Philip V. Allingham, Contributing Editor of the Victorian Web, scanned and edited the following text, which George P. Landow formatted. For ease of reading, paragraphing has been added (in the original all the text before the quoted letter appears as a single paragraph)]
There is is no resemblance of organic structure and mental idiosyncrasy between the works of Charles Dickens and the works of Wilkie Collins, yet Collins, as a novelist, was a result of the prodigious influence of Dickens upon the literary movement of the time in which he lived, and the memory of the one irresistibly incites remembrance of the other.
My acquaintance with Collins began long ago, and it speedily ripened into a friendship that was interrupted only by his death. He was a great writer: as a story-teller, specifically, he stands alone, — transcendent and incomparable: but his personality was even more interesting than his authorship. To be in his society was to be charmed, delighted, stimulated, and refreshed. His intellectual energy, communicated itself to all around him, but his manner [203/204] was so exquisitely refined and gentle that while he prompted extreme mental activity he also diffused a lovely influence of repose. The hours that I passed in the company of Collins are remembered as among the happiest of my life.
His views were unconventional, — the views of a man who had observed human nature and society widely and closely, and who thought for himself. His humor was playful. His perception of character was intuitive and unerring. He manifested, at all times, a delicate consideration for other persons' and his sense of kindness was instantaneous and acute. His learning was ample, but he made no parade of it. Sincerity and simplicity were the predominant attributes of his mind. He had seen much of the world. He possessed a copious store of anecdote, and his conversation was fluent, sprightly, and amusing, — the more attractive because of personal peculiarities that deepened the impression of his winning originality. His temperament was mercurial, moods alternating between exuberant glee and pensive gloom; but in society he was remarkable for the buoyancy of a youthful spirit, [204/205] and at all times he dominated himself and his circumstances with a calm, resolute will. In listening to his talk and in reading his novels I derived the impression that he was a fatalist. However that may be, he looked upon the human race with boundless charity. His sensibility was great; his intuition was infallible, and, in particular, his mental attitude toward women was that of ardent chivalry. He understood woman — her heroism, her magnificent virtues, her enthralling charms; he knew her faults also, and he did not hesitate to declare and reprove them; but his works abound with touches of tender sympathy with her trials and sufferings, and with lovely compassion for her infirmities and griefs. That exquisite humanity, combined with fine intellect and delicate, spontaneous humor, made companionship with Wilkie Collins an inestimable privilege and blessing. I have had the fortune of knowing, intimately, many distinguished persons: I have not known any person, distinguished or otherwise, whose society, — because of mental breadth, catholic taste, generous feeling, quick appreciation, intrinsic goodness, and sweet [205/206] courtesy, was so entirely satisfying as that of Wilkie Collins.
The unjustifiable use of private letters, as an element in the biography of deceased persons, has been severely, and rightly, condemned. A judicious and correct use of such documents, however, can neither do injustice to the dead nor give offence to the living. Some of the letters that Collins addressed to me are more expressive than any description could be of his blithe alacrity of mind and his genial spirit. Here is one that pleasantly indicates those attributes and also, — announcing his allegiance to certain splendid ideals now somewhat out of fashion, declares his literary taste:
90 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, W. London, August 5, 1878.
My Dear Winter:
Your kind and friendly letter found me in a darkened room, suffering again from one of my attacks of rheumatic gout in the eyes. I am only now well enough to use my eyes and my pen once more, and I hasten to ask you to forgive me for a delay in writing to you which has been forced upon me, in the most literal sense of the word.
Let me get away from the disagreeable subject of myself and my illnesses, and beg you to accept my most sincere [206/207] thanks for the gift of your last volume of poems. My first renewal of the pleasure of reading is associated with your pages. I ought to warn you that I am an incorrigible heretic in the, matter of modern poetry, of the sort that is now popular. I positively decline to let the poet preach to me or puzzle me. He is to express passion and sentiment, in language which is essentially intelligible as well as essentially noble and musical, — or I will have nothing to do with him. You will now not be surprised to hear that I delight in Byron and Scott, and, more extraordinary still, that I am a frequent reader even of Crabbe!
Having made my confession, I am sure you will believe I speak sincerely when I thank you for some hours of real pleasure, derived from your volume. Both in feeling and expression I find your poetry (to use a phrase which I don't much like, but which expresses exactly what I mean) "thoroughly sympathetic." The "Ideal," "A Dirge," and "Rosemary " are three among my chief favorites. I thank you again for them — and for all the rest.
