Wilkie Collins, master of the cliffhanger

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From The Guardian:

 Wilkie Collins wrote The Moonstone at a time of personal trauma and physical agony. But his professional life was going much better: with four bestsellers published in a decade, Collins was one of the best-paid writers working at the time. When The Moonstone came out in 1868, he netted a tidy £750 for the UK serial rights, plus the same again in the US. This was already a much larger sum than most literary novelists can expect today – equivalent to about £168,000 in 2018 – with more to come from sales of the complete edition. Collins was as acclaimed as he was popular, fully aware of his powers and thoroughly enjoying them. In an 1871 preface to The Moonstone he said: “I look back now at the blessed relief which my occupation … brought to my mind. The Art which had been always the pride and the pleasure of my life became now more than ever ‘its own exceeding great reward’.”

There’s a lovely moment late on in The Moonstone where some of this pleasure breaks through. A character called Ezra Jennings is visiting protagonist Franklin Blake, hoping that his friend will be able to remain calm in the hours before they carry out an important psychological experiment together. Fortunately, help is at hand:

“Mr Blake idly turned over the books on his bedroom table. I had taken the precaution of looking at them, when we first entered the room. THE GUARDIAN; THE TATLER; Richardson’s PAMELA; Mackenzie’s MAN OF FEELING; Roscoe’s LORENZO DE MEDICI; and Robertson’s CHARLES THE FIFTH – all classical works; all (of course) immeasurably superior to anything produced in later times; and all (from my present point of view) possessing the one great merit of enchaining nobody’s interest, and exciting nobody’s brain. I left Mr Blake to the composing influence of Standard Literature, and occupied myself in making this entry in my journal.”

The joke works especially well because Collins was so famous as a practitioner of “sensation fiction”: novels that unashamedly thrilled the reader. Plenty of his contemporaries would have known about HL Mensel’s attack on his writing (specifically in The Woman in White) for “preaching to the nerves instead of the judgment”.

. . . .

If you were a reader in 1868, enjoying this in weekly instalments in the magazine All the Year Round, you would have to wait seven anxious days before you could learn more, when Betteredge would continue to bounce you from cliffhanger to cliffhanger. It’s fascinating to look at the original timetable of the instalments and see how Collins engineered intrigue each week. The second episode finishes with Franklin outlining a conspiracy to “frightened” Betteredge; the third closes at midnight with Betteredge suspecting he has “disturbed the three Indians, lurking about the house”. (But he isn’t certain. And you have to wait a week to find out what’s really happened.) Part four ends as a dinner party begins, just before characters you sense are important can be introduced. And part five closes with the wonderful teaser: “The next thing to tell is the story of the night.”

And so on. Combine that with the intriguing detective mystery, dark secrets and the perils out on the lavishly described “shivering sands”, you can understand why Collins was considered a master at keeping readers wanting more. Even today, reading the book in one volume, the suspense and intrigue remain electric.

Link to the rest at The Guardian