Articles

‘There is nothing either of Wilkie or Collins about it’: Naming and Signing in Wilkie Collins’s ‘Memoirs of the Life of William Collins’ and ‘Blind Love’

by Ryan Barnett

Wilkie Collins died, after a prolonged period of ill-health, on 23 September 1889. The beginning of the end was signalled after he suffered a “paralytic stroke” on 30 June of that year, from which he never fully recovered (Robinson 321). Two days before his death, Collins penned two short notes to Francis Carr Beard, his friend and physician, which are believed to be the last things he ever wrote (Robinson 322; Baker and Clarke 517). Collins was so debilitated by the effects of the stroke that the pencilled messages are, in the words of Catherine Peters, “faint and almost indecipherable” (431). The first note is written on business-like writing paper and is headed by his address and emblazoned with his insignia: the initials “W” and “C” intertwined with a quill pen resting in the middle. The note simply, but movingly, states in a faltering hand: “I am dying old friend”, and is signed with his initials “W. C” (Baker, Gasson, Law, and Lewis 382). The second message, erratically scribbled on a separate sheet of paper without punctuation, is unsigned, and adds in a more distressed tone: “They are driving me mad by forbidding the [hypodermic] [.] Come for God’s sake [.] I am too wretched to write [.]” (Baker, Gasson, Law, and Lewis 382, original emphasis).1

I will return to these two letters later on in this article which discusses the importance of naming and signing in Collins’s work. In particular, this article will focus upon the presence of Collins’s own name and signature in two texts that bookend his literary career: theMemoirs of the Life of William Collins, his 1848 biography of his father which was also his first major publication; and Blind Love, his final novel, serialised in The Illustrated London News between 6 July and 28 December 1889, which was completed after his death by Walter Besant, his friend and fellow-novelist.2 Separated by forty years, and belonging to entirely different genres, at first glance the Memoirs and Blind Love would appear to have little in common. However, the Memoirs and Blind Love parallel one another because of two important and concomitant factors.

Firstly, rather than simply bearing the sole authorial signature of “Wilkie Collins”, the Memoirs and Blind Love both assume a quasi-collaborative form. For instance, in the Memoirs, Collins combines his authorial signature with that of his father’s, William Collins’s; whilst, in Blind Love, Collins fuses his authorial signature with Walter Besant’s. The quasi-collaborative mode of both texts fundamentally alters our understanding of them and, what is more, is quite different from the other more conventional collaborations Collins undertook throughout his career, most notably with Dickens.

Secondly, the doubled authorial signature that is appended to these two texts bearing Collins’s name is haunted by a profound sense of mourning and memory, and of death and resurrection.3) In this respect, as I discuss in the conclusion to this article, the division of Collins’s authorial signature – between mourning/memory and death/resurrection – anticipates the work of Jacques Derrida who perceives a similar sense of duality in terms of the workings of proper names and signatures.

In “Aphorism Countertime”, Derrida states that one’s name (and, by association, one’s signature) is at once a “sentence of death and of survival” (427). Names and signatures are death sentences, Derrida argues, because they are infused with an air of pre-posthumous mourning; that is, they always already announce one’s death. As he puts it in The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond: “The name is made to do without the life of the bearer, and is therefore always somewhat the name of someone dead.” (39) Derrida regards one’s signature as equally haunted by the spectre of death. For example, in his eulogy for Michel Servière, entitled “As If There Were an Art of the Signature”, Derrida writes: “Before anything else, even before the name, a signature bespeaks the possible death of the one who bears the name” (136). For Derrida, then, to bear a proper name and to sign one’s name, means that one is always already in memory of one’s death.

However, Derrida points out, names and signatures offer far more than just a sentence of death. Indeed, they also provide a means of resurrection, enabling one to live on as a memory to be mourned. As Derrida explains in Memoires for Paul de Man, “death reveals the power of the name to the very extent that the name continues to name or to call what we call the bearer of the name”: “And since the possibility of this situation is revealed at death, we can infer that it does not wait for death […] In calling or naming someone while he is alive, we know that his name can survive him and already survives him” (49, original emphasis).

