Wilkie Collins: Man of Mystery and Imagination

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Alexander Grinstein’s book is avowedly a Freudian case-history rather than a biography. Convinced that Collins’s works are full of personal revelations of psychological problems repeated as themes in his writing, he places more weight on interpretation of the writing, than on examining the facts of the life. Though this might seem to the uninitiated a back-to-front approach, the justification is that Collins’s work reveals a fantasy autobiography, in particular of his childhood, and that the real-life situation is of secondary importance. The loci classici for such psychobiographies are Freud’s papers on artists and writers: examples are Leonardo and a Memory of his Childhood, which diagnoses childhood enuresis from a study of Leonardo’s drawings, and “Dostoevsky and Parricide.”

Psychoanalytic readings of Collins’s novels have yielded interesting interpretations, adding layers of significance to stories dismissed by Victorian critics as crude sensation. Freudian readings of The Moonstone by Charles Rycroft and others illuminate Victorian attitudes to sex, and reveal underlying structures of which Collins was almost certainly unaware. But they do not attempt to tie the issues raised to Collins’s personal psychobiography. I find Grinstein’s narrower approach reductive, diminishing the inventiveness of the fiction, the variety and interest of the life and the complexity of the man. To read Collins’s novels and stories merely as ways of dealing with personal problems is to misunderstand the complicated web of personal, social, literary and practical issues with which any author who writes to make a living is faced.

From his readings of Collins’s fiction and journalism, Grinstein creates a “Wilkie Collins” who is an “aim-inhibited” homosexual, someone who prefers the company of other men to that of women, and claims Collins had a “contempt and hatred of the female sex” which reaches its apogee in Armadale. Grinstein cites in evidence the transgressive women characters such as Lydia Gwilt, Magdalen Vanstone and Anne Silvester, and makes much of the humorous article by Collins, “Bold Words by a Bachelor,” taking from it the message that a covert homosexuality is the reason for Collins’s lifelong refusal to marry.

Grinstein’s Wilkie Collins is frightened of his parents, his mother as well as his father, furiously jealous of his younger brother and haunted by his own “deformity.” Grinstein much exaggerates Collins’s slight physical peculiarities, such as his small hands and feet. Rather than being ashamed of these, Collins’s letters suggest he was amused by being able to wear women’s shoes and gloves. He certainly enjoyed wearing flamboyant and unconventional clothes, and Grinstein perhaps misses a trick in not discussing his fascination with disguise.

Grinstein places enormous weight on Oedipal conflicts within Collins’s writings, seeing him as suffering from a lifelong obsession with his parents and his relationship to them that he repeatedly attempted to exorcise in his writings. The many psychologically disturbed characters in the stories and novels are taken as expressions of Collins’s own mental problems.

Grinstein’s portrait of a deformed, bitter misogynist, eaten up with Oedipal conflicts and fraternal jealousy, seems unimaginably far from the Wilkie Collins known to his friends and revealed by his letters. “He … was …the gentlest and most kind-hearted of men” according to his sister-in-law Kate. Other women friends found him unusually appreciative, for his class and generation, of their company, and a delightful and easy companion. Caroline Graves would never have returned to him, abandoning her brief second marriage, and remained to cherish him for the rest of his life, if he had not been an affectionate and life-enhancing companion. Her daughter Carrie, for whom he was a substitute father, adored him. Collins’s portrayals of transgressive women seem to me to mirror his own delight in breaking the rules, rather than expressing “fear and hatred.” His sensation novels shocked by their questioning of social structures, as the attacks by reviewers make clear. Lyn Pykett’s The Improper Feminine (1992) finds in them an expression of a new mood of feminism. Collins was certainly not an orthodox feminist, but neither was he a misogynist.

