the sensation, the more striking does that sensation become.

Collins and women’s rights

Sensation novels imported the criminal element of Newgate fiction and lower-class literature into the sanctity of the middle-class domestic sphere, leading some critics to deem them dangerous to young women. But this was the very demographic that sensational authors catered to with tales of beautiful bigamists, charming husband killers and mistresses of disguise.

Indeed, wayward heroines and disastrous marriages were practically a requirement of sensation novels, which unraveled the marriage plot (a narrative of courtship ending in marriage) that characterized tamer Victorian fiction. But Collins went further than most writers in his targeted attacks on marriage. Finally putting his legal training to use, he teased out horrors from social inequalities and outdated laws.

Not coincidentally, Collins’ career overlapped with a major period in women’s rights reform. Marriage law in early 1850s England had, with a few exceptions, not changed much since the Middle Ages. Once wed, a woman surrendered her property to her husband, as married women could not own property under common law. Divorce a vinculo matrimonii (a legal term referring to a full divorce as opposed to the more limited a mensa et thoro) required a private Act of Parliament and thus was only accessible to the very wealthy. Most unnervingly, under the common law doctrine of coverture, a married woman’s identity was subsumed by her husband’s. She did not legally exist. A controversial act passed in 1857 streamlined divorce proceedings, but coverture still loomed as an obstacle to women’s independence within marriage.

Collins was no fan of marriage, and he was skeptical of what he described as “claptrap” English moral codes. But he didn’t avoid women or domesticity. In the late 1850s, Collins established a household with a widow named Caroline Graves and essentially adopted her daughter. In 1864, he began a relationship with Martha Rudd, with whom he would have three children. These two relationships overlapped, except for a brief period when Graves left Collins for a plumber. Unsurprisingly, Collins’ works often explored themes of illegitimacy, the precarity of family and the ruptures caused when legal technicalities clashed with emotional bonds. At the beginning of No Name (1862), for example, two sisters are left without an inheritance after learning their deceased parents were not legally married at the time of their births.

Wilkie Collins' grave
Collins' grave Katherine Hobbs
A photo of Collins
A photo of Collins Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Many of Collins’ novels focus on marriage’s negative consequences for women and the fissures in personal identity imposed by the letter of the law. In The Woman in White, published after the 1857 act but set primarily in 1849 and 1850, the legal death inflicted by coverture becomes terrifyingly literal. Laura’s marriage settlement is botched; her husband becomes entitled to all of her property, and she is locked away in an asylum while another woman is buried in her place. The novel’s hero, Walter, encounters Laura standing at her own grave. He later reflects on the dark irony of her situation:

In the eye of reason and of law, in the estimation of relatives and friends, according to every received formality of civilized society, ‘Laura, Lady Glyde,’ lay buried with her mother in Limmeridge churchyard, … dead to the persons in authority, who had transmitted her fortune to her husband and her aunt.

Laura, Walter adds, was “socially, morally, legally—dead.”

Even Laura’s living presence cannot contradict the written records of her death. She haunts the borders of her own life, a ghostly warning to real-life English wives, who were present in body but nonexistent under the law.

Stories like Laura’s are ghastly, but the legal intricacies are not exaggerated. Collins was scrupulous about accuracy. He even consulted his lawyer, William Tindell, for advice about legal plot points. In 1874, while at work on The Law and the Lady, Collins asked Tindell where he could procure an account of the infamous 1857 Madeleine Smith trial so he could properly represent “the course of procedure under the Scottish law in cases of murder.” Smith had been charged with poisoning her lover, but the jury returned a verdict of “not proven,” which resulted in her acquittal but did not clear her name.

Collins soon followed up to ask Tindell whether a marriage was lawful if one of the parties married under an assumed name. Both Scottish murder trials and marriage under an alias are crucial elements in The Law and the Lady. The main character, Valeria, learns that her husband was accused of poisoning his first wife, and that a “not proven” verdict continues to haunt him. Determined to clear his name, she becomes an amateur detective.

Pages from The Law and the Lady​​​​​​​
Pages from The Law and the Lady Internet Archive

Valeria’s story also illustrates the benefits of extending increased property rights to married women. Before 1870, the only way a married woman could retain property was to have it legally designated as a separate estate under a settlement, which was subject to restrictions and administered by a trustee. Only wealthy women who already possessed property and had access to legal resources benefited from this protection.

Then, in 1870, Parliament passed a Married Women’s Property Act. As political scholar Mary Lyndon Shanley points out, this act was very limited and did not put wives on equal footing with single women. It merely designated certain categories of property as “separate,” granting poorer, wage-earning women some of the benefits of a separate estate. Married women’s property activists didn’t think this measure went far enough, and in 1873, they promoted a new bill that would give all wives the same property rights as single women.

Critics of the proposal worried that it would compromise the institution of marriage. A writer for the conservative Saturday Review, for example, complained that the legislation would reduce matrimony to a “mere commercial partnership” and that “divorce for incompatibility [would be] the natural corollary.” The bill failed. But Collins transformed the wreckage of this law into key aspects of Valeria’s character. Capable and resolute, Valeria possesses her “own little fortune (eight hundred a year),” which—in a notable contrast to Laura’s plot—was secured for her use through a marriage settlement. Instead of destroying her marriage by dividing husband and wife, this property allows Valeria to support herself and rescue her husband, paving the way for domestic bliss.

Collins’ novels revealed urgent problems of women’s identity and dramatized legal rights and restrictions for readers who were otherwise worlds away from parliamentary debates. By the time he died, Collins had written more than 20 novels, several plays, and a host of short stories and articles for periodicals. His tombstone, however, memorialized him as “author of The Woman in White,” a fitting tribute to a writer who knew better than anyone how to combine the thrills of melodrama with the minutiae of legal fact. Collins helped a generation of readers understand that for women in the mid-19th century, truth was indeed stranger—and more dangerous—than fiction.

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