WILKIE COLLINS'S WOMEN
GRAVES (c. 1830-1895)
Photograph from The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins by William Clarke
mysterious woman who lived with Wilkie Collins from about 1858 until his death
in 1889, except for a two year period from 1868.
Dedicatee of The Fallen Leaves
(1879). Often described as the
original 'woman in white', because of a passage in the biography of Millais by
his son. He described the
melodramatic night-time meeting of Millais, Wilkie, and Charles
Collins with a distraught woman running away from a man who was keeping
her prisoner under mesmeric influence. Though
this story was partially corroborated in an account given by Kate Dickens, it
is almost certainly fabricated or greatly exaggerated.
about Caroline Graves was as it seemed. She
described herself as the daughter of a gentleman named Courtenay,
reduced her age by several years, and claimed her late husband, George
Robert Graves (1829-1852), was 'of independent means.'
She was in fact the daughter of a carpenter, John Compton, and his
wife, Sarah; born at Toddington in Gloucestershire and christened Elizabeth.
She moved to Bath and was married there in 1850 to Graves, a
shorthand-writer, and the son of a stone-mason.
The couple lived in Clerkenwell, London, and a daughter, Elizabeth
Harriet, was born eleven months later. George
Graves died in January 1852.
Collins probably met Caroline, as she was subsequently known, in the spring of
1856 when he was temporarily living in lodgings in Howland Street, Tottenham
Court Road. Caroline and her
widowed mother-in-law, Mary Ann Graves, were living in the same area.
Nothing is known, for certain, of the exact circumstances of Caroline's
meeting with Collins, but by the end of 1858 they were living together, first
at 124 Albany Street, and from spring 1859 at 2a New Cavendish Street.
Although they never married, they continued to live together, apart
from one significant break, until Collins died.
Caroline was a beautiful woman who looked far younger than her actual
years and, though she had little or no formal education, managed to transcend
her humble beginnings and pass herself off as a 'lady'.
During the years when Collins was writing his greatest novels, she
undoubtedly contributed much to his emotional security, as well as to his
October 1868, however, the household was suddenly disrupted when Caroline Graves
married Joseph Clow, almost certainly in response to Collins's relationship with
Martha Rudd, and probably after Collins
had himself refused to marry Caroline. Her
daughter and Collins's doctor, Frank Beard, were the witnesses and Collins was
present at the the ceremony at Marylebone parish church.
The marriage was clearly a mistake, for by April 1871 Caroline was back
at 90 Gloucester Place, and her relationship
with Wilkie was resumed in spite of his continuing commitment to Martha Rudd and
his three children by her.
Graves was known for form's sake as Collins's 'housekeeper' and did not
accompany Wilkie on social occasions such as dinner parties; it is also very
unlikely that she was ever introduced to Wilkie's mother.
Caroline entertained many of his friends who visited them at home,
travelled with him on the Continent, went to the theatre with him and sometimes
wrote letters on his behalf when he was ill.
During Wilkie's last illness she nursed him devotedly and when she died
in 1895 was buried in the same grave.
Wilkie's and Caroline's grave in Kensal Green
(No. 31754, Square 141, Row 1)
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