Collins undoubtedly had his inner demons, some of them caused by his painful rheumatic condition and consequent opium dependence, but he was the product not only of his family situation, important as this may have been, but of the wider culture in which he lived. By Grinstein’s yardstick, virtually every Victorian man could be characterised as an “aim-inhibited homosexual.” To assume that all the oppressive father-figures in Collins’s novels are attacks on his own father ignores the structure of Victorian society, against which Collins and others were protesting. One might as well argue that Mr Murdstone, as well as Mr Micawber, was a portrait of Dickens’s father. The social and literary history of the early nineteenth century, as well as Collins’s own testimony that he had experienced a happy childhood, show that William Collins’s Evangelical piety was not extreme or unusual for its time. No-one who has read the complete text of his letters to his children could think that he was a “stern and unrelenting … harsh, forbidding” father. His overriding characteristic was, rather, an inhibiting anxiety, social and financial, and a consequent conventionality and snobbery. Wilkie Collins did react against this from an early age, reverting to the more happy-go-lucky unconventionality of both his grandfathers. His novella A Rogue’s Life, which owes much to William Collins Senior’s odd book Memoirs of a Picture, gives the clearest expression to his view of his father’s limitations. I believe that marriage came to symbolise the ultimate bourgeois restriction, and that it was this, rather than any dislike fear of women, or Oedipal attachment to his mother, that prevented him from marrying.

Collins wrote of his father’s work that he excluded from his genre paintings of the life of the English rural poor “the fierce miseries, or the coarse contentions which form the darker tragedy of humble life” in favour of “scenes of quiet pathos.” Wilkie made it his life’s work to redress the balance; describing the darker aspects of society that his father could not face because of the poverty and uncertainty of his own upbringing. Wilkie, with his more favoured and comfortable middle-class childhood, could reject his father’s limitations. His conflicts with his father were not unconscious and Oedipal, but overt and expressed. Also his relationship with his younger brother was not the jealousy that Grinstein assumes. Charles Collins inherited the anxiety gene from his father in double measure. He was, for most of his relatively short life, physically and mentally frail, suffering from depression and an exaggerated sense of sin. His lack of confidence in his own abilities became so inhibiting that he had to give up painting, for which he had considerable talent, and turn to writing, at which he was mediocre, in emulation of his brother. Far from feeling jealous of him, Wilkie was protective, if sometimes slightly contemptuous.

In order to arrive at his conclusions Grinstein has read Collins’s works conscientiously, wading through the novels and stories and producing plot- summaries for virtually all of them. This is never an easy task for Collins’s complicated novels. However he is not familiar with the context in which much of Collins’s writing was produced. For example, he assumes that all the sections of The Wreck of the “Golden Mary”, the Household Words Christmas number for 1856, were written either by Dickens or Collins. He therefore attributes to Collins four stories and a poem actually written by other members of the Household Words stable.

There are a number of important studies that address some of the contextual questions that Grinstein ignores; among them Sue Lonoff’s 1982 study, Wilkie Collins and His Victorian Readers, and Lillian Nayder’s Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship (2002). Other critics have shown the effect of social and political forces, literary preferences, friendships, painting, theatre, and journalism on Collins as a writer. He was always alert to the zeitgeist, and the popularity of “social problem” fiction and plays in the later nineteenth century, and his friendship with Charles Reade (not mentioned by Grinstein) had more to do with the subject matter of Collins’s later fiction than his personal experiences. Grinstein writes in connection with The New Magdalen that “we do know of his own sexual exploits with prostitutes” – but in fact there is no direct evidence of any such exploits, nor is it true that “Collins was driven to involve himself in sexual relations with women who had been ‘degraded’ in some way.” I find Grinstein’s conclusion about this novel – that it was “a way of expressing his own unconscious wish to rescue a woman (his mother) from a life of sin” – absurd.

Grinstein, in spite of his depth of knowledge of psychoanalytic theory, is a naïve reader, who assumes that Collins’s central male characters express his own opinions, fears and prejudices. He has nothing to say about Collins’s frequent use of a female narrator, and his success at using the female voice. Here Collins seems to me to outstrip Dickens, who rarely uses a female voice which is not either submissive or crazy. Collins’s identification with women, particularly women categorised by Victorian society as “bad,” is surely worthy of Doctor Grinstein’s attention. They were not merely objects (according to Grinstein, objects of his scorn and hatred) but very much part of his internal fantasy life. Life was for Wilkie Collins, as for Louis MacNeice, “crazier and more of it than we think, / Incorrigibly plural.” That is why his work endures.