An important facet of Collins’s fiction is his interest in names and the act of naming. Indeed, one does not need to undertake particularly copious research into Collins’s canon to find evidence of the importance he attaches to names. For example, the plot to The Woman in White turns upon Walter Hartright’s unearthing of Sir Percival Glyde’s secret, namely his illegitimate birth, a discovery which means “that he was not Sir Percival Glyde at all” because, by law, his father’s name does not belong to him (521). Likewise, No Name is driven by the consequences of the Vanstone sisters being left ‘“legally speaking”’ with ‘“No Name”’, in the words of their governess Harriet Garth, after it emerges that their parents were unmarried at the time of their respective births (181). In Armadale, it is the repetition of the name “Allan Armadale” – a name passed on to the two central male characters by their respective fathers, who are themselves named after another “Allan Armadale” – which drives the narrative’s plot. Collins’s 1886 novella,The Guilty River, provides another instance of a name being passed on from one generation to another and, like Armadale, links the act of naming with death and inheritance, memory and mourning. For instance, the narrator introduces himself as “Gerard Roylake, son and only child of the late Gerard Roylake of Trimley Deen”: “At twenty-two years of age, my father’s death had placed me in possession of his large landed property.” (246)

For Collins, signatures are also haunted by death. This is most apparent in his 1858 short story “Fauntleroy”, which tells the story of the last man in England to be hanged for forgery – and, significantly, what Fauntleroy forges is a signature. Akin to “Fauntleroy”, the narrative action of Collins’s 1852 novel Basil springs from an act of forgery, and again leads to the forger’s execution. But even before this thread of the plot is unravelled, the connections which exist between names, death, and the act of memory is first suggested near the beginning of Basil, when the eponymous narrator explains his reasons for composing his fictional autobiography: “When these pages are found after my death, they will perhaps be calmly read and gently judged, as relics solemnized by the atoning shadows of the grave. Then […] the children of the next generation of our house may be taught to speak charitably of my memory” (1). In one sense, these remarks by Basil indicate that he regards his narrative as a means of vindicating his actions in the future. In another sense, however, it also figures “Basil” – both the character bearing that name, as well as the text itself, which is named after him – as always already in memory of him, of surviving his death before the event.

In Hide and Seek, published in 1854, Collins explores the inheritance of an illegitimate maternal name. On its original publication, the novel was subtitled “The Mystery of Mary Grice” and it is through the character of Mary Grice that Collins interweaves notions of death, naming, and memory. As the original subtitle to Hide and Seek implies, the character of Mary is of central importance to the novel. But because Mary’s death precedes the narrative’s chronology, with her sad tale of spurned love and an illegitimate child told in a series of reminiscences and retrospective accounts, she is figured as nothing other than a name and a memory in the text, and it is her absence and not her presence that is of significance and which drives the “mystery” forward. Absent from the text, in the sense of being an active protagonist in the story, all that survives of Mary in the text is her name; which, in its repeatability after her death, illustrates the structure of survival inherent in every name.

The repetition of Mary’s name occurs in a variety of forms in the narrative, the most obvious of which is when she is mentioned by other characters in the story or by the narrator. In addition, her initials of “M.G.” appear on “a cambric handkerchief” and “a small hair bracelet” which are found on her body after her death (86). Also, Mary’s brother, Mat Grice, whose initials repeat his sister’s, is handed a box of her possessions with the name “MARY GRICE” painted on it (212). However, by far the most noteworthy repetition of Mary’s name in Hide and Seek is offered by Mary’s illegitimate daughter, also named Mary. Significantly, the naming of the younger Mary occurs almost at the instant of her mother’s death. As Mary Grice draws near death, she hands over her infant child to the care of Mrs. Peckover and declares: ‘“Its name’s to be Mary.”’ (85) Soon after naming her child, Mary “lay dead on the living baby’s arm”, but by naming her daughter after her, Mary lives on (86). The “resurrection” of Mary in her daughter is articulated by Mat who, struck by the resemblance between his sister and his niece, exclaims that Mary, the younger, is ‘“Mary’s ghost”’ (333): “‘So like her [mother Mary], it was a’most as awful as seeing the dead come to life again. She had Mary’s turn with her head; Mary’s – poor creature! poor creature!”’ (253)

It is possible that Collins’s interest in the connections which exist between naming and signing and memory and death originated in the writing of his first published text, the Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A., a biography of his father. As I go on to discuss, the Memoirs anticipates important aspects of the fictional pieces Collins was to produce later on in his authorial career, not least his interest in the repeatability of names and their relationship to the acts of mourning and memory. Before discussing the Memoirs in any detail, however, it is worthwhile examining the proper name and authorial signature “Wilkie Collins”.

