Apr 14, 2021 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
It’s no mystery by now that I adore a good detective story. There’s the dynamic duo of Nick & Nora, Jane Marple and the little gray cells of Hercule Poirot, Columbo and his “one more thing,” and J.B. Fletcher. I would like to think that – if presented with a Jeopardy! category in mysteries – I would come home a champion. But I recently discovered a glaring gap in my own knowledge when I stumbled upon a new BBC adaptation of The Moonstone. Like any BBC production, the cinematography and acting drew me in immediately. But I was most surprised to learn that the plot was based on what’s considered the first, proper English detective novel. Naturally, I had to find out more! Put on your best sleuthing hat and join me as we learn about the man behind The Moonstone.
William Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824, the first son to a landscape painter. His upbringing was eclectic. On the one hand, his mother enforced strict religious-based expectations on both Wilkie and his younger brother (as was the norm for Victorian society). Yet on the other hand, his father’s work as an artist meant the boys were also exposed to the counter-culture Bohemian set. As a youngster, Wilkie spent considerable time in Italy and France, learning both languages and observing societal issues from a unique perspective. Like most fathers (especially in this era), his dad hoped his eldest would enter the clergy, but a chance encounter at boarding school gave Wilkie’s life a new trajectory.
Sadly, bullies on the playground aren’t a new phenomenon. While in our modern times, bullying can look differently because of new technologies, the pain remains just as real as ever. In every generation, kids who are bullied find ways to adapt. While some become the class clown to deflect attention, Wilkie became the class storyteller. This party trick that he used to avoid persecution ended up shining a light on a genuine, natural talent. During his school years Wilkie honed his skills, translating real-life issues and observations into fanciful tales. In many ways you could consider this experience the ultimate improv exercise. The ad-lib, on-demand energy he had to summon each night would eventually creep into his life as a professional writer. During his career more than twenty of his works would be placed in the canon of English literature.
But his path to literary stardom wasn’t a straight line. Following school, and his refusal to join the seminary, Wilkie’s dad insisted that his son find a solid career. Perhaps his own experience as an artist inspired such a notion. Wilkie worked as a clerk, which he disliked, for almost half a decade. Disenchanted with the working world, he returned to school to study law (at his family’s insistence). During all of this time, Wilkie never stopped his moonlighting gig as storyteller. He was writing every night and found some early success with his short stories. And although he never went on to practice law, like any great artist, he used the experience to inform his creative work.
Following the death of his father in 1847, he published his first book entitled Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. This work seems to me like a son trying to understand his dad. Having a father, who is a successful artist in his own right, not outwardly foster his own son’s artistry had to be difficult to navigate. The publication of this collection of his dad’s correspondence (overlaid with Wilkie’s own thoughts) also reads as a signal. While his dad’s medium was paint and canvas, Wilkie was making a stand – pen and paper would be his tools of choice. This sentence, in particular, stands out to me: “…but as I am unfit for anything but painting, I go on, letting no day pass without a line…”(pg. 4) I can’t help but think this one sentence, like the one bully at boarding school all those years earlier, fueled Wilkie’s determination. Perhaps that is what inspired his prolific volume of work. In all he wrote 30 novels, more than 60 short stories, about 15 plays, and several non-fiction pieces (by some estimates over 100).
There would be one more fateful incident that would change the tone of Wilkie’s career. In 1851 he was introduced to Charles Dickens, by way of a mutual friend, the painter Augustus Egg. Egg, like Wilkie, benefited from eclectic influences and used his work to comment on social issues of the day. In Dickens, Wilkie found a mentor and true friend. Oh to be a fly on the wall when this trio of friends gathered for a meal and discussion! For these three musketeers no subject was off-limits and their brazen commentaries even drew the attention of royalty. While Victorian society sought to project a disciplined façade, artists like Wilkie worked to break that wall down. In The Moonstone, characters have hidden depths and the question of virtue isn’t packaged up neatly. It’s this way of dissecting difficult situations that made Wilkie a pioneer. In the early days it was called “sensational,” but now his work is revered as foundational.
One thing I found really inspiring when researching more about Wilkie, Dickens, and Egg is how much they truly collaborated with each other. Many scholars agree that their friendship only strengthened their individual work. As each encouraged the other to tackle bigger, bolder projects, the world of painting and literature shifted. Wilkie and Dickens both tackled their subject matter with a realism that may have shocked Victorian sensibilities, but was vital in elevating social discourse. I would venture to say that the popularity of these artists’ works helped usher in the parliamentary reforms during this era. (Turns out that I’m not alone in this belief!)
Great books are an invitation. Sometimes we are invited to inhabit an unknown world, other times we get to participate in the familiar. In the case of Wilkie’s masterpieces, we find out that what appears to be recognizable on first blush can actually be a host to a whole new cosmos. And if you’re wondering about the relevance of a Victorian era story in this day and age, I encourage you to check out The Moonstone. I’ve found that Wilkie’s social commentaries are as thought-provoking as any modern novel. Let me know what you think in the comments…