18 OCTOBER 1991, Page 37

Puritanical glimpse of a sensationalist

Andro Linklater

THE KING OF INVENTORS: A LIFE OF WILKIE COLLINS by Catherine Peters Secker & Warburg £20, pp. 498 In the great canon of English literature, Augustus Egg is not so much a footnote as a hyphen. Modest to the point of self- effacement, his best claim to a student's over-burdened attention is as the friend Who in 1851 introduced Wilkie Collins to Charles Dickens. The 20 years of friend- ship and collaboration which resulted were important to Dickens during the break- down of his marriage, and beneficial to Collins in the crucial years when he Produced the proto-detective stories, The Woman in White and The Moonstone, on Which his fame rests. But Egg the catalyst faded into obscurity and an early death.

. He has, however, a second and more vivid significance as one of Richard Dadd's Intimates. From this perspective Egg becomes a pivotal figure, since next to the notoriety he gained from killing his dad, Dadd was best known for being addicted to eggs. Indeed these two passions were the Poles round which his disordered existence revolved. After a lifetime of omelettes, souffles, and oeufs Benedict, Dadd felt an overpowering urge to slaughter Egg _ interestingly enough, to judge by a sketch he drew of his intended victim, depicting him with a red line running from ear to ear, he evidently meant to decapitate — as though he were hard-boiled — but instead the throat he cut turned out to be Dadd pere's.

Such a crime deserves to be considered as something more than psychopathic way- wardness or egg-bound irritability. In its Punning violence it resembles nothing so much as the climax to one of Wilkie

Collins's own novels in which a melo- dramatic destiny is finally worked out in some far-fetched fashion. There are indeed Dadd-like echoes in Arrnadale, where a neurotic son is obsessed by his father to the point of repeating his crime, enough it might be thought to justify a biographer of Collins exploring further this bizarre incident.

Catherine Peters, who has researched her life of Wilkie Collins with meticulous care, unfortunately eschews digression. Considerably amplifying William Clarke's brisk and readable The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins, published in 1988, she has written a conventional, compendious, chronological biography, interpolated with criticisms of his 33 books. Its virtues are Puritan. Despite the destruction of almost all his personal papers, she allows herself to assume nothing about Collins' inner life beyond what appears in his writing or friends' testimony.

She avoids thumb-nail sketches of people or plots. She packs information — including a paragraph on the parricidal Dadd — into her 498 pages, confirming a familiarity with Victorian literature previously demonstrated in her well- reviewed biography of Thackeray. And long before the end, I felt like Kipling's Boer War infantrymen:

We're foot — slog — slog —slog — sloggin' over Africa,

Foot — foot — foot — foot sloggin' over Africa.

The reason, I think, is that sober scholar- ship is not the best approach to a writer like Wilkie Collins, whose trademark both in his novels and private life was sensation. He was born in 1823, the eldest child of a fashionable painter whose highest aspira- tions were respectability and the Royal Academy — according to Constable, his typical offerings were 'a coast scene with fish and a landscape like a large cow-turd'. As though in rebellion, his son grew up to be profoundly unconventional, and despite a wide circle of friends extraordinarily secretive about his private life. In a formal age he was almost always known by his first name (taken from his godfather, Sir David Wilkie, the Scottish portraitist), and although he never married, he maintained two mistresses, a family and a debonair sexuality which excited Dickens's prurient fascination. With Dickens he travelled on the continent, but it was Collins who came back with venereal disease. Together they collaborated on serials for Dickens's maga- zines but, as Catherine Peters shows in the best chapters of her book, it was Dickens who provided the rigour in their work. After he died, Collins lapsed increasingly towards Gothic, erotic whodunnits, whose fevered landscapes owed much to an addiction to laudanum so prodigious that well before his own death at the age of 65, he was swigging the stuff from a whisky flask. Although not one of what Frederick Forsyth calls the steaks of English litera-

ture, his pioneer detective stories will ensure the continuing interest of biogra- phers.

In the circumstances, they may find that his rackety life, like Corvo's, is best suited to a biography in the form of a detective story. Ideally, however, it would make a Stephen Sondheim musical, with a special Sweeney Todd number for Dadd.