Hidden History

This Novelist’s Female Heroes and Brazen Polyamory Shocked Victorian England

Wilkie Collins, inventor of the mystery novel, startled polite society with attacks on the institution of marriage. But it was his own love life that really caused a stir.

This Novelist’s Female Heroes and Brazen Polyamory Shocked Victorian England

On October 29, 1868, novelist Wilkie Collins sat in a pew at St. Marylebone Parish Church and watched Caroline Graves, the woman who had lived with him as his lover for over a decade, marry another man.

Her reasons for taking such a step are easy to guess. Collins had found a new woman: Martha Rudd, a barmaid 15 years Graves’s junior who had captivated him when he met her on a trip to Norfolk, England. Rudd was now in London, living in lodgings paid for by Collins, just a few minutes’ walk from the home he shared with Graves and her teenage daughter. But rather than trading Graves in for this younger model, Collins had hoped to keep them both.

For Graves, this decision threatened the fragile security she had gained as a famous author’s paramour. And it must have disillusioned her. With Collins, she saw, she would never be more than a mistress. As Graves walked down the aisle of the ornate, high-ceilinged neoclassical church, and said her vows to 29-year-old brewer’s son Joseph Charles Clowe, she must have looked determined. She was giving up a life of excitement and material luxury — after all, Collins was close friends with Charles Dickens and regularly took her on trips to Europe. But she was gaining something all-important for a woman who hoped to be respected in Victorian society: the role of wife.

That role apparently disappointed her. Within two years, Graves would return to Collins and resume her life as “Mrs. Graves,” just as it had been. For the next two decades, the two women would accept each other’s presence in his life; he would split his time between the two households, have children with Rudd, raise Graves’s daughter as his own, and write the two families into his will. After the failed union with Clowe, none of the three would ever marry. All rejected the mid-Victorian imperative of marriage, monogamy and propriety, forming what in 2018 might be called a polyamorous triad, and showing that 19th century England was far from the primly respectable era we often imagine.

When Caroline Graves met Wilkie Collins, he was in the early stages of what would become a spectacular career. Born in 1824 to an established artistic family, he burst onto England’s literary scene with 1860’s blockbuster The Woman in White, an ambitiously plotted identity-theft thriller in which beautiful heiress Laura Fairlie is imprisoned in a lunatic asylum under the name of a woman who is her exact double.

As would become signatures of Collins’s work, the novel dwells on the secrets that lurk beneath the surface of respectable society, and it portrays marriage as a sinister trap. The book captured the attention of the nation, inspiring product tie-ins ranging from perfumes to popular songs. It also established Collins as the top practitioner of the “sensation novel,” a popular new genre that milked all possible dramatic potential from subjects like bigamy, adultery and illegitimate birth, and which was a forerunner of modern thrillers and soap operas.

In the years to come, Collins would delight readers with a combination of clear-eyed social commentary and ripped-from-the-headlines plots. Critics sometimes disapproved of his heroines: unconventional women who took their fates into their own hands when society gave them few options. (The protagonist of the 1875 novel The Law and the Lady turns amateur detective to clear her husband of a false murder charge; a less lucky bride, the antiheroine of 1866’s Armadale, disposes of an abusive husband with arsenic.) But despite recurring controversies, Collins was respected. The famous critic John Forster called one of his scenes “a masterpiece of art which few have equaled,” and Dickens once referred to himself as Collins’s “obedient disciple.”

The 1860s were his most artistically and commercially fruitful years. His string of hits culminated in The Moonstone, completed in 1868, a few months before Graves’s ill-fated wedding. The book is a country-house whodunit often cited as the first mystery novel in the English language. While exploring the enigma of a diamond theft, it sheds light on secrets and lies at all levels of society, and on the cruelty of the class system. One character, a maid with a deformed shoulder, drowns herself because the upper-class man she loves won’t even speak to her. Addressing him in a suicide note, she writes, “Something that felt like the happy life I had never led yet, leapt up in me at the instant I set eyes on you.”

