Wilkie Collins was the eldest son of William Collins, the celebrated landscape artist. Wilkie, a talented painter who exhibited in the Royal Academy, is best known for his horror story A Very Strange Bed and his novels The Moonstone and The Woman in White.The latter novel was so popular that everything from waltzes to perfume was called Woman in White. The sudden meeting in this novel of the hero and the mysterious woman in white was inspired by an incident that occurred to Wilkie as he made his way home with his brother Charles and the painter Millais. A woman, dressed all in white approached them claiming to have escaped from a nearby villa in which she had been kept prisoner under mesmeric influence. She became Wilkie's live-in mistress. He also maintained another in a household a few streets away. Here he was known as William Dawson, and fathered three children. Although he had compassionately delineated the sufferings of the illegitimate child in his novel No Name, his own daughters experienced the same fate. They never acknowledged him as father and never married.

Both Collins and Dickens loved to act and met for the first time when Bulwer-Lytton selected the cast for his play Not So Bad as We Seem. Collins' first novel, Antonina or The Fall of Rome was a historical work, along the lines of Bulwer-Lytton's The Last Days of Pompeii.

Collins met Coleridge as a child when the poet's daughter, Sara Coleridge, had her portrait painted by William Collins. He vividly remembered his mother saying Mr. Coleridge, do not cry; if the opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do you not go and get it? The surprised Coleridge, responded Collins, your wife is an exceeding sensible woman. Much later Wilkie, at the height of his own opium addiction, dictated his novel The Moonstone while heavily drugged. He was pleased and astonished to read the ending of the story, finding he admired it, but didn't recognize it at all. At this time Collins was taking two tablespoons of laudanum a day, enough, according to his doctor, to kill 12 ordinary men. There is a very similar story behind Scott's Bride of Lammermoor which Collins admired greatly.

Collins was also a friend of Marian Evans (better known as George Eliot). Marian Halcombe in The Woman in White is likely based on her; brilliant and spirited, her features are considered too masculine to be attractive. Wilkie named his first daughter Marian.

The Woman in White has many echoes in Bram Stoker's Dracula including the graveyard scene and the characterization of the two women (particularly Mina and Marian). The character of Pesca is said to be based on Dante Gabriel Rossetti's father.

The business of the forged marriage registry in the Woman in White is likely based on the celebrated case of Miss Elizabeth Chudleigh, one of Princess Augusta's maids-in-waiting. Chudleigh was beautiful and uninhibited; she once attended a costume ball nearly naked, creating a sensation. She had married Augustus Hervey prospective Earl of Bristol in a secret ceremony. She kept the relationship quiet in order to keep her post with the Princess, also concealing the birth of a child. Fifteen years after the wedding, the old Earl in failing health, Chudleigh had the marriage entered into a church registry in fears that her husband would inherit the title but deny the marriage. Some ten years after this, both wanted to remarry. Hervey wanted a divorce, but this would necessitate making the marriage public which Elizabeth wanted to avoid. Instead they went to court where Elizabeth was legally declared a spinster after she swore an oath that no marriage had taken place. A month later she married the Duke of Kingston (nephew of Mary Wortley Montagu), taking the precaution of ripping out the registry page. After the Duke died leaving her very wealthy, Hervey, now Earl of Bristol, informed the Duke's relatives about the marriage and they took the matter to court. The Duchess (or Countess of Bristol as her enemies claimed) was found guilty of bigamy and had to invoke the privilege of the peerage to avoid being branded. Chudleigh was also the inspiration for Thackeray's Beatrix Esmond and Baroness Bernstein. Hervey's granddaughter Elizabeth lived in a ménage à trois with Caroline Lamb's aunt Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and the Duke, by whom she had several children.

The nurse in the novel, Mrs. Rubelle, is likely based on the celebrated murderess Maria Manning. For more about Mrs. Manning, see Dickens.

 

Elizabeth Chudleigh
Gothic Labyrinth
Gothic Labyrinth