Life of Wilkie Collins, Grandfather of the English Detective Novel

Wilkie Collins ca. 1859–1870

Boston Public Library / Public Domain

Wilkie Collins (January 8, 1824 – September 23, 1889) has been called the grandfather of the English detective novel. He was a writer of the "sensational" school during the Victorian Period, and with bestselling novels and successful plays such as The Woman in White, The Moonstone, and The Frozen Deep, Collins explored the effects of mysterious, shocking, and criminal happenings within Victorian middle-class families.

Early Years and Education

Wilkie Collins (born William Wilkie Collins) was born on Jan. 8, 1824, on Cavendish Street in Marylebone, London. He was the eldest of two sons of William Collins, a landscape artist and a member of the Royal Academy, and his wife Harriet Geddes, a former governess. Collins was named after David Wilkie, the Scottish painter who was his godfather.

"Frost Scene" by William Collins, 1827
Wilkie's father William Collins was a landscape painter whose 1827 "Frost Scene" is now at the Yale Center for British Art. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection / public domain

After spending one year at a small preparatory school called Maida Hill Academy near Tyburn, England, Collins went with his family to Italy, where they stayed from 1837 to 1838. In Italy, the Collins family visited archaeological ruins and museums and resided in a number of cities, including Rome, Naples, and Sorrento, before returning home. Wilkie then boarded at a boys' school run by Henry Cole in Highbury from 1838–1841. There, Collins was bullied into telling stories to the other boys at night because he had learned Italian and had picked up on plots from foreign literature and was not shy in bragging about it.

Entry to the Strand from Charing Cross, Illustration showing people in London street, 1841
The busy and lively Strand in London helped to inspire Wilkie Collins' early stories. Library of Congress /  public domain

At age 17, Collins started his first job with a tea merchant named Edward Antrobus, a friend of his father's. Antrobus' shop was located on The Strand in London. The heady atmosphere of The Strand—a major thoroughfare populated by theaters, law courts, taverns, and newspaper editorial offices—gave Collins ample inspiration to write short articles and literary pieces in his spare time. His first signed article, "The Last Stage Coachman," appeared in Douglas Jerrold's Illuminated Magazine in 1843.

In 1846, Collins became a law student at Lincoln's Inn. He was called to the bar in 1851, but never practiced law.

Early Literary Career

Collins' first novel, Iolani, was rejected and didn't resurface until 1995, long after his death. His second novel, Antonina was only one-third of the way finished when his father died. After the elder Collins' death, Wilkie Collins started work on a two-volume biography of his father, which was published by subscription in 1848. That biography brought him to the attention of the literary world.

In 1851, Collins met Charles Dickens, and the two writers became close friends. Although Dickens was not known to serve as a mentor for many writers, he was surely a supporter, colleague, and mentor for Collins. According to scholars of Victorian literature, Dickens and Collins influenced one another and even co-wrote several short stories. Dickens supported Collins by publishing some of his stories, and it is possible that the two men were knowledgeable of the other's less-than-ideal Victorian sexual alliances.

"Tales of Two Idle Apprentices" by Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, 1884
Wilkins and Dickens collaborated on the story "Tales of Two Idle Apprentices," published in this 1884 volume. Library of Congress /  public domain

Collins was called William and Willie as a child, but as he rose in stature in the literary world, he became known as Wilkie to just about everyone.

The Sensational School

The "sensation genre" of writing was an early stage in the development of the detective novel. Sensational novels offered a hybrid of domestic fiction, melodrama, sensational journalism, and gothic romances. The plots contained elements of bigamy, fraudulent identity, drugging, and theft, all of which took place within the middle-class home. Sensational novels owe much of their "sensation" to the earlier Newgate novel genre, which consisted of biographies of notorious criminals. 

poster for Wilkie Collins's "The Woman in White," staged at the Olympic Theatre, London in 1871-2
Wilkie Collins adapted his popular mystery novel "The Woman in White" to a play of the same name. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1928 / public domain

Wilkie Collins was the most popular and is today the best-remembered of the sensational novelists, completing his most important novels in the 1860s with the heyday of the genre. Other practitioners included Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Charles Reade, and Ellen Price Wood.

Family and Personal Life

Wilkie Collins never married. It has been speculated that his close knowledge of Charles and Catherine Dickens' unhappy marriage may have influenced him.

In the mid-1850s, Collins began living with Caroline Graves, a widow with one daughter. Graves lived in Collins' house and looked after his domestic affairs for most of thirty years. In 1868, when it became clear that Collins would not marry her, Graves briefly left him and married someone else. However, she and Collins reunited two years later after Graves' marriage ended.

While Graves was away, Collins became involved with Martha Rudd, a former servant. Rudd was 19 years old, and Collins was 41. He established for her a few blocks away from his home. Together, Rudd and Collins had three children: Marian (born 1869), Harriet Constance (born 1871), and William Charles (born 1874). The children were given the surname name "Dawson," as Dawson was the name Collins used when he bought the house and visited Rudd. In his letters, he referred to them as his "morganatic family."

"The Moonstone," first published in 1868
"The Moonstone," first published in 1868. British Library / public domain

By the time he was in his late thirties, Collins was addicted to laudanum, a derivative of opium, which featured as a plot point in many of his best novels, including The Moonstone. He also traveled throughout Europe and led a fairly lavish and sybaritic lifestyle with his traveling companions, including Dickens and others he met along the way.

Published Works

Over his lifetime, Collins wrote 30 novels and over 50 short stories, some of which were published in magazines edited by Charles Dickens. Collins also wrote a travel book (A Rogue's Life), and plays, the best-known of which is The Frozen Deep, an allegory of the failed Franklin expedition to find the Northwest Passage across Canada.

Death and Legacy

Wilkie Collins died in London on Sept. 23, 1889, at the age of 69, after having suffered a debilitating stroke. His will divided what proceeds were left from his writing career between his two partners, Graves and Rudd, and the Dawson children.

The sensationalism genre faded in popularity after the 1860s. However, scholars credit sensationalism, especially Collins' work, with reimagining the Victorian family in the midst of social and political changes of the Industrial Age. He often depicted strong women who overcame the injustices of the day, and he developed plot devices that the next generations of writers such as Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle used to invent the detective mystery genre.

T.S. Elliot said of Collins that he was the "first and greatest of modern English novelists." Mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers said that Collins was the most genuinely feminist of all the 19th century novelists.

Wilkie Collins Fast Facts

  • Full Name: William Wilkie Collins
  • Occupation: Author
  • Known For: Bestselling detective novels and developing of the sensational genre of literature
  • Born: January 8, 1824 in London, England
  • Parents' Names: William Collins and Harriet Geddes
  • Died: September 23, 1889 in London, England
  • Selected Works: The Woman in White, The Moonstone, No Name, The Frozen Deep
  • Spouse's Name: Never married, but had two significant partners – Caroline Graves, Martha Rudd.
  • Children: Marian Dawson, Harriet Constance Dawson, and William Charles Dawson
  • Famous Quote: “Any woman who is sure of her own wits, is a match, at any time, for a man who is not sure of his own temper.” (from The Woman in White)


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Hirst, K. Kris. "Life of Wilkie Collins, Grandfather of the English Detective Novel." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hirst, K. Kris. (2020, August 29). Life of Wilkie Collins, Grandfather of the English Detective Novel. Retrieved from Hirst, K. Kris. "Life of Wilkie Collins, Grandfather of the English Detective Novel." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).