As Collins would tell it, his first meeting with Caroline Graves was a high-stakes encounter worthy of his fiction. One night in the ’50s, he was walking with his brother Charles and their friend Sir John Everett Millais through “the dimly-lit, and in those days semi-rural, roads and lanes of North London” when the three friends heard a woman’s scream. Before they could act, the garden gate of a nearby villa burst open. From it came “a young and very beautiful woman dressed in flowing white robes that shone in the moonlight,” who wore a look of terror on her face. She bolted into the shadows, and Collins ran after her. He would later tell friends:

he had [caught] up with the lovely fugitive and had heard from her own lips the history of her life. … She was a young lady of good birth and position, who had accidentally fallen into the hands of a man living in a villa in Regent’s Park. There for many months he kept her prisoner under threats and mesmeric influence of so alarming a character that she dared not attempt to escape, until, in sheer desperation, she fled from the brute, who, with a poker in his hand, threatened to dash her brains out.

The story is at least a partial fabrication; there’s no evidence Caroline Graves was ever abducted or held prisoner. (The version above is secondhand, from an 1890s biography of John Millais written by his son, likely based on Millais’s and Collins’s embellished recollections.) Still, it reflected the relationship as Collins liked to see it. He had rescued Graves, if not from a poker-wielding kidnapper, then from more banal dangers. Graves was a carpenter’s daughter from Cheltenham; she had married young and was widowed shortly after the birth of her first child. When Collins met her, she was eking out a meager living running an odds-and-ends shop. As a young single mother in London, Graves was in danger of becoming homeless or turning to prostitution if business dried up. With Collins paying her bills, she was safe.

Liaisons outside the bonds of matrimony weren’t publicly accepted, but they were common. This fact is reflected in letters between Collins and Charles Dickens, who became friends in the ’50s and bonded over a similarly lax approach to morality. On one occasion, Dickens wrote to Collins with a story about going to a public dance where men could meet prostitutes:

On Saturday night, I paid three francs at the door of that place and went in, at 11 o-Clock, to a Ball. Some pretty faces, but all of two classes — wicked and coldly calculating, or haggard and wretched in their worn beauty. Among the latter, was a woman of thirty or so, in an Indian shawl, who never stirred from a seat in a corner all the time I was there. Handsome, regardless, brooding, and yet with some nobler qualities in her forehead. I mean to walk about tonight, and look for her. I didn’t speak to her there, but I have a fancy that I should like to know more about her. Never shall, I suppose.

Picking up “wretched” women for sexual purposes was a routine source of thrills, but Graves was much more than a casual pickup. Collins begins to mention her in his letters in the late 1850s. He tells of trips to Italy, nights in with friends, a visit to an exhibit of paintings by William Holman Hunt. In 1866 a friend wrote of an evening with them: “A capital dinner she gave us. She had cooked most of it herself I am sure, but you would not have guessed it from her very decolleté white silk gown.”

Her role was part hardworking housewife, part bohemian siren. Hunt’s description of the sexy silk dress suggests the powerful erotic appeal that drew Collins to her (and her taste for finery, which he was happy to indulge). Although no love letters from Collins survive, perhaps a flavor of their romance is conveyed in his description, in a letter from 1873, of one of his heroines, “a reclaimed woman from the streets — a glorious creature who requires constant attentions … my beautiful reclaimed woman.”

Collins also made more serious demands of his mistress. In one letter, he complains of gout pain and adds that, “Caroline is to … mesmerise me into sleeping so as to do without the opium!” Chronic pain, and the need for opium to control it, would haunt Collins for the rest of his life. In February 1868, he was on deadline to finish a chapter of The Moonstone and in too much pain to hold a pen. After several male secretaries were put off by Collins’s anguished groans, he enlisted the help of Graves’s daughter, Harriet.

“To her I dictated much of the book,” he wrote, “the last part largely under the effect of opium. When it was finished, I was not only pleased and astonished at the finale, but did not recognize it as my own.” Harriet would act as his secretary for years to come.

Collins was committed to his little family. Still, he took pride in not marrying. He had written in Dickens’s magazine Household Words in 1856 that “the general idea of the scope and purpose of the institution of marriage is a miserably narrow one … narrowing the practice of the social virtues, in married people, to themselves and their children.” And he seemed to feel that avoiding the life of a Victorian husband did him good. In 1864, on turning 40, he wrote, “I don’t feel old. I have no regular habits, no respectable prejudices, no tendency to go to sleep after dinner, no loss of appetite for public amusements, none of the melancholy sobrieties of sentiment which, in short, are supposed to be proper to middle age.”