I

In her biography of Collins, Peters reveals one of her subject’s many idiosyncrasies, his insistence on being known only as “Wilkie”: “To anyone more than a mere acquaintance, man or woman, adult or child, he was always Wilkie. Not ‘Mr. Collins,’ not ‘Collins.’ What has become normal practice was then so unusual that the reminiscences of his friends make a point of it.” (2) Despite his preference for the name, “Wilkie” was in fact his middle name. Christened “William Wilkie Collins”, Collins was named after his father, a popular landscape painter and Royal Academician, who was himself named after his own father. Collins’s middle name of “Wilkie” was in homage to his father’s close friend and fellow Royal Academician, Sir David Wilkie, who was also Collins’s godfather. For Peters, Collins’s renunciation of his Christian name can be attributed to two factors: ‘“Wilkie’ was […] distinctive enough to bring him out from under the shadow of his famous father,” whilst allowing him to “avoid the anonymity of being one of the hundreds of William Collinses” (21).

To a certain extent, Peters is right in her judgement that, in order “to bring him out from under the shadow of his famous father”, Collins, by necessity, had to forge an original authorial signature. Even this, however, was not enough for Collins’s fiction to escape from the inevitable comparisons with his father’s work. For example, in an 1855 critical essay, significantly entitled “William Wilkie Collins”, Émile Forgues draws comparisons between Collins’s novels and his father’s art work. But, Peters explains, Forgues is not merely content to make a passing reference to Collins’s father in his study:

Forgues began his essay with a comparison of the art of William Collins with that of David Wilkie, pointing out that where Wilkie’s figures were at the heart of his pictures, for Collins they were adjuncts to a landscape. With this deliberate reference to Wilkie Collins’ antecedents, he prepared the ground for an assessment of his writing, its potential and its shortcomings. (156)

While Forgues’ essay is an important early critique of Collins’s work, it is far from clear, from an expositional point of view, why Forgues should begin an essay on Collins’s novels with a discussion of his father’s paintings; or, indeed, his godfather’s. In his essay, Forgues writes: “[William] Collins et [David] Wilkie, ces deux noms sont inséparables.” (815) Clearly, for Forgues, seven years after the publication of the Memoirs, Collins’s authorial identity is equally “inséparable” from his father’s – and godfather’s – name(s).

In fact, the doubling of Collins’s authorial identity with William Collins’s artistic signature was a common trait in the early criticism of his work. This is especially apparent in terms of Basil, where critics were shocked that the son of a respected painter could produce a story which, in their opinion, lacked any decency. Unlike the Memoirs which, as Nicholas Rance explains, was “strenuously moralistic”, what upset contemporary critics the most was the novel’s perceived amoral stance (29).

Condemning Basil as a “tale of criminality, almost revolting from its domestic horrors”, D. O. Maddyn, in his 4 December 1852 Athenaeum review, reproaches Collins’s want of taste in a direct comparison with his father: “Mr. Collins, as the son of an eminent painter, should know that the proper office of Art is to elevate and purify in pleasing.” (Page 48) And, although the unsigned critique of Basil which appeared in the Westminster Review in October 1853 does not mention Collins’s father by name, he is evoked implicitly in the following admonitory passage:

There are some subjects on which it is not possible to dwell without offence; and Mr. Collins having first chosen one which could neither please nor elevate, has rather increased the displeasure it excites, by his resolution to spare us no revolting details […] [W]e cannot […] close our animadversions on his last production without begging his attention to the great aims of fiction, as an art. It matters not much whether the artist hold the pencil or the pen, the same great rules apply to both […] He may take a higher moral ground, and move to compassion by showing undeserved suffering […] He may also paint scenes of cruelty and sensuality so gross that his picture will be turned to the wall by those who do not choose to have their imagination defiled. (Page 52-53)

Even in more sympathetic reviews, such as the double review of Basil and Thackeray’s Henry Esmond, which appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany in November 1852, Collins cannot escape the shadow of his father:

There is the same difference between them as between a picture by Hogarth and a picture by Fuseli. We had well nigh named in the place of the former one of the great painters, whose names are borne by the author of Basil. But in truth the writer of that work ought to have been called Salvator Fuseli. There is nothing either of Wilkie or Collins about it. (Page 45)

For the reviewers from the Athenaeum and Bentleys Miscellany, it appears that whilst Collins may be named after the illustrious painters William Collins and Sir David Wilkie, his authorial signature is not a continuation of theirs. In terms of the contemporary critics of Basil it is as if Collins’s novel, and by extension his embryonic authorial signature, can only be understood negatively, in terms of how it differs from the paintings bearing William Collins’s and Sir David Wilkie’s signatures. Yet, while the disparity between the works of Collins and his father is clearly demarcated by critics, Collins still cannot escape the legacy and the memory of his father’s name.