I have been too completely out of the world to have any news to tell you. As to literature, we are in a sadly stagnant state in London. And as to the "British Theatre" the less (with one or two rare exceptions) said about it the better. Writing of the theatre, however, I am reminded that my "New Magdalen," Ada Cavendish, sails on the 24th, to try her fortune in the United States. She has, I think, more of the divine fire in her than any other living English actress of "Drama" — and she has the two excellent qualities of being always eager to improve and always ready to take advice in her art. I am really interested in her well-doing, and I am specially anxious to hear what you think of her. In the "Magdalen," and also in "Miss Gwilt" (a piece [207/208] altered, from my "Armadale," by Regnier — of the Theatre Francais — and myself), she has done things which electrified our English audiences. If you should be sufficiently interested in her to give her a word of advice in the art she will be grateful, and I shall be grateful too.
I am "bestowing my tediousness" on you without mercy, and my paper warns me that the time has come to say, for the present, Good-by. Let me come to an end by expressing a hope that you will give me another opportunity of proving myself a better correspondent. In the meantime, with all good wishes, believe me,
Ever yours, Wilkie Collins.
When you see Mr. Jefferson pray remember me kindly to him.
Miss Ada Cavendish (Mrs. Frank A. Marshall) was an actress of exceptional beauty, talent, and charm. She first attracted attention on the London stage in 1863, as a performer in burlesque, and subsequently she gained distinction in comedy and tragedy, — acting in important dramas and winning fame by fine performances of Shakespeare's Beatrice and Rosalind. In 1873 she impersonated Mercy Merrick, in Collins's play based on his novel "The New Magdalen"; and thereafter, until the end of her [208/209][208/209] career, she remained identified with those heroines of his creation, Mercy Merrick and Miss Gwilt. Her first appearance on the American stage was made at Wallack's Theatre, New York, on September 9, 1878, and to that incident Collins refers. He was fond of the stage, and his novels, — from several of which he derived plays, — are abundantly supplied with original dramatic incident. One of his effective dramas is based on " The Woman in White," with which Mr. Wybert Reeve, in the character of Count Fosco, traversed Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, acting Fosco more than fifteen hundred times. In the following letter Collins makes an instructive allusion to one of his plays, as viewed bv one of the most interesting members of the stage of France, the brilliant, much lamented Aimee-Olympe Desclee (1836-'74):
90 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, London, February 10, 1882.
My Dear Winter: You were indeed happily inspired when you sent me that generous and sympathetic article in "The Tribune." Still [209/210] tormented by the gout, I forgot my troubles when I opened the newspaper, and felt the encouragement that I most highly value — I mean the encouragement that is offered to me by a brother-writer.
If what I hear of this last larcenous appropriation of my poor "Magdalen" be true, what an effort it must have been to you to give your attention, even for a few hours only, to dramatic work so immeasurably beneath your notice! How did you compensate your intelligence for this outrage offered to it by this latest "adapter" of ideas that do not belong to him? Did you disinfect your mind by reading, or writing,-or did you go to bed, and secure the sweet oblivion of sleep?
I wonder whether I ever told you of an entirely new view taken of the "Magdalen" by the last of the great French actresses — Aimee Desclee. After seeing the piece in London she was eager to play, on her return to Paris — Grace Roseberry! "Develop the character a little more, in the last act," she said to me; I will see that the play is thoroughly well translated into French — and I will make Grace, and not Mercy Merrick, the chief woman in the piece. Grace's dramatic position is magnificent: I feel it, to my fingers' ends. Wait and see!" She died, poor soul, a few months afterward, and Grace Roseberry will, I fear, never be properly acted now. Don't forget me, my dear Winter — and let me hear from you sometimes. I set no common value on your friendship and your good opinion. Ever yours, Wilkie Collins.
P.S. I address you as Mr. on this envelope. Our curiously common mock-title of Esquire is declared by Fenimore Cooper to be a species of insult, and even a violation of the [210/211] Constitution of the United States, when attached to the name of an American citizen. Is that great Master (shamefully undervalued by Americans of the present day!) right or wrong about Esq.? N.B. I have just been reading "The Deerslayer" for the fifth fime.
On the occasion of my last meeting with Collins, which occurred at his house, No. 82 Wimpole St., near Cavendish Square, London, not long before his death (on September 28, 1889), we sat together from noon till after midnight, talking of many subjects, — men, women, books, opinions, feelings, and events, — and then, as often before, I had occasion to appreciate his copious knowledge, fine discernment, and vigorous, novel thought. At that time, and indeed throughout his later years, he was obliged, occasionally, to consume laudanum. He had originally been compelled to use that drug because of excruciating pain, caused by rheumatic gout in the eyes, and it had become to him, more or less, an indispensable anodyne. In the course of the evening that medicine was brought to him, and, naturally, he adverted to its properties and effects. [211/212]
"My suffering was so great," he said, "when I was writing The Moonstone, that I could not control myself and keep quiet. My cries and groans so deeply distressed my amanuensis, to whom I was dictating, that he could not continue his work, and had to leave me. After that I employed several other men, with the same result: no one of them could endure the strain. At Iast I engaged a young woman, stipulating that she must utterly disregard my sufferings and attend solely to my words. This she declared that she could and would do, and this, to my amazement (because the most afflicting of my attacks came upon me after her arrival), she indubitably and exactly did. I was blind with pain, and I lay on the couch writhing and groaning. In that condition and under those circumstances I dictated the greater part of The Moonstone."