For Graves, who would have been shunned by Collins’s female friends, the situation must have felt less liberating. Shortly before her wedding to Clowe, Dickens would write to a third party, “For anything one knows, the whole matrimonial pretence may be a lie of that woman’s, intended to make him marry her, and (contrary to her expectations) breaking down at last.” If it was, it failed.

Martha Rudd became pregnant with Collins’s first child around the time of the wedding, and give birth to a daughter, Marian, in July 1869. By the time Graves returned, around the spring of 1871, Rudd was soon to have her second child by Collins. He would later specify in his will that “half of what I leave behind me to C E Graves and her daughter — and half to Martha Rudd and my two children.” Both women were there to stay. None of their comments on the matter survive; one can only speculate at the combination of love for Collins, disdain for convention and dismay at their other options that prompted them to continue sharing him.

About Rudd, few details are known. She was born in 1845 to a family so humble that her mother signed her birth certificate with a simple X. She left home at 16 and likely worked as a bartender or servant before moving to London.

Collins’s letters give some hints about their relationship. When with Rudd, he adopted the persona of William Dawson, barrister at law, and the pseudonym “Mrs. Dawson” gave her some legitimacy in the eyes of clerks and hotel keepers. His letters repeatedly remind his solicitor of their false identities (“you remember our name — Mr and Mrs ‘Dawson’”), suggesting pleasure in the deception he was putting over on respectable society.

He never mentioned Rudd in letters to his friends; compared to Graves, he saw her as less fit to entertain his cultured friends or appear with him in public outside of trips abroad. In 1856, he had written in the essay “Laid Up in Two Lodgings” of an encounter with a servant girl for whom “Life means dirty work, small wages, hard words, no holidays, no social station, no future. … I cannot communicate [these thoughts] to her: I can only do my best to encourage her to peep over the cruel social barrier which separates her unmerited comfortlessness from my undeserved luxury, and encourage her to talk to me now and then on something like equal terms.” With Rudd, Collins had forged a relationship that crossed the class barrier. But the two would never quite be on “equal terms.”

Rudd gave birth to a boy in 1874, and in 1878 Harriet married Collins’s lawyer, Henry Powell Bartley. By now Collins’s time at the forefront of English literary life was over. He would continue to write, but as his plots became more outlandish and focused on pet social causes, readers felt his talent had declined. He used opium in increasing quantities and struggled with its side effects — including bizarre hallucinations. As his health declined, his blended family remained an unlikely source of stability.

The depth of Collins’s love for his family is suggested by a letter he addressed to his adopted daughter in the wake of a family tragedy: In 1888 Harriet’s newborn daughter — her fourth child with Bartley — died of whooping cough. In Collins’s words, “I only venture to write to you when the worst that affliction can do has been done. … No man, let him feel for you as he may (and I have felt for you with all my heart) is capable of understanding what a mother must suffer who is tried as you have been tried.”

Further trials were ahead. In July 1889 Collins suffered a severe stroke that confined him to his house for six weeks. He tried to rally, but the recovery was short-lived. In September 1889 he was struck down with bronchitis and took to his bedroom, scrawling a note to family friend and doctor Frank Beard that read simply, “I am dying old friend.” Beard rushed to the sickroom and joined Graves in a hushed and anxious two-day vigil by Collins’s side, as they watched him sink for what they knew would be the last time. An unnamed New York Herald journalist penned a vivid account of his final moments: “He was leaning back with his head buried in the pillow of the chair” in his bedroom, and “From time to time the doctor felt the fluttering pulse, whose throbs were growing weaker and more irregular … there was a slight convulsive movement and his head sank back.”

There was no weeping crowd of relatives to grieve with Graves; the journalist noted that the great man “died alone. … By his side was only Dr F. Carr Beard, his life-long friend[,] and the old housekeeper, who for thirty years had looked after her master’s comfort with the care and devotion of a slave.” Even at this moment, Collins’s life partner could be publicly known only as a housekeeper.

She would play hostess to his many mourners at their Wimpole Street home. Meanwhile, Rudd and her children kept a respectful distance. They likely watched from the street as his simple oak coffin was carried out to the hearse. At the funeral, a cross of white chrysanthemums was on display, credited to “Mrs Dawson and family.”

The two women would live out their lives in obscurity. Unlike Collins’s fictional heroines, they never rose to the level of scandal or public sensation. But like those women, they had made daring choices in pursuit of their own happiness and freedom.