Short and oddly built, with a head too big for his body, extremely short-sighted, unable to stay still, dressed in colourful clothes, ‘as if playing a certain part in the great general drama of life’, Wilkie Collins looked distinctly strange. But he was none the less a charmer, befriended by the great, loved by children, irresistibly attractive to women – and avidly read by generations of readers. Ackroyd follows his hero, ‘the sweetest-tempered of all the Victorian novelists’, from his childhood as the son of a well-known artist to his struggling beginnings as a writer, his years of fame and his life-long friendship with the other great London chronicler, Charles Dickens. A true Londoner, Collins, like Dickens, was fascinated by the secrets and crimes – the fraud, blackmail and poisonings – that lay hidden behind the city’s respectable facade. He was a fighter, never afraid to point out injustices and shams , or to tackle the establishment head on. As well as his enduring masterpieces, The Moonstone – often called the first true detective novel – and the sensational The Woman in White, he produced an intriguing array of lesser known works. Collins had his own secrets: he never married, but lived for thirty years with the widowed Caroline Graves, and also had a second liaison, as ‘Mr and Mrs Dawson’, with a younger mistress, Martha Rudd, with whom he had three children. Both women remained devoted as illness and opium-taking took their toll: he died in 1889, in the middle of writing his last novel, Blind Love. Told with Peter Ackroyd’s inimitable verve this is a ravishingly entertaining life of a great story-teller, full of surprises, rich in humour and sympathetic understanding.
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