Dec 8, 2010

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke.

The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William M. Clarke.

As the title indicates, The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins is a biography that particularly emphasises aspects of Wilkie Collins’ life that were kept hidden from the public eye at the time of his life – for understandable reasons. The author, William M. Clarke, is married to Collins’ great-granddaughter, and by putting together old family stories, letters and diaries he arrived at the story of Collins’ personal and romantic life.

Like a characters in one of his own sensation novels, Wilkie Collins was simultaneously involved with two women: Caroline Graves, whom Collins met when she was a twenty-two year old widow and whose personal circumstances supposedly inspired The Woman in White; and Martha Rudd, with whom he had three children. Wilkie Collins’ distaste for the institution of marriage meant that his children were illegitimate. He took great care, however, to make sure they were provided for after his death, and he was not averse to recurring to subterfuge to protect Caroline or Matha’s reputations when necessary.

Sadly, I did not love The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. Considering that this is a Wilkie Collins biography and that it deals with marriage and sexuality and illegitimacy and unconventional relationship arrangements in the Victorian age, this came as somewhat of a shock. It’s not that this is a bad book, but to put it simply, I found Clarke’s prose more than a little dry. Furthermore, the kind of detail he favours is not necessarily the kind of detail I’m interested in. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins reads a bit like a Collins family history – a lot of attention is paid to both Wilkie’s father and to his descendants, as the fact that there are two chapters about what happened to them after his death illustrates. I can see how this would be of interest to someone invested in the Collins family, but personally I’d have preferred details about the Victorian social and literary world in which Wilkie Collins moved.

Also, when I hear about an unusual romantic situation like Collins’, Caroline Graves’ and Martha Rudd’s, I cannot help but want to know what things felt like for the people involved. I also wonder how Caroline and especially Martha dealt with the fact that there was so much more at stake for them socially than there ever was for Wilkie. I sympathise with Collins’ reluctance to get married, especially considering Victorian marriage laws, but this particular form of rebellion is one he could afford with much more ease than the women in his life. There is a power imbalance here that Clarke never explores – and while I perfectly accept that he had no way of doing this without entering into wild speculations, part of me still wanted the whole issue to be somehow acknowledged.

I guess what I’m saying is that unreasonable though this is, I kind of wanted this biography to be The Odd Women or Gaudy Night. This is especially ironic if you consider that Dorothy Sayers actually started a biography of Wilkie Collins, but she hadn’t finished it by the time she died. How sad is that? At the time when she was writing it, very few details about Collins’ relationships and illegitimate children were known at all, but I just know that if she’d had access to all this information, she would have written a brilliant and insightful book that would have asked the exact sort of questions I was hoping this biography would address. If only!

All of this brings me to a question I’d like to ask those of you who are more experienced biography readers than I am: how far do you think a biographer should go when it comes to entering their subject’s mind, to guessing at their feelings and motivations; in short, to making them come to life like an author does a character in a novel? I ask this because another thing that kept me from ever really connecting with The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins was the fact that I felt I was only ever seeing Collins from the outside. Is this an inherent limitation of non-fiction, or can more skilful biographers find ways around it? And do they necessarily risk straying from the known facts of their subject’s life too much if they do? I want to say no, that it can be done, but I guess it depends on what you have to work with. I guess that the more their subject has left behind in the form of letters or diaries, the easier it is.

As I said, I didn’t love The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins, but I didn’t dislike it either. I’m glad to have read it and to have learned what I did about Collins’ life. I look forward to seeing how his experiences might have informed his writing as I make my way through more of his novels.

They read it too: Rebecca Reads

(Have I missed yours?)

35 comments:

  1. Just as you say, I think it makes a huge difference to what degree a biography's subject expressed his or her feelings in lasting forms like diaries and letters, and to what extent the biographer has access to those. Personally, if I had to choose between a biography that's slightly dry but well documented and a biography that speculates wildly about what "must have" been going through the subject's mind on a given day and time, I would choose the former, but I've read both kinds of books. I've also read some great bios that make use of actual primary sources in sensitive, smart ways that help the reader connect with the subject without transforming them into a fictional character (HERMIONE LEE).