At one point in Basil, the eponymous narrator says to his father: ‘“You may be able to forget that you are my father; I can never forget that I am your son.”’ (205) This is equally true of Collins’s relation to his own father. As the contemporary criticism of Basil indicates, at the beginning of his career, Collins could not “forget” that he was William Collins’s son because reviewers took evident relish in comparing him to his father at every opportunity. Continually placed alongside his father’s name and artistic signature, and even his godfather’s, Collins’s embryonic authorial signature is deemed as not being fully in his possession, as at once belonging and not belonging to him. Such a view of Collins’s work and authorial signature is perhaps best summed up by the reviewer from Bentleys Miscellany: “There is nothing either of Wilkie or Collins about it.”

It is not just the reviewers of Collins’s novels who highlight the contrast between Collins’s work and that of William Collins, however. Although there is no instance on record of Collins explicitly stating that his fiction is a reaction to William Collins’s work, his own conception of art differed greatly from that of his father’s.4) At the close of the Memoirs, Collins says of his father’s paintings: “Throughout the whole series of his works, they could look on none that would cause them a thrill of horror, or a thought of shame.” (2: 312) This sentence is significant because it is in contradistinction to what would be said of Collins’s own “series” of works, from Basil onwards; not only from outraged critics, but also from Collins himself.

Tamar Heller explains that Collins’s “melodramatic Gothicism […] would have shocked [his] father”; Collins, no doubt, was aware of this fact (38). In helping to shape the genre of sensation fiction, Collins, unlike his father, appears to relish causing “thrills of horror” and “thoughts of shame” and has nothing but contempt for what he sees as “the Clap-trap morality of the present day”, as he puts it in the foreword to Armadale (5). Indeed, it was Collins’s abhorrence of “the whining cant and the petty restrictions of a false Puritanism” that led Forgues to praise Collins so highly amongst contemporary English novelists (Page 64). As Collins proudly declares, in “Reminiscences of a Story-teller” (1888), throughout his forty year literary career his work has been “stuff concealed from pa, stuff which raised the famous Blush, stuff registered on the expurgatory Index of the national cant” (191).

However, as Lillian Nayder argues in Wilkie Collins, while there is a sense in which Collins deliberately constructs his authorial identity in contrast to his father’s work, it is important not to overstate this: “Wilkie’s relationship to his father is not quite as oppositional as he might have us believe. Rather than wholly rejecting his father’s artistic and political legacy, he learned from it, reworking the artistic strategies and values of William Collins to suit his own ends.” (5) Certainly, at the beginning of his authorial career, Collins neither distanced himself from the name nor the memory of “William Collins”. When two of the earliest extant stories bearing Collins’s name appeared in the early-1840s (Volpurno – or the student and The Last Stage Coachmen) he employed the authorial signature of “W. Wilkie Collins”.

“W. Wilkie Collins” was also the authorial signature that Collins employed when writing the Memoirs. The fact that Collins retains the initial “W” as part of his authorial signature, especially in terms of the Memoirs, indicates hesitancy on his part to dissociate himself from the memory of his father’s name, which is also his own. If, as Peters believes, Collins’s use of the name “Wilkie” brought him “out from under the shadow of his famous father”, the very act of writing the biography of his father, and doing so both within and alongside his father’s name, would appear to place him directly back there. In fact, at the beginning of the Memoirs, rather than disavowing the name “William Collins”, Collins frequently returns to it. For instance, Collins first explains that his father’s family “descended from the same stock as the great poet whose name they bore”, before going on to mention how a branch of his father’s ancestors “emigrated to sic Ireland, and fought on the side of King William, at the Battle of the Boyne” (1: 4). Following this, Collins talks at length about his paternal grandfather who, as mentioned above, was also called “William Collins”.

In the Memoirs Collins also provides an anecdote centred upon the repetition, or mis-repetition, of his father’s name. When travelling in Italy, Collins explains, his father employed a particularly eager domestic servant, named Beppo, who had apparently once cooked for Lord Byron. According to Collins, Beppo, in deference to his father’s status as an English gentleman, insisted on writing William Collins’s name above the door of the house he was renting: “Having served other Englishmen, besides Lord Byron, […] this Beppo had picked up some ideas of manners and customs in England; one of which was, that all English gentlemen had their names written over their house doors.” (2: 149) Unfortunately, Collins relates, Beppo had evidently misheard his master’s name. The result being that on returning to his house after a painting expedition: “Mr. Collins, to his astonishment, found two or three idlers gazing up at a black board […] hung over the entrance, and bearing in large white letters, this impressively simple inscription, – ‘Wimichim Collins.”’ (2: 149)

Furthermore, it was the “shadow” of his father, in the sense of his death, which prompted Collins to write the biography in the first place. Unable to find a publisher for his first completed novel, Iolani; Or Tahiti as it was, written between 1844 and 1845, Collins started work on what would become his first published novel, AntoninaOr the Fall of Rome. During the course of writing Antonina, in February 1847, Collins’s father died after a long illness. After the death of his father, Collins interrupted his work on Antonina and began writing his father’s biography. As Peters observes, however, whilst the act of writing the Memoirswas undoubtedly “an act of filial duty” – Collins even prefacing his authorial signature of “W. Wilkie Collins” with the phrase “By his son” – it was also a shrewd career move by Collins, “a respectable enterprise which might prepare the way for an unknown novelist” (76).

