The lease on 17 Hanover Terrace ran out in 1857 and it was sublet in early 1856. Wilkie's mother, Harriet, stayed with friends in the country. It is not known where Collins stayed at the start of 1856 but it was almost certainly the time when he was forging his relationship with Caroline Graves, whom he first met in the summer of 1854 and with whom he was to live for most of the rest of his life. At the end of February Collins went to Paris to spend six weeks with Dickens. He was ill but managed to work and when he returned he spent one night in a hotel ('I have slept one night at a London hotel for the first time in my life') and then moved into lodgings at 22 Howland Street. His time in these lodgings is recalled in the second part of 'Laid up in two lodgings' in Household Words (14 June 1856) where he writes of the terrible life of some domestic servants.
'I have witnessed some sad sights during my stay in Smeary Street, which have taught me to feel for my poor and forlorn fellow-creatures as I do not think I ever felt for them before, and which have inclined me to doubt for the first time whether worse calamities might not have overtaken me than the hardship of falling ill.'
Caroline lived nearby with her five-year-old daughter, also called Harriet, who was to become like a step-daughter to Collins. He paid for her education and later she assisted him with his work, finally marrying his solicitor Henry Bartley (not a good match; he left her not long after the birth of their fifth child in 1890). Wilkie stayed in Howland Street for probably three weeks. In the spring his mother moved to 2 Harley Place - then a terrace in New Road (now called Marylebone Road) and long since disappeared. Wilkie and his brother Charles moved back in with her. But how much time Wilkie spent there and how much with Caroline is not clear, though he was away a lot and she may well have accompanied him. The first place he openly lived with her was 124 Albany Street in January 1859 and after that 2a Cavendish Street from which address he openly wrote letters. Both homes have now disappeared. Then in early 1860 he moved with Caroline and her daughter to live in 12 Harley St.
Harley Street is best known now, and was then, as the place where the most expensive and some of the best private doctors work. Many still have consulting rooms, or at least waiting rooms, little changed since the eighteenth century when the street was built, running between Cavendish Square and Regent's Park. Much of Harley Street remains as it was and there is a number 12, part of a terrace of seven houses, 2-14, in superb condition. Number 12 is the only one which has not recently been cleaned. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century smoke from domestic fires, factories and, later, power stations blackened the yellow brick from which most of London's domestic architecture was built. Buildings blackened within a couple of years of being built. Right up until the 1960s London was a black city. Stone and brick, fine monuments and ordinary houses, were all a uniform light-absorbing black. The problem was not really solved until after world war two. Over a few decades most of this industry moved out and new laws controlled the emission of smoke. A new industry of cleaning London's buildings began. Today, much of this surface dirt has been removed revealing colour and detail which had been hidden for the whole of living memory. Visitors to the golden coloured Houses of Parliament or the almost white Westminster Abbey are seeing them in a way that has been lost for generations.
Most domestic buildings have been cleaned too. So now it is almost pleasant to find one still clothed in its dark Victorian suit. Such a one is 12 Harley Street, a fine dark house in a yellow terrace, a clergyman among the ladies. Sadly it is not the 12 Harley Street where Collins lived. An examination of census data and contemporary post office directories shows that the numbers in Harley Street ran up one side and down the other and that the house presently numbered 12 would then have been number six. The number 12 where Collins lived is now demolished. But the remaining houses give us a clear idea of what it looked like, the house where his life changed.
The year 1859 was a crucial one for Collins. Not only was he now living openly with Caroline but he was embarking on his greatest literary challenge and the one that was to turn him from a moderately successful writer of independent means into a Victorian superstar, on a par with his close friend Charles Dickens. Dickens' first weekly periodical Household Words had been successful and one of its surprise successes, to Dickens at least, had been the serialisation in 1857 of Collins's novel The Dead Secret. When Dickens closed Household Words and replaced it with All The Year Round in May 1859 he determined that the new weekly would contain serial fiction. He began with his own A Tale of Two Cities which ended in the issue of 26 November 1859. In that same number Dickens wrote 'We purpose always reserving the first place in these pages for a continuous original work of fiction...The second story of our series we now beg to introduce to the attention of our readers.' That story was The Woman in White.
The Woman in White remains Wilkie's most enduring success, never out of print in the 138 years since its publication, it burst on the public in 40 parts in 1859. The circulation of All The Year Round, already above 100,000 for each tuppenny issue, grew further and 45,000 back numbers were sold to people who wanted to catch up with parts they had missed. As the serial came to an end the three volume edition was published. Slightly altered for its new form it was also an astonishing success passing through seven editions in its three volume form by the end of 1860. In February 1861 it was re-issued in one volume with a few small changes, principally to sort out a problem with dates which a critic in The Times had noticed. It is the photograph of the author pasted on to the fly leaf of this edition which is reproduced on the front page of this Collins website.
