William Wilkie Collins was born on January 8, 1824. Today he is best known for The Moonstone (1868), often regarded as the first true detective novel, and The Woman in White (1860), the archetypal sensation novel. He died at age 65 on September 23, 1889.
He was the son of popular landscape painter, William Collins. His childhood schooldays began in 1835 at the Maida Hill Academy, followed by a two year interruption when he accompanied his parents and younger brother, Charles, to France and Italy from September 1836 to August 1838. He later recalled that he had learned more in Italy 'among the scenery, the pictures, and the people, than I ever learned at school.' Returning to England, his schooling continued at Cole's boarding school at Highbury Place. It was here that he began his career as a storyteller to appease the dormitory bully, later recalling that 'it was this brute who first awakened in me, his poor little victim, a power of which but for him I might never have been aware.'
At age 22, Collins became a law student at London’s Lincoln’s Inn. Collins was called to the bar in 1851, the same year he met novelist Charles Dickens, with whom he kept closely associated with for most of his life, including traveling together and collaborating on many works. Instead of practicing law, Collin adopted literature as his profession. In 1848, a year after his father died, he published his first book, The Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A. In his life time, he wrote 25 novels, more than 50 short stories, at least 15 plays, and more than 100 non-fiction pieces between 1848 and his death in 1889. Collins was considered to be one of the best-known, best-loved, and, for a time, best-paid of Victorian fiction writers.
It was during the 1860s that Collins achieved enduring fame with his four major novels, The Woman in White (1860), No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and The Moonstone (1868). The first of these was published in Dickens's new journal, All the Year Round from November 1859 to August 1860. It was received with great popular acclaim and ran to seven editions in 1860, alone. The real-life woman in white was Caroline Graves who probably met Wilkie in the spring of 1856. She was a widow, originally came from Gloucestershire, and had a young daughter, Harriet Elizabeth (usually known as Carrie). Caroline and Wilkie never married but lived together from about 1858 for the best part of 30 years.
About 1864, however, Wilkie met the other woman in his life, Martha Rudd, possibly in Great Yarmouth near her home in Winterton, or perhaps in London where she may have come to work as a maid in his mother's house. Wilkie was 40 years old while Martha was just 19. To give their liaison degree of respectability, for they also never married, Wilkie and Martha assumed the identities of Mr and Mrs William Dawson, the name given to their three children, Marian, Harriet and Charley.
Whether Martha's arrival caused the temporary rift between Wilkie and Caroline, or whether she simply gave him an ultimatum over marriage is uncertain, but in October 1868 Caroline suddenly married one Joseph Clow. Carrie and Frank Beard were the witnesses while Collins was himself present at the ceremony in Marylebone Parish Church. By April 1871, however, Caroline had returned to Gloucester Place and continued to live with Wilkie until his death in 1889. She died in 1895 and is buried in the same grave in Kensal Green Cemetery
Despite his growing success, Collins's health began to decline during the 1850s and 1860s, suffering from what he always described as 'rheumatic gout' or 'neuralgia'. These medical conditions affected his eyes with particular severity and he often required the services of a secretary. He visited numerous physicians and tried various remedies including Turkish and electric baths, health spas, hypnotism and quinine. Ultimately Beard prescribed opium in the form of laudanum as a pain-killer and sedative, but always for purely medical reasons. Over the years Collins developed an enormous tolerance and eventually took daily more laudanum than would have sufficed to kill a ship's crew or company of soldiers.
During the 1880s, Wilkie's always delicate health continued to decline. Breathing difficulties due to heart problems became more common, and he resorted to capsules of amyl nitrate and hypo-phosphate. In January 1889, he was involved in an accident, in which he was thrown from a cab by the force of the collision. There followed a severe of attack of bronchitis. He suffered a stroke on June 30 and, with further complications, died on September 23, 1889.
Opium and Laudanum
One of the things that made _The Moonstone_ such a success was its sensationalist depiction of opium addiction. Like many others, Collins started taking Opium in the form of laudanum, a mixture of opium and alcohol for medical reasons. He often referred to his form of taking opium as "Battery Drops" which contained opium, sherry, alcohol, calcium hydrate, and distilled water . Collins took opium from the early 1860s in the form of laudanum to alleviate the symptoms of gout and rheumatic pain. There were no legal restrictions on the use of opium until 1868 and it was the chief ingredient of many patent medicines.
He soon became addicted to taking opium. Collins took increasingly large doses 'by the tablespoon' until in later life he became totally dependent. Edmund Yates in his 1889 obituary recorded that Collins 'was in the habit of taking daily...more laudanum than would have sufficed to kill a ship's crew or company of soldiers.' Hall Caine claimed he saw Collins drink laudanum by the wineglass 'to stimulate the brain and steady the nerves' and told the unsubstantiated and probably untrue story that Collins's manservant killed himself by drinking just half a glass. (Wilkie Collins and Laudanum)
The nightmares caused by opium are vividly described by Ezra Jennings in The Moonstone where the drug forms an integral part of the plot. Collins described to both William Winter and Mary Anderson how he wrote much of the book under the effects of opium and when finished hardly recognized the work as his own. Magdalen Vanstone contemplates suicide with laudanum in No Name, whereas Miss Gwilt in Armadale writes in her diary 'Who was the man who invented laudanum? I thank him from the bottom of my heart'. Although opium features in these novels of the 1860s, it is mentioned only occasionally in later works. When Turlington visits Wildfang in 'Miss or Mrs?' 'The smell of opium was in the room'; and the 'composing medicine' appropriated by Eunice in The Legacy of Cain stimulates a typically laudanum induced apparition (Wilkie Collins and Laudanum).