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Make Your Own List. Jason HallVictorian literature expert and editor of a new edition of Jezebel's Daughterchooses the five best books from Collins's extensive oeuvre — and considers the voracious appetites and unorthodox lifestyle of this intriguing Englishman. Interview by Beatrice Wilford. Wilkie Collins wrote two incredibly famous books. He gives them a voice; sometimes he gives them the central agency of the plot. That really makes his novels stand out, even alongside Dickens, who does weird characters as well.

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Do you think Wilkie Collins wrote them because he was so unconventional himself? He lived a very unconventional life. He was attracted to distinctive, dramatic personalities. He wrote a little for the stage and I think he always carried with him that sense of dramatic exposition. He knew how to create embodied, fully-rounded characters. Whilst writing all of these novels — and becoming a celebrity alongside Dickens — he maintained two long-term relationships with different women, neither of whom he was married to.

One was a widow whose children he effectively raised as his own, the other was a younger women he started a relationship with much later. He led separate lives with each of them, deciding not to marry either one. I think it was. By all s he was a devoted partner to both of them and a responsible step-parent. Perhaps he felt marriage was an institution that would shackle him. The novels are very much about the complications arising from the legality, or illegality, of marriage: the paper trail that surrounds it and can prove or disprove its validity.

That could be a mirroring of his life and anxieties. His arrangements were an open secret.

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Tell me about this book. It was originally a play, performed once only in the s. It was laughed off the stage.

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It was called The Red Vial and had a fairly uncomplicated poisoning plot. He shelved it and only late in his career decided to adapt it as a novel. It works really well: he fleshes out minor characters, creates subplots, plays down the staginess and gives characters realistic motivations. But this is about women who have done all of that, and are dealing with legacies, who are raising children, or looking after nephews.

How liberal do you think he was in his views? Collins was at once forward-thinking, liberal for the nineteenth century, but also a person of his time. He was interested in thinking about the structures and attitudes that disadvantaged people who were different. He liked outsiders and marginal characters, but he was also not above using stereotypes to reach his audience.

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At the same time, he can take us to the Jewish ghetto in Frankfurt and give us the complete stereotype that looks like something from Trilby or Oliver Twist. The first is Rambles Beyond Railways Tell me about it.

They know him as an author of crazy novels, of the sensation novel. This predates most of that work. Very early, about eight years before the serialisation of The Woman in Whitebefore Basilbefore any of the novels that go on to make his name. You do. He returns to Cornwall in at least two novels. Very much. The colouring of imagination that Collins throws over the landscape is as interesting to him as what he witnesses. He wants to characterise Cornwall as this strange, far-away place where old traditions still survive. They still have a mail coach.

Next is The Woman in White What a fantastic book.

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Where do you start with the story of The Woman in White? What do you do with a novel that has so many strange characters? How do you even begin to define its plot? One of the big debates surrounding this novel, and sensation fiction more generally, is what the relationship between plot and character is in a novel like this.

Some say realistic characters get subordinated by the energy of the plot. There are so many set-pieces and scenes and idiosyncrasies of personality. He was not the first person to tell a story with more than one narrator. Dickens had done it with Bleak House inbut he only uses two an omniscient narrator and Esther Somersonwhereas Collins throws everybody at you: minor characters, people who appear only to tell their tiny bit of the story.

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Very influenced — he made a point of this in all of the prefaces that deal with a particular point of law: Armadale, The Woman in White, Man and Wife. He wanted to position himself in relation to contemporary legal decisions, in relation to newsworthy stories. The position of women in this book surprised me. It seems to be about them being domestically abused. Is this something you think Collins was particularly interested in, or is it naturally part of this Gothic, sensationalist fiction? On the surface the novel seems to be a story whereby the trials and tribulations of Laura Fairly are resolved at the end, because Marian Halcombe and Walter Hartright have saved her.

At the end it seems as though Marian Halcombe, the odd, ugly woman of the novel, has endeared herself to both the readers and to Walter to such an extent that the real relationship might be theirs. Laura is this kind of invalid for whom they care.

Next is The Moonstoneanother fabulous book, frequently credited as the first detective novel. Why did you choose it?

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This was serialised. Exactly, he asks: how do you keep your readers on the edge of their seats? Some of his serialisations ran for a year in weekly instalments.

Having edited one of them, I can see it first-hand. He clearly knows how to write in serialised form, and how that form will then translate into a novel. You can see how he breaks it up. He was addicted to laudanum, as a treatment for gout; an addiction like it appears in the character of Ezra Jennings. Did his illness and addiction influence his writing?

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It affected how he was able to write. Illness and addiction to pain relief keep you from your desk. For a writer whose money comes in because he delivers on time and delivers a lot, this was a real concern. He battled throughout his life with the ups and downs this addiction produced. Poor Miss Finch is next.

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Through a radical surgical operation she has her sight restored, only to lose it again. That you find only in a Collins novel: a character who is blue throughout. Miss Finch herself is centre-stage as this beautiful, captivating woman with a disability, who wins over readers and the other characters. Collins seems to be searching for people who are marginalised. He realises they make good characters and he makes a career on idiosyncratic characters, even caricatures.

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These are characters who are either only minor in other novels, or there for comic relief. This also seems to feed into his interest in scienceespecially in the mysterious elements of science, which are also linked to foreignness. Is this a Collins thing, or just a Victorian thing? There was a real anxiety in the British popular imagination in the nineteenth century about science… France and Germany were associated in the popular mind with dangerous science, with experimental science, with experimentation on animals and even, if left unchecked by law, experimentation on humans.

This scared the hell out of middle-class England, and even many in the mainstream medical establishment in Britain. Collins was sensitive to animals, and sensitive generally to suffering, as his novels show. They have conversations about whether the dog will complain, whether animals have a language in which to address their complaints about being operated on.

Finally, what do you think Collins changed most about the way the novel was written? You can have characters speak for themselves, you can have lots of them, you can mix them up, and the readers will be excited by that.