South Sea novel

Wilkie Collins’ first novel is published – 150 years late

In 1991, a man entered the shop of Manhattan bookseller Glenn Horowitz and presented him with an ancient-looking manuscript. It had 167 cream-coloured pages and was bound in brown leather with pink marbled endpapers. Nothing especially remarkable about that. But this, as Horowitz soon realised, was the lost first novel of the Victorian writer Wilkie Collins.

Collins had spoken occasionally about this unpublished work – written in 1844 – but few had actually seen it. And when he died there was no sign of the manuscript among his effects. It entered literary history as a lost masterpiece.

Set in the South Seas before the Europeans made contact, Iolani: Or, Tahiti As It Was tells of an evil high-priest, Iolani, and the heroic woman, Idia, who bears his child. Determined to defy the Tahitian custom of killing first-born children, Idia and her friend Aimata flee with the baby to join Iolani’s enemies – but he comes after them. The story features civil war, sorcery, sacrificial rites, wild madmen, treachery and love.

Horowitz immediately sold on the manuscript, and the new owners – who add to the general air of mystery by insisting on anonymity – have now allowed Princeton University Press to publish Iolani for the first time. “It’s a literary event of genuine importance,” says Horowitz, who struck gold again this month by discovering certain unpublished works of Sylvia Plath.

According to the book’s editor, Professor Ira B Nadel of the University of British Columbia, Collins gave the manuscript to an American theatrical impresario, Augustin Daly, who had helped to establish the writer’s reputation in New York. And about 20 years later, after Daly’s death in 1899, his possessions were auctioned. The manuscript was purchased by a bookseller for $23; and soon afterwards resold for $100. By 1903 it was sold once again, this time disappearing into the hands of private collectors.

It could hardly have reappeared at a more auspicious time. Collins’s works are currently undergoing something of a revival, with adaptations on television, and a film of his 1852 novel, Basil, starring Christian Slater and Derek Jacobi, awaiting release.

Collins is still best known for The Woman in White and The Moonstone, yet he wrote more than 30 novels and 50 short stories and most of them were hugely successful across Europe and the United States. Few other Victorian novelists overshadowed him.

One who did was Charles Dickens, who met Collins in 1851, soon after the appearance of Collins’s first published novel, Antonia. Though 12 years younger than Dickens, Collins was to be the only novelist to make close friends with him. Indeed, they soon became related when Collins’s younger brother, Charles, married Dickens’s favourite daughter, Kate.

Dickens once told a mutual friend that he was able to “infuse a good deal of myself” into the younger man’s writings, adding that Collins was “very suggestive, and exceedingly quick to take my suggestions”. It is perhaps to be regretted that Collins had yet to meet Dickens when he wrote Iolani.

He had just turned 20, and was working for a tea-importer in the Strand, where most of his time, he later admitted, was spent writing “tragedies, comedies, epic poems and the usual literary rubbish invariably accumulated about themselves by ‘young beginners’ ”.

Certainly, Iolani is not nearly as good as Collins’s more mature work. It relies heavily on vocabulary and phrasing that was archaic even in the middle of the 19th century. The characterisation is less than subtle. (The diabolical Iolani’s expression is frequently described as “terrible to look upon” or “fearfully distorted”.) And Collins’s depiction of the mountainous South Pacific islands sometimes reads more like the Lake District (or else, when he really strives for the exotic, it puts you in mind of Hollywood’s charmingly naive presentation of the homeland of King Kong).

One possible source of inspiration may have been a visit to England during Collins’s lifetime by a king of the Sandwich Islands. Kamehameha II attracted considerable interest, not least because he died within weeks of arrival.

For research, Collins relied on tales of Captain Cook, and the Bounty, as well as the writings of a former missionary (William Ellis’s Polynesian Researches provided Collins with both a plot and his principal characters).

More generally, Collins owes a considerable debt to the gothic romance of Mrs Radcliffe, Mary Shelley and Sir Walter Scott.

He was confident that Iolani would be accepted by publishers. Travelling round Europe, he wrote to his parents for pounds 100 by way of advance. But the reader at Longmans declared the book hopelessly bad. “The writer had not the slightest aptitude for romance writing,” he added. Years later, Collins met the man at a dinner party, when The Woman in White was enjoying considerable success. “Neither of us could forbear from bursting out and laughing,” he remembered.

Interviewed in 1870, Collins accepted that the blend of gothic romance and South Seas adventure was ultimately unsuccessful. “My youthful imagination ran riot among the noble savages . . . [it was] a novel of the most wildly impracticable kind.”

Nevertheless, many of the themes would crop up again in his later work. Notably, the fascination with crime and the paradoxes of the criminal mind.

And there is a delicious irony in passages in which Collins sternly upholds the institution of marriage, since his own love life would later prove highly irregular.

He lived unmarried in Harley Street lodgings with a woman and her daughter from a previous marriage. In 1868, Caroline Graves – the inspiration for Collins’s “woman in white” and Dickens’s Miss Havisham – married another man, and Collins entered into a relationship with Martha Judd, with whom he had three children. But by the early 1870s, he was living once again with Caroline, who continued to use the name Mrs Graves. “Polygamy,” explains Nadel, with reference to the young Collins’s conventional pronouncements, “would become strikingly appealing to Collins.”

For Nadel, these insights more than make up for the novel’s weaknesses. “The first book by any major writer is crucial,” he says. “And seeing the manuscript for the first time was “a fabulous experience. I couldn’t believe that this had just been sitting in a drawer for so many years.”