In the middle of the nineteenth century, English speaking audiences were captivated by the appearance of sensation fiction. Tales of mystery, scandal, crime and, of course, the supernatural tested the bounds of acceptable Victorian entertainment. Wilkie Collins was among the genre’s principle architects. And in some significant ways, his life resembled his fiction.
Collins studied law, but followed his passion: writing. In 1851, after he had written a few unremarkable works, he had an incredible stroke of good luck: he was invited to join Charles Dickens’ amateur production of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play, “Not So Bad as We Seem.” The two were introduced by a mutual acquaintance, a prominent artist that went by the extraordinary name Augustus Egg. The authors hit it off and embarked on a nearly life-long friendship. They traveled together and collaborated in writing both short stories and plays. In addition, Dickens published many of Collin’s works including his masterful novels “The Woman in White” and “The Moonstone.” Some have suggested that Dickens’ criticism of the latter work contributed to an eventual falling out. But other issues probably worsened to their troubles, including Collins’ opium addiction and his bewildering domestic arrangements.
In 1858, Collins started a relationship with Caroline Graves. The two never married, but Collins treated Graves and her daughter from a previous relationship as his family. However, ten years later he started a second family with Martha Rudd. She bore him three children. In a twist worthy of his own sensation novels, his second family lived under an assumed last name in order to evade prying Victorian eyes. Only a few of Collins’ close friends knew the unusual details of his family life. Dickens knew. And apparently he didn’t approve.
Though Collins never matched Dickens’ evocative prose, he proved to be a master at creating irresistible suspense. It’s Collins’ ability to inspire nail-biting apprehension through meticulous plotting that carries “Miss Jéromette and the Clergyman”. There’s little action in the story. Instead, Collins uses mystery to capture and hold his readers’ attention. What is poor Jéromette’s history? How can she be devoted to her former lover and yet dread his return? Will her new beau be put off by her mysterious past? And what role will his inscrutable new student play in the drama?
If you’d like to take a more in-depth look at Wilkie Collins and his sensation fiction, consider reading Jonathan Rosen’s excellent article in the New Yorker.