Using his father’s name, which was also his own, as a means of establishing himself as an author, the Memoirs becomes more than just a biography of his father; it also represents the first attempt by Collins to fashion his authorial identity. As Heller notes: “What is striking about the Memoirs is the way they reflect Collins’s desire to construct a masculine artistic identity empowered by the father’s example.” (41) However, Heller adds, the male authority which Collins uses as a means by which to establish his own “masculine artistic identity” is itself impotent: “The son can thus have a character only by writing about his father, yet the patriarchal character is history, the dead who perhaps can no longer be resurrected. The nostalgia for the father’s character is the more marked because that character is associated with aesthetic form and artistic success.” (47) What Heller fails to acknowledge, however, are the ways in which Collins “resurrects” his father within the very pages of the Memoirs by writing within his father’s artistic signature. In doing so, Collins’s authorial signature takes on a hybrid form, making it impossible to distinguish the one from the other, the father from the son.

The double authorial signature appended to the Memoirs is especially evident in one of the characteristic features of the text, Collins’s lengthy and detailed descriptions of his father’s paintings, which, as Heller comments, combine the father’s and the son’s artistic signatures: “The Memoirs in fact define the son’s art as literally a translation of the father’s; Collins’ word pictures transform his father’s paintings into his own medium and anticipate […] the landscape descriptions in his novels.”5 (41) The double authorial signature attached to the Memoirs is also indicated within the text itself. For example, the bulk of the biography is taken up with William Collins’s private correspondence and a journal that he wrote intermittently.

In the biography, Collins provides the following extract from his father’s journal of 1844: “As I think it quite possible that my dear son, William Wilkie Collins, may be tempted […] to furnish the world with a memoir of my life, I purpose occasionally noting down some circumstances or leading points, which may be useful.” (2: 247) As this journal entry illustrates, rather than merely a biography of his father, the Memoirs is a collaborative act – part biography and part autobiography – in which father and son countersign the other’s authorial signature. The very fact that Collins uses his father’s journal and correspondence means that rather than merely being a biography of William Collins, authored by his son, the Memoirs instead assumes the form of collaboration. In essence, the signature attached to the Memoirs is at once single and double, meaning that, like the name “William Collins”, the text belongs to both father and son and also to neither father nor son. In addition, Collins’s act of publishing his father’s journal entries alongside his own commentary in the Memoirs performs precisely the act of resurrection that Heller thought unachievable. That is, by doubling his signature with that of his father’s, Collins metaphorically raises the dead, enabling his father to live on as a memory within the pages of theMemoirs.

For Forgues, Collins’s biography of his father is “consacré à la mémoire de son père” (817) Both a “mémoire” and a “memoir”, the text, written in the wake of William Collins’s death, emerges as a work of mourning which resurrects Collins’s father’s artistic signature – and by association his name and memory – through the birth of Collins’s own authorial signature. The Memoirs has since been consigned to relative obscurity within Collins’s canon and, if he had written nothing other than the Memoirs, it is unlikely that his own name would still be remembered today, let alone held in such high regard amongst other Victorian writers. Yet, in this formative text, it is possible to trace one of the first instances of Collins’s awareness of the force of memory and mourning inherent in names and signatures.

II

Whereas Collins’s father’s name and signature belonged to the past where it could be negotiated and worked through on his own terms, by associating himself with Dickens – as a contributor to Dickens’s journals Household Words and All the Year Round, as well as in the series of collaborations they undertook together in the 1850s – Collins risked losing control over his authorial signature. As editor of Household Words, between 1850 and 1859, and All the Year Round, from 1859 to 1870, Dickens employed a strict policy of anonymity regarding contributors. On 31 January 1850, Dickens explains this practice to Elizabeth Gaskell: “No writer’s name will be used – neither my own, nor any others – every paper will be published without any signature” (Storey, Tillotson, and Burgis 22).

