The eldest son of the landscape artist, William Collins R.A., Wilkie Collins was born in London in 1824. Educated for a few years at private schools in London, the family then moved to Italy when he was thirteen years old and it is here that he gained his real education. Rebelling against his father’s strict religious code and conservative values, Wilkie Collins refused to settle into life in either the tea business or as a barrister and remained adamant that he wanted to write. His first book, a biography of his father was published in 1848. A close friend and travelling companion to Charles Dickens, they spent a lot of time together during the 1850s. Collins wrote regularly for Dickens’s periodicals Household Words and All the Year Round. The two men shared a keen interest in the theatre, as well as in London’s high life and Dickens acted in two early melodramas that Wilkie Collins wrote. With the serialization of The Woman in White in 1860, Collins’ popularity grew to such an extent that queues formed to buy the next instalment and Gladstone cancelled a theatre engagement to carry on reading it. He followed this success with the novels No Name (1862), Armadale (1866) and the highly successful The Moonstone (1868). Collins continued to write until his death, producing fifteen more novels, which although of deteriorating quality were still well received.
Collins never married and his private life remains a mixture of the romantic and the raffish. Living with his mother until he was thirty-two, Collins then left to set up home with a young woman, Caroline Graves and her daughter by another man. Remaining with Caroline on and off for the rest of his life, he also fathered three illegitimate children by Martha Rudd. This scandalous arrangement led to Collins being ostracized by smart Victorian society. Plagued by gout from his thirties onward, Collins was often in great pain which he attempted to dull with increasing amounts of opium. As his addiction to the drug grew he became more obsessed with the bizarre, heavily reflected in the gruesome characters of his last books. He died in 1889.