The Woman in White Biographical Note

Born on 8 January 1824, William Collins, one of the most prolific writers of the Victorian era and the father of modern detective fiction, was the son of William Thomas Collins, a well-known landscape artist. Although named after his father, he was better known by his second name, a tribute to his godfather, David Wilkie.

Both Collins and his brother were primarily homeschooled, although Collins attended Mr. Cole’s boarding school in Highbury for a brief period. Here, he took to story-telling as a means of entertaining older boys in order to avoid their bullying. His knowledge of French and Italian, picked up while travelling with his family in Europe, also set him apart. Later, he studied law at Lincoln’s Inn and although he never formally practiced, he used his legal knowledge in many of his works.

In 1851, while acting in an amateur theatre production, Collins was introduced to Charles Dickens, who eventually became his lifelong friend. Collins began writing for Dickens’s journal, Household Words and was supported and encouraged by Dickens, twelve years his senior. In 1857, Collins wrote his most famous play, The Frozen Deep, which Dickens acted in.

Collins lived a life that defied the norms of Victorian propriety. In 1856, he began living with widow Caroline Elizabeth Graves, and her daughter Harriet. In 1864, while on a visit to Norfolk, he met and began an affair with Martha Rudd, a nineteen year old from an impoverished family. For several years, Collins maintained separate households with Caroline and Martha, assuming the name of William Dawson when he was with Martha. His three children with Martha, two girls and a boy, bore the name of Dawson.

Collins’s most popular work The Woman in White, published in 1859, was phenomenally successful, bringing together themes of mystery, madness and murder. The Moonstone followed in 1868, which remains his most critically acclaimed work. However following his success in the 1860s, Collins’s career suffered a decline, particularly because of his increased dependence on laudanum, to which he was addicted.

Collins died on 23 September 1889 at his home in Wimpole Street, London.