What Dickens elides in his letter to Gaskell, however, is that although every article and story in Household Words “will be published without any signature” each weekly edition of his journal bore the legend: “Conducted by Charles Dickens”. Therefore, whilst individual articles in Household Words and All the Year Round appeared anonymously, they were enclosed by Dickens’s name and signature. Understandably, Collins objected to his work being published anonymously, and it was for this reason that he was initially reluctant, in the mid-1850s, to join the staff of Household Words: “Collins was afraid that he would be submerging his distinct identity as a writer in the journal’s collective personality in which all articles appeared unsigned under Dickens’s editorship.” (Trodd 29) As Nayder notes, in Unequal PartnersCharles DickensWilkie Collinsand Victorian Authorship, Collins had good reason to be wary of Dickens’s one-sided editorial practice: “When Collins’s ‘Sister Rose,’ serialised in Household Words in April 1855, was reprinted by Peterson in Philadelphia later that year, it was published as a work ‘by Charles Dickens.”’ (20)

Collins’s unease when publishing his articles and stories in Dickens’s journals is also evident when he fell seriously ill in the midst of writing No Name in 1862, which was at that time being serialised in All the Year Round. After learning of Collins’s illness, Dickens, in France at the time, immediately volunteered his services:

Write to me at Paris, at any moment, and say you are unequal to your work, and want me, and I will come to London straight, and do your work. I am quite confident that, with your notes and a few words of explanation, I could take it up at any time and do it. Absurdly unnecessary to say that it would be a make-shift! but I could do it, at a pinch, so like you as that no one should find out the difference. (Storey 142)

Collins politely declined Dickens’s generous, if slightly unflattering, offer. Instead, Collins’s doctor Francis Carr Beard became an impromptu amanuensis at his request; a fact which still makes the text a collaboration of sorts, but one in which Collins remains dominant. Dickens’s letter to Collins can either be read as a friend offering a helping hand, or the unease of an editor worried that the main feature of his journal will run behind schedule, or both combined. Whatever lay behind Dickens’s motivation in offering his services to Collins, considering Collins’s anxiety surrounding Dickens’s influence upon his work, it is unsurprising that he should reject the offer. By necessity, Collins had to maintain “the difference” between his and Dickens’s signature. However, as I will now discuss, near the end of his life, Collins had no such qualms about another author completing his work when he became too unwell to continue writing what would become his last novel, Blind Love, which was due to commence serialisation in The Illustrated London News on 6 July 1889.

Foreseeing that he would not live to finish Blind Love, Collins, after suffering the stroke mentioned at the beginning of this article, had asked the popular novelist Walter Besant to finish the novel in his place. Besant was not keen to undertake the task, but, as he explains in his 1890 preface to Blind Love, which supplemented the novel on its publication in three volumes by Chatto and Windus, “it was impossible to decline this request” (Besant 57-58). Besant and Collins shared a literary agent, A. P. Watt, and it was through Watt that Collins first enquired if Besant would complete Blind Love in his stead. Besant was not the only author who was considered a viable candidate to finish the novel, however. According to Peters, Collins had “thought about asking Hall Caine [the popular late-nineteenth century novelist and playwright] to finish the book for him, but decided that he was not up to the job” (429). Why Collins asked Besant to finish the novel – as opposed to another author – is unclear. For Peters, Collins determined on Besant because his “ideas on fiction were so close to his own and [he] had taken up so vigorously the defence of the rights of authors” (430).

However, while the two men were known to each other through the “Society of Authors” – an association founded by Besant and which Collins served in the capacity of Vice-President – they were not close. This is evident in terms of the negotiations concerning Besant’s involvement in Blind Love, which were conducted through Watt and not directly between Collins and Besant themselves. For example, in a letter to Watt, dated 26 August 1889, Collins writes: “Pray tell Walter Besant that his ready and valued help has been offered to a grateful brother in the Art” (Baker, Gasson, Law, and Lewis 381). In fact, no correspondence between the two authors has survived, if it ever existed. One possible reason for Besant’s involvement in Blind Love may have been his familiarity with collaborative fiction. In the 1870s, in particular, Besant had co-authored a number of texts with James Rice, such as ReadyMoney Mortiboy(1875), This Son of Vulcan (1876), and The Monks of Thelema (1878). Besant was by no means an advocate of collaborative fiction, however. In his autobiography, which makes no mention of his involvement in helping Collins to finish Blind Love, Besant states: “if I were asked for my opinion as to collaboration in fiction, it would be zecidedly against it […] after all, an artist must necessarily stand alone” (188-89).

