The Persistent Phantom: Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L. Sayers

Jun 13, 2013 | Articles

For most of her life, Dorothy Sayers was haunted by the specter of Wilkie Collins. From the time that Sayers first discovered the enchantment of his novels as a child until her death precluded the completion of her Collins biography, he captured her imagination and profoundly affected her methods of composition and style of writing.

Both Collins the writer and Collins the man held a fascination for Sayers. In spite of her hesitation to allow biographical information about her own iconoclastic life to be circulated, she had hoped to write a biography of Collins for many years. It was probably her publisher, Victor Gollancz, who first encouraged Sayers to attempt this project (Brabazon, 139). As early as 1921, she started collecting material on Collins’s life, and often expressed frustration that so little information was available about him. In a letter dated June 15, 1921, Myles Radford, a bookseller, asked Sayers when she was going to get her “Life” finished (Reynolds, 196). In 1927 her father wrote Sayers of G. K. Chesterton’ s reference to Collins in his life of Dickens, and encouraged her to complete her biography of Collins for inclusion in the English Men of Letters series. In June of 1928 she wrote to the Times Literary Supplement requesting readers to share access to letters and papers to assist her in a “critical and biographical study of William Wilkie Collins” (Coomes, 108).

In spite of the difficulties Sayers faced in researching Collins’s life, she was able to complete five chapters by 1931. Sayers included as many details as she could find about Collins’s parents, his childhood, school years and family travels, his early writings, and friendships with Dickens and others. These chapters revealed the qualities of Collins’s work she most admired and which she set out to emulate (Reynolds, 239). Edited by E. R. Gregory from manuscripts held at the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas, these were published in 1977 by the Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries as Wilkie Collins: A Critical and Bibliographical Study. In addition to Sayers’s published manuscript and notes, she kept two other notebooks (now in the Wade Collection at Wheaton College, Illinois) which contained a bibliography, and biographical and critical information for a lecture series on Collins. ((In his introduction to the partial Sayers’s biography of Collins, Gregory described the manuscript, notebooks and note cards that he consulted in undertaking that project. He also described another notebook, held in the Wade Center at Wheaton College, Illinois, which contained lists of letters, books and articles pertaining to Collins. In a subsequent article, Gregory referred to two notebooks that were not part of the HRC collection: one at Wheaton College, and a second, at that time in the possession of Sayers’s son, Anthony Fleming (Gregory). Gregory noted that the description of this manuscript and extracts from it were included in a letter to him from Anthony Fleming, dated 15 October 1977.On 25 September 1975, Clyde S. Kilby, Curator of the Wade Collection, purchased a large collection of the papers of Dorothy L. Sayers from the Sayers estate, through David Higham of London. A checklist for the collection was made by Dr. and Mrs. Joe H. McClatchey of Wheaton College, and a bibliography was subsequently prepared by Gregory in 1978. However, the second notebook was not part of that purchase. Rather, the accession number for the notebook indicates that it was added to the collection in 1981. Its being retained by Anthony Fleming most likely was related to some Peter Wimsey material included in it. The transcription of the second notebook was completed by the present author in 1999.)) Sayers presented at least one lecture on the detective genre to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Newcastle upon Tyne in the early 1930s, based on these unpublished notebooks. ((Verified through correspondence with Mrs. E. A. Pescod, Librarian, who reviewed the Society archives, 20 October 1999.))

Sayers disliked dwelling on the past and despite her later work on Dante, maintained that she disapproved of a biographical approach to literature; she often wrote that authors should be known through their art rather than their lives (Kenney, 54). However, she expressed disappointment that she was unable to learn more of Collins’s personal life, although Radford assured her that she had as much information about him “as is likely to come to light, and a great deal more than most ‘Memoirs’ contain” (Reynolds, 370, 197). In her lecture notebook, she commented that “there was nothing very exciting about” Collins’s private life. She bemoaned the air of “impenetrable mystery” that hung over him, offering an explanation that “he had no legitimate family to preserve his memory by their piety.” For the rest of her life, Sayers never gave up the idea of completing the biography, as she said in a letter to a friend just before her death, “if and when old age brings leisure” (Hone, 184).