It was in rooms at 12 Harley Street that much of The Woman in White was written. A note by Collins added to the manuscript at a later date records 'I began this story on the 15th of August 1859, at Broadstairs and finished it on the 26 July 1860, at 12 Harley Street, London.'
Wilkie and Caroline moved in to 12 Harley Street early in the new year of 1860. He had been quarrelling with his landlord at 2a Cavendish Street, possibly about his unconventional domestic arrangements, and around the turn of the year he moved into rooms in 12 Harley Street, which was owned by George Gregson a dentist who lived in the large house alone apart from his servant, Mary Stockwin. On 26 March he wrote in a letter
"I have been moving since you last saw me into new rooms...at No. 12 Harley Street...Did you find when you last moved that you could not get rid of the carpenter? I can't. He has been working with me ever since last week. He was putting up curtain poles at one end of the room today. I was writing a strong effect of suspended interest at the other."
The publication of The Woman in White was the turning point in Wilkie's life. His output of journalism and stories for All The Year Round all but dried up and fame and, it has to be said, some fortune had arrived. He stopped relying on his mother's bank account - he was 35 at the time - and opened his own at Coutts in August 1860. In 1861 he took out life insurance policies and, in many ways settled down to what seemed a settled family life. He filled in the census return of 1861 showing himself as 'barrister-at-law not in practice, author of works of fiction'. Caroline is shown as 'Caroline Collins, wife, married, age 26, of Cheltenham'. Apart from the lie about their marriage, Caroline also took the advice in Punch (16 March 1861) 'Ladies, have you made your minds up as to what age you intend to be for the next ten years?' The 31-year-old Caroline was put down as aged 26, just one of many lies in the public records of Wilkie's life and those of his two lovers. Apart from Wilkie and Caroline there is Mary Wilding, 26, house servant. And an entry 'Harriet Montagu, servant, unmarried, 16, London'. This was almost certainly the fictitious entry for Caroline's daughter Harriet, then aged 10.
Although a frequent visitor, Dickens did not seem to approve of Wilkie's domestic arrangements, writing to a friend on 6 March 1861 'He has made his rooms in Harley Street very handsome and comfortable. We never speak of the (female) skeleton in that house and I therefore have not the least idea of the state of his mind on that subject. I hope it does not run in any matrimonial groove. I cannot imagine any good coming of such an end in this instance.'
Wilkie and Dickens were still close friends, though Collins left the staff of All The Year Round in January 1861, no longer needing the six
guineas a week pay. But he duly wrote his next novel, No Name, to follow Dickens's Great Expectations in All The Year Round. It began on 15 March 1862 and continued until 17 January 1863. It was published in three volume form late in 1862 by Sampson Low who, after the success of The Woman in White, paid £3000 for the rights.
Although Wilkie lived at Harley Street for four years he spent much time away either in Broadstairs, Paris, Whitby or, later, Italy. During this time Wilkie suffered from frequent attacks of his gout, at one point Dickens even offered to finish No Name for him.
His next publication was My Miscellanies, a collection of 25 non-fiction pieces which had appeared in Household Words and All The Year Round. Apart from a short introduction all that was required of him was the meticulous checking of proofs and a few small changes and footnotes. He then embarked on his next and longest novel, Armadale, laying much of the groundwork before and during a four month trip to Italy with Caroline and Harriet (who Wilkie by now was calling Carrie or Caroline junior) in the winter of 1863. Returning in March 1864 he determined to leave Harley Street where he was bothered by pianos at the back and bagpipes, bands and punches at the front. But he persevered with Armadale, writing the effective scene of the wreck there in September 1864. But in December he could clearly cope with it no longer and he moved just before Christmas to 9 Melcombe Place, Dorset Square, a house which has sadly disappeared. Dorset Square itself remains. Not only is it a beautiful reminder of what early Victorian London was, the green in the centre was where Thomas Lord founded the Marylebone Cricket Club, the MCC which still runs English Cricket. He lived here until September 1867 when he moved to the house that was his home for almost all the rest of his life, and which saw some of the most turbulent times in his relationships.
This piece draws heavily on information in four key biographies of Wilkie Collins by Ellis, Robinson, Clarke, and Peters.
4 July 1998