The Illustrated London News, as Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox note, remained silent upon Besant’s role in finishing the novel: “although it [The Illustrated London News] carried an obituary for Wilkie Collins, [it] did not at any point in the novel’s run publish an announcement indicating that the deceased author had been unable to complete his book” (47). One can only speculate about the reasons why The Illustrated London News remained silent on the subject of Besant’s involvement in Blind Love, but it is likely that, as Bachman and Cox point out, “the editors felt that readership might fall off if readers felt they were not getting the genuine Wilkie Collins in their weekly installments” (47). Shortly after Collins’s death, however, rumours had been circulating concerning Besant’s role in completing Blind Love. To set the matter straight Besant issued a preface when the 1890 three-volume Chatto and Windus edition of Blind Love was published, which clarified the extent of his contribution.6)

Besant’s preface is notable for the ways in which it downplays his substantial contribution to Blind Love. In fact, in the preface, Besant is adamant that the novel still bears Collins’s sole authorial signature. For example, Besant insists that the portions of Blind Love which he produced relied heavily upon the copious notes that Collins had left him. Besant explains that he was amazed by the detailed notes that Collins had left for him: “these were not merely notes such as I had expected […] but an actual detailed scenario, in which every incident, however trivial, was carefully laid down” (57). Such was the extent and depth of Collins’s notes that Besant claimed that the portions of the text which he worked on were not, by any means, a departure from Collins’s original intention. In the preface, Besant states, “I have altered nothing”:

The plot of the novel, every scene, every situation, from beginning to end, is the work of Wilkie Collins. The actual writing is entirely his up to a certain point: from that point to the end it is his in fragments, but mainly mine. Where his writing ends and mine begins, I need not point out. The practised critic will, no doubt, at once lay his finger on the spot.7 (57-8)

To a certain extent, Besant had a point. When he took control of Blind Love, from early-August 1889 onwards, Collins had written roughly half of the allotted twenty-six instalments in advance, and it was not until Chapter 49, which appeared in the novel’s nineteenth weekly instalment, on 9 November, that Besant took over the narrative-reins in the sense of contributing new material. Nevertheless, Besant’s contribution to the novel should not be underestimated. Indeed, such is his role in helping to complete Blind Love, the text has never been seen as fully belonging to Collins, as fully bearing his authorial signature. For example, Bachman and Cox consider the novel “a joint effort by two different authors” (34), while Robert Ashley, one of the foremost critics on Collins, regards the novel as being “only partly Collins’s work” (124). In terms of Blind Love, life begins imitating art. Like the mysterious letter in the novel that is “written in a feigned hand, without a signature”, Besant’s involvement in finishing the novel, in which he imitates Collins’s style, has cast a shadow of doubt over who the text belongs to (94).

Before Collins became too unwell to continue writing Blind Love, he had written his own preface to the novel. This preface, which Collins entitled “Author’s Statement”, was first reprinted in the recentBroadview edition of the novel, and is signed with his initials “W. C.” – “W. C.” being the signature that Collins used to sign the majority of his prefaces from 1870 onwards (62). However, after Collins’s death and amidst rumours of Besant’s involvement in Blind Love, Collins’s “Author’s Statement” was replaced by Besant’s preface, which he ended by signing with his name: “WALTER BESANT.” (58) Besant’s preface is clearly meant to reinforce Collins’s position as the originator of the text, but because it supplants Collins’s unpublished “Author’s Statement”, Besant’s prefatory countersignature of “WALTER BESANT” instead erases Collins’s authorial signature of “W. C.”. But, unlike the story of Blind Love, in which Lord Harry Norland attempts to swap identities with a dead man named Oxbye, Besant is not simply substituting his signature for Collins’s. Rather, it is a hybrid signature, belonging to both Collins and Besant and neither Collins nor Besant, which is inscribed within and without the text.

Although Collins’s prefatory signature of “W. C.” disappears from its intended place in the text it resurfaces within the narrative of Blind Love. What is especially interesting about this repetition of Collins’s signature, buried within the pages of the novel, is that it appears in the portion of the text that Besant wrote from Collins’s notes. In fact, by the time the instalment featuring Collins’s “hidden” signature was serialised, Collins had been dead for over two months. Collins’s “signature” reappears in Blind Loveincorporated into an advertisement that Lady Harry’s maid, Fanny Mere, writes in order to get in touch with her mistress: “Fanny M. L­––––––– H–––––––. I have not been able to ascertain your address. Please write to me, at the Post Office, Hunter Street, London, W. C.” (344)