Collins mentioned, I remember, that the accession of pain began at the point where Miss Clack is introduced into the narrative, so that the essentially humorous part of that fascinating story was composed by its indomitable author when [212/213] he was almost frenzied with physical torture. The art of the fabric, nevertheless, is perfect: the invention never flags; the playful, satirical humor, with its vein of veiled scorn for canting hypocrisy, meanness, and spite, flows on in a smooth, silver ripple of felicitous words, and the style is crystal clear. "Opium sometimes hurts," he said, that day, "but also, sometimes, it helps. In general, people know nothing about it." He then referred to the experience of Sir Walter Scott, in the enforced use of laudanum, when writing The Bride of Lammermoor, — an experience that is related in Lockhart's noble life of that great author.
Mention was made of Coleridge and of De Quincey, and of the elder Lord Lytton (Bulwer), all of whom had recourse to opium. "I very well remember the poet Coleridge," Collins said: "he often came to my father's house, and my father and mother were close friends of his. One day he came there and was in great distress, saying that it was wrong for him to take opium, but that he could not resist the craving for it, although he made every possible effort to [213/214] do so. His grief was excessive. He even shed tears. At last my mother addressed him, saying: 'Mr. Coleridge, do not cry; if the opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do you not go and get it?' At this the poet ceased to weep, recovered his composure, and, turning to my father, said, with an air of much relief and deep conviction: 'Collins, your wife is an exceedingly sensible woman!' I suppose that he did not long delay to act upon my mother's suggestion. I was boy at the time, but the incident made a strong impression on my mind, and I could not forget it. Coleridge had brilliant eyes and a very sweet voice."
The reader must not infer, from what is here said, that Wilkie Collins was a man of weak character, self-indulgent, and subservient to the "opium habit." Such an inference would be unjust to the memory of a great writer and a noble person. The works of Collins, which fill more than twenty-one volumes, bear decisive testimony to the poise of his intellect, the opulence of his genius, the incessancy of his labor, the copious wealth of his invention, the breadth of [214/215] his knowledge of life, the ardency of his sympathetic emotion, and, above all, the sturdy independence and adamantine solidity of his character. He possessed an extraordinary mind, and in adding a body of original, vital, imaginative fiction to the literature of his country he accomplished an extraordinary work. But during the greater part of his life he was an invalid, and, remembering the circumstances under which he wrote, it is amazing that he accomplished so much. One denotement of his potent individuality is the uniform texture of his style, — a style that is unique. He portrayed many characters, and it is notable that those characters, with little exception, express themselves in one and the same verbal form: the faculty, possessed in such a marvellous degree by Shakespeare and by Sir Walter Scott, of making each person speak in exact accordance with his or her personality, he did not employ: yet every character that he drew is distinctly individual, and, by a certain subtle magic of artistic skill, it is made to seem to be talking in a perfectly individual manner. Consummate art, thus exemplified, is not achieved with a dis- [215/216] ordered intellect, personal observation of ColIins, furthermore, found him exceptionally self-possessed, firm in mind, clear in thought, dignified yet gentle in manner, the embodiment of the sweet gravity and involuntary grace that fancy associates with the ideal of such men as Cowley and Addison. His aspect was singular and interesting. When seated he appeared to be a portly man, but when he stood that impression was dispelled. His head was large and leonine. His eyes were hazel. He wore an ample beard. His body was small, his shoulders were slightly stooped, and his limbs were, seemingly, attenuated. His walk was slow and feeble, — that of a person who had been weakened by great pain. His voice, though low, was clear, kindly, and winning, and his demeanor was marked by the formal courtesy that is commonly ascribed to persons designated as survivors of "the old school." That formal bearing, which, in fact, was involuntary distinction, did not lessen his geniality of companionship. He freely participated in social enjoyments, but it was in the communion of intellectual taste that he especially [216/217] rejoiced, and it was through the medium of such communion, as his writings prove, that he imparted the most of pleasure and benefit. As a writer he taught, — not by didacticism but by suggestion, — purity of living and charity of feeling, and as a man he was the inspiration of nobility to every person who came within the scope of his influence, and especially to those who were blessed with his friendship.
