The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIII. The Victorian Age, Part One.
§ 21. Wilkie Collins
The chief master of the devices of the art in England is William Wilkie Collins, the contemporary of émile Gaboriau in France; Collins discovered his métier in The Woman in White, which appeared in All the Year Round in 1860. The method is the long pertinacious unravelling of a skein of crime, not by the professional detective, but by a person with a compelling human interest in the elucidation—a more artistic thing than Gaboriau’s interpolated biographies. Surprises and false trails keep curiosity on the rack; the struggle for concealed documents or treasure adds the interest of action; deeds done in abnormal mental states add the touch of mystery; and the encounter of cunning with cunning, as between Godfrey Ablewhite and the Indians in The Moonstone (1868), or between Mrs. Lecount and captain Wragge in No Name (1862), blends with other sensational elements that of constantly stimulated excitement. Collins brings to bear, also, his accurate knowledge of law, medicine, chemistry, drugs (he was an opium taker), hypnotism and somnambulism. He has the power of generating the atmosphere of foreboding, and of imparting to natural scenes a desolation which befits depression and horror of spirit. Most characteristic of his method is the telling of the story by means of diaries, letters and memoranda supposed to be contributed by the chief actors; out of these materials, he creates a mental labyrinth through the intricate windings of which he conducts the reader, rarely, if ever, losing his bearings, whether as to time, place or person. His tales are saved from being mere literary mathematics by the animation and Dickensian “humours” of the puppets; we recall Miss Clack by her incontinent evangelism, Betteridge by his admiration for Robinson Crusoe, count Fosco by his corpulence and velvet tread, his magnetic glance and his menagerie of pets; the creation of Fosco is a remarkable effort, composed, as he is, of reflections seen in the mirrors of many different minds. Swinburne has called attention to the author’s way of letting stories depend at crucial moments upon characters disordered in mind or body. Relying, in the Victorian manner, upon variety rather than upon concentration of interest, Collins’s books have a ponderous air (some of his shorter tales excepted) as compared with the economical technique of Poe, or with modern forms of the detective tale which turn upon quick deductions from meticulous detail, discard lumber and aim at a consistent psychology.