    Too bad this one didn't work out that well for you. I keep forgetting Collins was opposed to marriage & had an unconventional domestic situation...that makes me want to read more about him!

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  2. It's too bad that this turned out to be so dry, because I have long found Wilkie Collins's life to be utterly fascinating. (Pretty much since reading Woman in White.) I wonder if there is a more gripping bio out there....

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  3. I’m not an experiences biog reader by any means, but I would say that yes, it is possible. If well substantiated, an author’s speculations about what his subject might have felt can work out pretty well.

    In cases where there’s not a lot of information historical context is everything, which comes down to your problems with the book.

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  4. Hmm. Too bad you didn't like it -- I'm just starting Drood (audiobook) and Collin's unconventional ideas have been alluded to a few times already.

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  5. Oh, I am so, so, so wary of biographies that tell me what a person was feeling without proof. There's no way to know. And given that feelings and inner life are *such* an important part of someone's life, if there's no proof and you're making it up, then you're making up a large part of that person's life and you should have just written historical fiction.

    I have seen some well written biographies where they talk about social mores and what a person *may* have been feeling that couches it really well so you have an idea of what a person may have felt without it saying "so and so felt X." That can be done, but you still have to be careful to not put words into someone's mouth or feelings in their hearts that may or may not have been there in the first place.

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  6. Emily: Yes, I would take dry facts over wild speculations too, especially when such speculations are not clearly identified as such. But it would be awesome to have my cake and eat it too :P I guess this is a needed reminder that I really should be reading Hermione Lee ;)

    Sycorax Pine: There are a couple of others, I've noticed... I'd love to give one of them a try!

    Alexandra: That is definitely a huge part of what I missed. Most of the historical context are things I know about the Victorians anyway, but it would have been fun to read about them or see them acknowledged here :P

    Daphne: I wouldn't say I didn't like it - I just thought I'd LOVE it, and sadly that didn't happen.

    Jennie, good points all! A more speculative approach has to be very clearly signalled as such; otherwise it can easily come down to pure misrepresentation.

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  7. I know you haven't given this the greatest of reviews, but it still sounds fascinating. Maybe because I've recently finished Drood.

    I prefer when biographers give the facts, dry as they may be, and then almost separately do their speculation. Or at the very least use some turn of phrase to indicate that their speculation is just that. I hate hearing "C thought" in a biography, because no one knows that. Unless they are quoting direct from a letter or diary. But even then you can't be sure because they may have been lying in a letter, or fudging the truth.

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  8. I m not huge bio reader but would prefer book that maybe nearer truth and less guessing shame when saw in was about collins was happy he is some one I read and not known a lot about ,all the best stu

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  9. Oh, it sounds as though this book may have disappointed me a little bit for the same reasons it did you. I think it is a fine line to draw when writing a biography to actually get into the mind of the person about whom you are writing, but I believe that it can be done, and done well. It sounds as though this book didn't cut it in that way, and at the moment, I am at a loss as to reference a biography that does this better, but I just know that they are out there!

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  10. Bummer. It's pretty sad when a book promises juicy details but doesn't deliver.

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  11. This book has been on my shelf for months but I still haven't read it yet. I'm sorry to hear it was dry - that's disappointing considering what a fascinating life Collins had. I'm still looking forward to reading it, though I suspect I'll probably feel the same way about it as you did.

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  12. omg! Reading Drood will certainly want you to know more about Wilke Collins! (fabulous book!) I am really sorry this was not what you hoped it would be. As soon as I saw the title I went, "utoh I'm gunna want this"... but after your review I won't run right out and order it... I'll wait a bit. If, in the end, I decide not to read it.. I'll just read Drood again! :o)

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  13. I did not know he was against marriage. It surely explains some twists and turns in the plot of The Woman in White.

    Greetings,
    Tiina

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  14. I think it depends on the sort of biography. A scholarly biography I think cannot do that easily. However, to make the biography interesting.. I think a middle ground might be possible? In the sense that you can tell a life story as if you're reading a story, that can go in any direction still, even if all facts have been decided already. That is what makes biographies readable, I think. Um, okay, that might not be very clear. I took a class on biographies and it was an endless discussion :)

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  15. This is such a difficult issue. As the author of a biography of a man who was a complete cipher, I tried really hard to imagine what he could have been feeling. But it is really important, I think, to make it very clear when you are speculating, when you imagining with research, and when you are imagining based on very little indeed. Quite a difficult issue, and as Iris says above, it is a discussion that all biographers and historians have--and never agree!