In matters of taste Collins was epicurean. The perfection of enjoyment, he assured me, is only to be obtained when you are at sea, in a luxurious, well-appointed steam yacht, in lovely summer weather. One of his eccentricities resulted from his inordinate liking for black pepper: "It is seldom provided at dinner tables to which I repair," he said, "and therefore I take care to provide it myself." He did; and pleasurable it was to see the droll gravity with which he produced that condiment. His ways were ever ingenuous and characteristic. His reminiscent talk was charming, — the word-pictures that he made of authors whom he had seen and known, such as Thomas Hood, Douglas Jerrold, [217/218] and Thackeray being, in effect, Iike perfect cameos. Here is a characteristic letter, affording glimpse of his boyhood:
90 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, W. London, September 3rd, 1881.
If you have long since dismissed me from memory, you have only treated an inexcusably bad correspondent as he deserves. When I was at school, — perpetually getting punished as "a bad boy" — the master used to turn me to good moral account, as a means of making his model scholars ashamed of their occasional lapses into misconduct: "If it had been Collins I should not have felt shocked and surprised. Nobody expects anything of him. But You!!" — etc., etc.
In the hope that you, by this time, "expect nothing of Collins" I venture to appeal to your indulgence. In the intervals of rheumatic gout I still write stories — and I send to you, by registered book-post, my latest effort, called "The Black Robe," in the belief that you will "give me another chance," and honor me by accepting the work. It is thought, on the European side of the Atlantic, in Roman Catholic countries as well as in Protestant England, to be the best thing I have written for some time. And it is memorable to me as having produced a freely offered gift of forty pounds from one of the pirates who have seized it on the Americanside!!!
I write with your new editions, — so kindly sent to me, — in the nearest book-case. In the Poems I rejoice to see my special favorites included in the new publication — "The [218/219] Ideal," "Rosemary" and the exquisitely tender verses which enshrine the memory of Ada Clare./"
I have heard of you from Miss Cavendish. May I hope to hear of you next &mdash from yourself? Always truly yours, Wilkie Collins.
His place is with the great masters of English Fiction. He did not copy the surfaces of common life, calling the product "nature," and vaunting it as truth. He knew how to select and how to combine, and he possessed the great art of delicate exaggeration. In the telling of his stories he created characters, and he made them live. His employment of accessories — meaning scenery, whether civic or rural; climate; atmosphere; cloud; sunshine; rain; the sound of the sea, or the ripple of leaves in the wind; morning or evening, or midnight, — is exact in its fitness and unerring in its effect. In that respect, as in his devotion to romance, he followed in the footsteps of the chieftain of the whole inspired band, Sir Walter Scott, — whom he designated, in writing to me, "the prince, the King, the Emperor, the God Almighty of novelists." He was deeply interested in his own time, in the advancement [219/220] of civilization and the consequent promotion of public welfare. He spoke and wrote with satirical contempt of the obstructive worship of old things, — especially in Literature and Painting, mdash; merely because they are old. He cordially recognized and welcomed meritorious achievement in any and every line of contemporary endeavor, and quite as cordially he condemned contemporary pretence. He was the soul of honesty. He lived a good life: and he is remembered not only with honor but with love.
It happened that I was traveling from London to Paris when the death of Collins occurred, and I was unable to attend his funeral. A little later, aboard the steamship Aurania, in mid-ocean, October 10, 1889, I wrote the commemorative lines which follow.
Often and often, when the days were dark And, whether to remember or behold, Life was a burden, and my heart, grown old With sorrow, scarce was conscious, did I mark How from thy distant place across the sea, Vibrant with hope and with emoiiou free [220/221] Thy voice of cheer rose like the morning lark — And that was comfort if not joy to me! For in the weakness of our human grief The mind that does not break and will not bend Teaches endurance as the one true friend, The steadfast anchor and the sure relief. That was thy word, and what thy precept taught Thy life made regnant in one living thought.
Thy vision saw the halo of romance Round every common thing that men behold. Thy lucid art could turn to precious gold, — Like roseate motes that in the sunbeams dance, — Whatever object met thy kindling glance, And in that mirror life was never cold. A gracious warmth suffused thy sparkling page, And woman's passionate heart by thee was drawn, With all the glorious colors of the dawn, Against the background of this pagan age — Her need of love, her sacrifice, her trance Of patient pain, her weary pilgrimage! Thou knewest all of grief that can be known, And didst portray all sorrows but thine own.
Where shall I turn, now that thy lips are dumb And night is on the eyes that loved me well? What other voice, across thy dying knell, With like triumphant notes of power will come? [221/222] Alas! my ravaged heart is still and numb With thinking of the blank that must remain! Yet be it mine, amid these wastes of pain, Where all must falter and where many sink, To stay the foot of misery on the brink Of dark despair, to bid blind sorrow see — Teaching that human will breaks every chain When once endurance sets the spirit free; And, living thus thy perfect faith, to think I am to others what thou wert to' me.
Winter, William. "Wilkie Collins." Old Friends: Being Literary Recollections of Other Days. New York: Moffat, Yard, & Co., 1909. Pp. 203-219.
Last modified 30 November 2010