I have recently left one university (Swansea) for another (Liverpool John Moores). Before I departed, I decided to offer some final pearls of wisdom to my personal tutees, along the lines of ‘Try thinking about how you might engage with your module outside the classroom; why not read a novel from the period, watch a film or documentary, or maybe find a blogger who frequently comments on some area of historical interest?’ Whether or not they have taken up my advice is another matter, but I have since reflected on my own wise words and wondered whether I immerse myself enough in Victorian culture. When and how do I become an ‘armchair Victorianist’, to borrow Ryan Fong’s neatly-coined phrase? On reflection, it seems that I really only do this when the Victorians are depicted on screen. I adore period dramas, but rarely read (or rather, complete) the novels. I deplore documentaries because I find myself tutting at the sentimental music, historical re-enactments, or ill-informed talking heads. Time for a rethink, made all the more possible by the book voucher burning a hole in my recent leaving card.
It seems only fitting that I should kick start my Victorian immersion (sounds a bit like a spa treatment!) with Peter Ackroyd’s recently published Wilkie Collins, the biography of the Victorian novelists, play write and short story writer William ‘Wilkie’ Collins. The book is arranged chronically in twenty shortish chapters. They centre on Collins’s illness (gout and rheumatism), literary endeavours, play writing and directing, his friendship with Charles Dickens, and his unusual domestic arrangement. This is certainly a highly readable biography of Collins. Ackroyd draws upon Collins’s novels and short stories, demonstrating that you can spin a good story- if you can say that of a biography- out of novels. He also examines Collins’s friendship with Charles Dickens, giving the reader the sense that the two men had a strong relationship.
However, I was left rather disappointed. While some readers, I’m sure, will enjoy being able to read Ackroyd’s biography in an afternoon sitting, I was left wanting more. To be fair to Ackroyd, his Wilkie Collins is a part of Chatto & Windus series of biographies entitled ‘Brief Lives’. ‘Brief’ is the operative word here. Each biography in the series is under 200 pages (including the bibliography and index). Although a lot can be achieved in 200 pages, Wilkie Collins feels especially sparse. Some elements of the narrative are overlooked with little or no explanation. Too many interesting characters were passed over, especially the women of Collins’s later life. They seem to be empty vessels. Even Collins’s mother disappears from Ackroyd’s account from the point at which she retired to Tumbridge Well. The discussion of Collins’s unusual domestic arrangements make for an interesting insight into alternative lifestyles of the period, but Ackroyd seems to want the sensationalism of this aspect of Collins’s life to be enough for the reader. I was left with a range of questions: why did Collins set up two households, one each for his two mistresses? What were the practical arrangements of this double life? If Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd never meet one another, how did interaction between the two separate families occur? We are told that Collins’s children with Rudd were always welcome in his ‘other’ home. I was also keen to know why Collins had his picture taken with Martha (include in the biography but not discussed), if she was kept a secret.
A good start, methinks…but I would love to hear about other biographies that fellow Victorianists are reading at the moment. Why not leave suggestions in the comments folder below? Alternatively, if you, too, have read Ackroyd’s Wilkie Collins and have any comments you would like to make, scribble away.