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  16. I don't read very many biographies so I can't really answer your question but one point you described in your review about the author paying attention to his father and family descendants stuff, well when I read a biography I don't necessarily want the extra stuff like that. A couple of years ago I read the letters of Vincent Van Gogh and at first I wasn't sure I was going to like it because the editors focused on the rest of Van Gogh's family in the beginning. When I finally got to the letters themselves and could "see" into Vincent's world that's when I loved the book. So having said that, while parts of this book might be interesting I don't know that it would really be the book for me.

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  17. This is a very timely post, as I'm currently reading The Women Jefferson Loved, and having some issues. There is very little in the historical record about the women that Jefferson loved (his sisters, mother, wife, Sally Hemings, and his daughters), so the author is constantly making assumptions about how the women felt. I didn't mind it at first, because I think some inference is okay, but I'm more than halfway through now, and it's starting to really bother me. Plus, she keeps repeating herself...that's not helping matters.

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  18. His life sounds utterly fascinating (and I haven't even read any of his books YET. Also *turning red* up until last week I thought Wilkie was a GIRL, heh).

    Finally I never knew Drood was highly thought of until I read some of the comments above. I'm just learning bunches of stuff this week. :0)

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  19. Darn! I got so excited there for a minute! Still, I do not want to read a biography that takes liberties in guessing how someone felt. Great if you can interview the person and find out, but obviously that isn't possible here, and if there isn't proof of emotions through diary entries or letters, then I don't want it in there.

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  20. It sounds like a case of the best information being in the "wrong" hands. It seems like a more gifted writer could have done more with this material; it sounds just rich with details and all kinds of juicy details.

    I think biographies are difficult to write because a writer can just never really "get inside" their subject like you want them too. But I'm guessing that the best biographers come pretty darn close.

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  21. The best biography I read this year was The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth by Frances Wilson, precisely because the author was so brilliant at presenting me with living breathing personalities, rather than a collection of views or character traits. But she never seemed to stray too far into the area of what her subjects were thinking or feeling. Instead, Wilson seemed able to put together a really strong psychological portrait, deduced entirely from evidence, that brought the Wordsworths to light. I'm not quite sure how she did it, but I loved it!

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  22. What a fascinating life, it’s a shame the author didn’t embrace the personal side of things a bit more. It may be a lot to ask of the author, but I still want to be entertained by nonfiction books. I don’t expect suspense or unnecessary drama, but I want it to be interesting. I feel like I can get the information from many sources, so if I choose their book it should at least hold my attention. Maybe that’s too much to ask, but there’s too many books out there to choose from.

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  23. How fascinating. You are right, I would much prefer what you want. I think based on letters and diaries and other correspondence you can get a feel for what people were really thinking. Also, I would have wanted to know about the power imbalance and what the women went through. Disappointing!

    For your question, I think it really depends on the material available, and the biographer should make it clear that they have taken liberties and explain why they think the characters thought like that.

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  24. I don't like biographies to get all "must-have"-y. I haven't read that many biographies myself, but I like it when the biographers seem to know the subject well enough to say reasonable and insightful things about their subject. Most Oscar Wilde biographers do not succeed at this. In my opinion.

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  25. I have yet to read any Wilkie Collins and I hope I will like him. Too bad this book didn't turn out to be as good as you expected.

    I hope your next read will be better!

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  26. It's too bad that this biography isn't all that great because it certainly sounds like an intriguing look into a very intriguing life. I have only read The Woman in White so far but I'd love to know more of this elusive writer.

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  27. You know, I think you can examine the social stakes for the two women without going into wild speculation - there is enough information out there about the impact of "unconventional" relationships on women and men. And to do a bio on Collins WITHOUT considering this is to leave a giant gap in the bio - because, what kind of a guy sets up a situation which works beautifully for him, but is (at least potentially) devastating to his nearest and dearest? That's a pretty big character question there. I'm totally with you on this one.