Beyond her biographical interest in Collins, Dorothy Sayers admired him as an author. She described him as “a writer of genuine creative imagination” (Sayers, Introduction to The Moonstone, xi), and predicted that he was “going to exercise still more influence on [the mystery-story’s] future development” (Sayers, “Wilkie Collins, 1827-1889,” unpublished lecture in Wade Collection). In much of her literary criticism, Sayers evaluated those attributes of Collins’s style that she felt defined his greatness (Reynolds, 239). Sayers admired his skillful construction of complex plots, his descriptive verbal painting, his attention to detail and accuracy, and his gift of characterization.

In her unpublished lecture notebook, Sayers makes reference to the broad scope of several of Collins’s novels. Of No Name, Sayers comments on its “nobility and breadth,” calling it more of an epic poem than a novel of sensation. She discusses Collins’s fascination with fatality in Armadale, and its theme of assertive women who triumph over “weak and vacillating men.” In the lecture “Wilkie Collins, 1827-1889”, she states that the Woman in White “takes the mystery genre to a new level by concentrating on the development of the steps to the revelation of a secret.” She also says of The Moonstone that it “was the most perfectly conceived and written detective story of this time or any other,” and praises Collins as an innovator who wove the plot of the mystery novel as closely as that of classical drama.

In her own classic of detective fiction, The Nine Tailors, Sayers demonstrated her mastery of Collins’s techniques. As she was developing the outline of this novel, she was also working on his biography, so that his influence was pervasive. She painted on a large canvas, rich with the locations of her childhood and set in the timelessness of rural life. Within the time span of the story, the reader can experience the atmosphere of the changing of life’s seasons as the bells toll for unions and dangers and deaths. The novel begins with church bells, and grows in complexity with broad themes of time and change, of death and reprisal.

Sayers’s consideration of Collins’s constructional gifts seem to mirror the thoughts of novelist Anthony Trollope, who in 1883, wrote:

When I sit down to write a novel I do not at all know, and I do not very much care, how it is to end. Wilkie Collins seems so to construct his that he not only, before writing, plans everything on, down to the minutest detail, from the beginning to end; but then plots it all back again, to see that there is no piece of necessary dove-tailing which does not dove-tail with absolute accuracy. (Trollope, 223)

Sayers considered meticulous construction to be paramount to the successful detective novel, and like Collins, her notebooks reveal the intensive work that she devoted to her subject even before she began to write (Reynolds, 240). In her introduction to the 1936 Tales of Detection, she stressed that the detective novel should be defined by “a delicate balance of the human and the intellectual elements” which are exemplified in Collins’s work (Sayers, Introduction to Tales of Detection, xiii). Although she had difficulty at first in accepting a love-interest in detective stories (she believed that the detective needed to stay clear of romance and keep to the business of detecting), she recognized that The Moonstone presented a perfect example of love as an integral part of the plot (Reynolds, 138), and later was able to work with Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane, seeing that their growing relationship could serve to broaden the plot-scheme of her novels.

Another characteristic of Collins’s writings that Sayers admired and emulated was his attention to detail, which gave readers a sense of realism and involvement. In her unpublished notebook, Sayers points out that Hide and Seek gives “a faint glimpse of the real Collins” in its attention to precise descriptive detail, and she comments on his gifts of descriptive verbal painting in her introduction to The Moonstone. Collins traveled extensively in order to see for himself the scenes he described in his novels. He visited Aldeburgh to write the scene in which Magdalen looks out at the passing ships from her window and wrestles with her own fate in No Name. Knowledge of the Cornish coast helped him to describe the last dramatic scene in Basil. His description of the Shivering Sand in The Moonstone is based on careful observation along the Yorkshire coast near Runswick Bay. His description of the Norfolk Broads and Hurle (Horsey) Mere is perfectly wrought in Armadale:

The reeds opened back on the right hand and the left, and the boat glided suddenly into the wide circle of a pool. Round the nearer half of the circle, the eternal reeds still fringed the margin of the water. Round the farther half, the land appeared again, here rolling back from the pool in desolate sand-hills; there rising above it in a sweep of grassy shore.. .The sun was sinking in the clear heaven, and the water, where the sun’s reflection failed to tinge it, was beginning to look black and cold.. .and on the near margin of the pool, where all had been solitude before, there now stood, fronting the sunset, the figure of a woman. (Collins, Armadale, Ch. 9)

In The Nine Tailors, Sayers culled from her own experience and conducted careful research, describing the area of Fenchurch St. Paul based on her knowledge of the East Anglian countryside of her childhood. She enlisted the assistance of W. J. Redhead, an architect, in describing the church itself and the complex dam and sluice system which played such a key role in the narrative. The fine details of Sayers’s writing entice the reader to step into the picture:

