Wilkie Collins was extremely popular in the mid-Victorian period, producing 27 novels as well as numerous short stories, plays and articles. His popularity didn’t last long after his death, though he’s been given a much-needed boost in recent years by the West End production of his most famous novel The Woman in White (1860).
The junction of Finchley Road with West End Lane and Frognal in NW3 is the setting for a crucial scene near the beginning of the story: it describes how the main character, Walter Hartright, is walking home from Hampstead late one night when he comes across a mysterious woman, Anne Catherick, dressed all in white who demands to know which way London is. He directs her down Finchley Road towards Regent's Park and off she goes.
London comes back into the second half of the story after lengthy sojourns in Cumberland and Hampshire. Count Fosco lived at 5 Forest Road just off St John's Wood Road, and it was here that Lady Glyde was pronounced dead of an aneurism by Dr Alfred Goodricke of 12 Croydon Gardens in the same area. (Neither Forest Road nor Croydon Gardens exist today, if they ever did.) Walter Hartright follows Fosco from here along the western boundary of Regent's Park till they reach the New Road (Marylebone Road) and then down into the “better class of shops between the New Road and Oxford Street” (quite possibly Baker Street). Count Fosco offers to leave his cockatoo and canaries to London Zoo in Regent's Park. The solicitors Messrs Gilmore and Kyrle of Chancery Lane are mentioned several times. Walter meets Laura and Marian at 5 Gower's Walk in Fulham but, again, there's no such street today.
His second most famous novel, claimed by T.S. Eliot as the first and the best of the modern British detective novels, is The Moonstone (1868). It concerns the theft of a priceless diamond and though the bulk of the story is set in rural Yorkshire, the climax takes place in London. The leading female character Rachel Verinder's residence is in Portland Place, just up the road from Broadcasting House. There's a murder in a pub called the Wheel of Fortune in Shore Lane that leads into Lower Thames Street, just west of the Tower of London. If Shore Lane ever existed, it doesn't today. The diamond-thieves manage to board a Rotterdam-bound boat from Tower Wharf, which is at the eastern end of Lower Thames Street.
The Biter Bit (1856) is a humourous detective story and some of it is set around St John's Wood. The addresses given are fictitious but much of the area was under construction at this time and perhaps no real names were available. One clear location is when the protagonist asks his assistants to wait at the Avenue Road gate of Regent's Park.
Wilkie was born into a wealthy family on 8th January 1824 at 12 New Cavendish Street. His family moved to 30 Porchester Terrace, Bayswater, in 1830 and he attended Maida Hill Academy. He qualified as a barrister but he was clearly more interested in storytelling and painting; he’d developed his storytelling skills at school as a good way of escaping bullying. His literary career really started to take off while he was still living with his mother and brother at 17 Hanover Terrace near Regent's Park. In all he lived at over 20 addresses in London, most of which were in the Marylebone area but his most permanent abode, from 1867 to 1888, was at 90 Gloucester Place.
He died of a stroke on 23rd September 1889 at 82 Wimpole Street and, being unconventional till the end, he insisted on a simple funeral. His grave in Kensal Green Cemetery has a plain stone cross on a base inscribed with ‘the author of The Woman in White’, which he acknowledged as his finest work. Both of his common-law wives are in the grave with him - but he’s not in the middle as he died first.
Photos and text by Ian Mole
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