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  28. Fence: I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Drood! And yes, anything of a speculative nature must be clearly signalled. Good point that letters and diaries will not always be necessarily honest! But I guess there's no way to ever really know.

    Stu: I wonder if his other biographies are more enjoyable. He certainly lead an unusual life!

    Zibilee: I have a feeling that they are too!

    Heidenkind: I thought it was funny that the title was so scandalous - quite a contrast with the actual tone of the book :P

    Helen: I hope you'll have at least a little bit more luck with it than I did! I look forward to hearing what you think.

    Deslily: I definitely need to read Drood! I'm so bringing my copy with me after Christmas - I don't care how heavy it is :P

    Tiina: There was a lot here that helped explain some aspects of his writing!

    Iris: A whole class on biographies! That actually sounds completely fascinating.

    LifetimeReader: Yes, marking what is fact and what is guesswork clearly is certainly important. I didn't know you had written a biography!

    Iliana: Yes, exactly! I can see why that mattered to him, since he married into the family, but as a reader I didn't particularly care.

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  29. It always amazes me when prose can be dry when a person's life is so interesting. Too bad!

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  30. When I read a bio I want the facts, not speculation, and it really burns me when a subject's thoughts or feelings are "imagined" by the writer. If there is evidence to back it up, in the form of diaries or letters, fair enough, but to "imagine" what the subject thought or felt is entering the realm of fiction. I tend to throw those bios on the reject heap!

    I don't think Collins' domestic situation was unique in Victorian times; even Dickens had a mistress. I doubt Collins would have been much of a husband anyway; his drug problem would have been rather a trial. Maybe the women were grateful to have a roof over their heads and be provided for, and not have to live with him full-time? I don't think he was exactly Mr Wonderful. :)

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  31. Glad to know that you enjoyed this biography of Wilkie Collins, though you didn't like it much. I agree with you that what is appealing to readers is the way the author of a biography throws light on an author's motivations and internal life using objective evidence, if such a thing is possible. Narrating events from an outsider's perspective are nice and good to read but it is not as rich. I remember reading a biography of Ronald Reagan many years back - it was called 'Dutch : A Memoir of Ronald Reagan' by Edmund Morris. It was not a traditional kind of biography but was composed like a memoir written by a fictional person. It was an innovative attempt at writing an unconventional biography and it tried to explore Reagan's motivation behind different things that he did. It created a lot of controversy when it was released because critics said that it was not a biography. But when I read your thoughts on Wilkie Collins' biography, I remembered this :)

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  32. Well, my 2 cents.

    I read Drood and hated it, mainly because i couldn't stand Collins the character. I read the Moonstone for RIP this year and loved it and am also enjoying The Woman in White.

    Most of the biographies i've read are more about groups or historical events, so there is definitely a real narrative the author is trying to tell. But even with that i prefer some idea of what may have been going on in the people's heads. Stephen Ambrose in Band of Brother had the advantage of having living people to talk to and is a very good book. The Great Influenza talks about the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic but also gets into how the researchers felt about trying to fight the deadly disease. Also very good.

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  33. I've always shied away a bit from reading biographies of authors I like. I'm always afraid I will find out they were really unpleasant people and that will color my thinking when I read their books.

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  34. I just went back and reread my thoughts and I really didn't say much about the book! I really was not impressed with Clarke's book. Peter's biography, although more literary (i.e., she approaches the books in the context of his life and there is a chapter about each of the major books, with spoilers, talking about his life situation as he wrote them and the impact of the book in the era) also make the people, including Collins himself, so much more REAL. I loved Collins after I finished reading it. If you want to consider the implicationd, Peters does a good job.

    If I recall, you are right on in Clarke's book being very dry. I remember struggling to get through it. Peters' book went so much faster. More like a novel :)

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  35. For me, a biography like this - chock full of information, completely devoid of emotional insight, always gives me the feeling that the biographer understood the facts of the subjects life, but couldn't wrap their head around the essence of it. I mean, at some level, you would (I would think) want to feel something strong about your subject if you're to go to all the work of writing a bigoraphy of them. If that's true, and you do feel something, there must be SOMETHING in the raw materials you read that expresses that. I don't know, I've never written a biography, it just seems that it's matter of good writing, I would think?

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