Ahead of them, the great bulk of the church loomed dark and gigantic. Mr. Godfrey led the way with an old-fashioned lantern through the lich-gate and along a path bordered with tombstones to the south door of the church, which he opened, with a groaning of the heavy lock. A powerful, ecclesiastical odor, compounded of ancient wood, varnish, dry rot, hassocks, hymn-books, paraffin lamps, flowers and candles, all gently baking in the warmth of slow-combustion stoves, billowed out from the interior. (Sayers, The Nine Tailors, 26)

Collins was as concerned with accuracy of detail as with clarity of description, whether in train schedules, legal points or drug reactions. His careful timing was of crucial importance in The Woman in White. He relied on his knowledge of the legal profession gained in his studies at Lincoln’s Inn to add details to such novels as Man and Wife and The Law and the Lady. His own experience with drugs added credibility to scenes in The Moonstone. He sought professional assistance to ensure that his descriptions of blindness and the treatment of epilepsy in Poor Miss Finch were accurate and believable. Collins often sought newspaper accounts of true events to bolster his narratives, for as Sayers points out in her published biography chapters, the more incredible the incident, the more insistent the writer must be that the narrative is founded in fact, and the details are as realistic as possible (Sayers, Wilkie Collins, 82).

Sayers’s meticulous research on the subject of bell-ringing in The Nine Tailors effected descriptions of such perfection that the Oxford Companion to Music refers the reader to The Nine Tailors for a clear explanation of change- ringing. Sayers was even asked to be vice president of the Campanological Society of Great Britain. As she wrote in her unpublished notebook, “In order to gain the reader’s attention in the first place and in order to secure his belief in far more astonishing parts of the narrative, the writer. . . will strive for the…most exact realism in the details of everything that happens within the reader’s experience.” She agreed with Collins that by drawing romance from the familiar, everyday things in life, the sensational is blended with the ordinary to bring the reader into the story.
Sayers admired Collins’s adherence to what she described as the “fair play rule.” His carefully worked plots present the reader with all the facts needed to solve a crime before any detecting is done. As she points out in her introduction to The Moonstone, compliance with the “fair play rule” marks the difference between a thriller and a true detective story, engaging the reader beyond the role of mere observer (Sayers, Introduction to The Moonstone, v). For her novel, The Documents in the Case, Sayers painstakingly researched the poison muscarine. With the assistance of Dr. Eustace Barton, she determined the characteristics of the poison in its inorganic and organic forms, and meticulously presented the details crucial to the plot.

The development of character was important to both authors. Sayers praised Collins’s gift of characterization, in spite of critics who compared him unfavorably to Dickens. She argues that it is not really fair to compare Collins to Dickens, “the most divinely-inspired creator of character . . . ever known in this country,” saying that in searching for a compliment to pay Collins, one could do worse than to say that he was “not quite as good as Dickens” (“Wilkie Collins, 1827-1889,” Wade Collection). Sayers approved of such “great women” as Marian Halcombe in The Moonstone, Magdalen Vanstone in No Name and Lydia Gwilt in Armadale, who demonstrate Collins’s sympathy with the feminist cause. She notes that Collins infused his carefully constructed plots with a “whole gallery of solidly-built characters” who nonetheless, are subtle and complex human beings. The Woman in White produced the “immortal” Count Fosco (“the Napoleon of Crime”). Zoe Galilee, from Heart and Science, is described in “Wilkie Collins, 1827-1889” as “one of the best and mostly truly observed children one could hope to meet in fiction.” Regarding Poor Miss Finch, although she calls Lucilla Finch “odd,” she shows a great affection for two other characters in the novel, the audacious Madame Pratolungo and the German doctor Herr Grosse (a “delightful grotesque”). She finds delight as well in Gabriel Betteridge in The Moonstone. These carefully developed personalities served as models in her own characterization. In The Nine Tailors, the Reverend and Mrs. Venables are richly drawn and red-blooded, while Superintendent Blundell commands the same comfortable humanity as a Sergeant Cuff. The reverend, with butter dripping down the sleeve of his gesturing arm, and his wife, who demonstrates a “competent tranquility” throughout the dangerous and disturbing proceedings of the narrative, are marvelously developed characters after Collins’s own heart. Sayers’s simple description of Superintendent Blundell is typical of the endearing and humorous way that Collins succeeded in making his characters real:

‘Amazing!’ said the Rector. Mr. Blundell uttered a regrettable expression, remembered his surroundings, and coughed loudly. (The Nine Tailors, 296)

Indeed, it is the combination of humanity and humor that makes Collins’s characters responsive and appealing. When Herr Dr. Grosse is belittled by another doctor for wanting to dig into the chicken mayonnaise dish before examining Lucilla:

Herr Grosse—with a fork in one hand and a spoon in the other, and a napkin tied round his neck—stared piteously; shook his shock head; and turned his back on the Mayonnaise, with a heavy heart at parting. (Collins, Poor Miss Finch, Ch. 30)

Collins and Sayers knew their characters and understood their humanity, making them believable and empathetic to the reader. In spite of the fact that Sayers was so favorably influenced by Collins, and displayed such success with The Nine Tailors, her experiments with his style did not always work. She greatly admired the brilliance of Collins’s technique of first-person narrative. In The Woman in White, Collins uses Walter Hartright to explain his presentation of the story as if it were in a court of law:

. . . Present the truth always in its most direct and most intelligible aspect; and to trace the course of one complete series of events, by making the persons who have been most closely connected with them, at each successive stage, relate their experience, word for word. (Collins, The Woman in White, Ch. 1)

Sayers explained in “Wilkie Collins, 1827-1889” that Collins is able to succeed with the improbable plot by telling the story “in the most convincing and emphatic way—the lawyer’s way—by the narratives of the eyewitnesses.” In her 1930 novel, The Documents in the Case, she tried to emulate such highly regarded works as The Moonstone and The Woman in White. However, her venture into the epistolary form did not work, since the switching of viewpoints weakened rather than enhanced her carefully constructed plot. By her own admission, Sayers had undertaken a complex plot-line, and by introducing an equally difficult mode of story-telling, her results seem contrived and unconvincing. Although the witty characterization of the priggish Miss Milsom and her knitting is reminiscent of Miss Clack in The Moonstone, the other characters are not sympathetic, but flat and undeveloped; they function rather as pawns in the development of the motive for murder. The failure of the love affair of Lathom and Mrs. Harrison to invoke any emotional response in the reader is only highlighted by comparison to Collins’s delicate characterization of Rachel and Franklin’s relationship or Rosanna Spearman’s despair in The Moonstone, or of Valeria’s devotion to Eustace in The Law and the Lady. In The Documents in the Case, Sayers failed to reveal the raw emotion that would have been the basis of the relationship of these two people in order for such a heinous crime to have been committed.

In spite of her own remarkable career, Dorothy L. Sayers remained fascinated by Wilkie Collins, and for nearly thirty-five years researched his life, studied his works, and emulated his style. Ralph Hone, in his biography of Sayers, states that the study of Collins made her a better writer and critic. Barbara Reynolds, Sayers’s longtime friend, collaborator and biographer agrees. And those generations of mystery-lovers who have been enchanted by her richly detailed, carefully constructed, and warmly peopled novels of detection, must concur.

Works Cited


  • Wade Collection of Sayers Papers, Wade Centre, Wheaton College, Illinois.


  • Brabazon, James. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Biography. New York: Scribner’s, 1981.
  • Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. 2 vols. London: Smith, Elder, 1866.
  • _________. Poor Miss Finch. 3 vols. London: Bentley, 1872.
  • _________. The Woman in White. 3 vols. London: Sampson Low, 1860.
  • Coomes, David. Dorothy L. Sayers. A Careless Rage for Life. Batavia: Lion, 1992.
  • Sayers, Dorothy L. Introduction to Tales of Detection. London: Dent, 1936.
  • _________. Introduction to The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. London: Dent, 1944.
  • _________. Wilkie Collins. A Critical and Bibliographical Study, ed. by E.R. Gregory.
  • Toledo: Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries, 1977.
  • _________. The Nine Taylors. London: Gollancz, 1934.
  • Gregory, E.R. “Wilkie Collins and Dorothy L. Sayers.” In As Her Whimsey Took Her, ed. Margaret P. Hannay. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1979.
  • Hone, Ralph E. Dorothy L. Sayers: A Literary Biography. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1979.
  • Kenney, Catherine. The Remarkable Case of Dorothy L. Sayers. Kent: Kent State University Press, 1990.
  • Reynolds, Barbara. Dorothy L. Sayers: Her Life and Soul. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.
  • Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1883.