In terms of the advertisement, “W. C.” stands for “West Central”. Unmistakably, however, the letters “W” and “C” also stand for the name “Wilkie Collins” (as well as replicating the signature Collins employs in the expunged “Author’s Statement” to Blind Love). As already mentioned, the initials “W.C.” appear in Besant’s portion of the text. Unlike the preface to Blind Love, then, where Besant’s signature displaces Collins’s, this time Besant signs for Collins and in his name; within a text that bears the name and signature of both authors. By signing Collins’s name within the text, Besant mirrors the way in which he unites his own authorial signature with Collins’s in completing Blind Love; creating a dual authorial signature like that appended to the Memoirs. Just as Blind Love can be seen as not fully belonging to Collins’s corpus of work – as not fully bearing Collins’s authorial signature – because of Besant’s involvement in finishing it, Collins’s signature in the text, signed by Besant, at once belongs and does not belong to him.8

In addition to the fact that the Memoirs and Blind Love are both inscribed with a dual authorial signature, it is possible to see further connections between the two texts if we consider Derrida’s belief that names and signatures are at once death sentences and acts of survival. Indeed, the incorporation of Collins’s initials into the narrative of Blind Love after his death – initials which both name and do not name Collins and which are at once his signature and not his signature – also means that, like the Memoirs, his last novel becomes a work of memory and mourning centring upon a name and an authorial signature. Like his father’s name and signature, which is remembered and mourned in the Memoirs, the posthumous insertion of Collins’s initials, in the narrative of Blind Love, enables his own name and signature to live on within a text which his death prevented him from completing, and fully inscribing with his authorial signature.

A careful reading of Derrida’s work would lead us to conclude that it is of little consequence whether it was Collins or Besant who included the initials “W.C.” as part of the address – although, one suspects, it was Collins – because it does not alter the ways in which Collins’s “signature” enables him to live on after his death, as a memory to be mourned. For Derrida, Collins’s death is not even essential for these acts of mourning and memory, centring upon his name and signature, to take place. Rather, Derrida’s work would appear to point out that the fact of Collins’s death in this context is an irrelevance because his name and signature – like everyone’s – always already anticipates and yet survives his death. From the very beginning, names and signatures are memories that, by necessity, are at once mourned and resurrected.

The ways in which Collins’s signature is at once inscribed and effaced from Blind Love mirrors, by a strange coincidence, the two notes – one signed, one unsigned – which Collins writes to Francis Carr Beard shortly before his death, which were mentioned in the introduction to this article. It will also be noted that the insertion of “W.C” into the narrative of Blind Love not only repeats Collins’s “missing” prefatory signature to the novel, the excised “Author’s Statement”, but also the signature he uses in one of the letters to Beard. In terms of the signed letter to Beard one is able to observe a literalised version of Derrida’s claim that names and signatures are inseparable from acts of memory and mourning. What is at stake in the signed note in which Collins states “I am dying old friend” – namely, his impending death – is precisely what is at stake every time he has written something and appended his name or his signature to it. However, as Derrida’s – and Collins’s – work attests, in addition to being a harbinger of death, one’s name and signature also offers a means of survival, the promise of a future resurrection.

I would like to thank Heidi McIntosh for her help in preparing this article for publication.

Works Cited

Ashley, Robert. Wilkie Collins. 1952. New York: Haskell House, 1976.

Bachman, Maria K. and Don Richard Cox. Introduction. Blind Love. By Wilkie Collins. Ed. Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox. Ontario:
Broadview Press, 2004. 9-47.

Baker, William and William M. Clarke, ed. The Letters of Wilkie Collins. Vol. 2. Houndmills, Basingstoke: MacMillan Press, 1999.

Baker, William, Andrew Gasson, Graham Law, and Paul Lewis, ed. The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters. Vol. 4. London:
Pickering and Chatto, 2005.

Besant, Walter. Autobiography of Sir Walter Besant. London: Hutchinson and Co., 1902.

———. Preface. Blind Love. By Wilkie Collins. Ed. Maria K. Bachman and Don Richard Cox. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004. 57-58.

Clarke, William. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. 1988. Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2004.

Collins, Wilkie. Armadale. Ed. John Sutherland. London: Penguin, 1995.

———. Basil. 1990. Ed. Dorothy Goldman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

———. Blind Love. Ed. Maria K. and Don Richard Cox Bachman. Ontario: Broadview Press, 2004.

———. Hide and Seek. 1993. Ed. Catherine Peters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

———. Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, Esq., R.A.: With Selections From His Journals and Correspondence. 2 vols. Wakefield: E. P.
Publishing, 1978.

———. Miss or Mrs? – The Haunted Hotel – The Guilty River. Ed. Norman Page and Toru Sasaki. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

———. No Name. 1986. Ed. Virginia Blain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

———. “Reminiscences of a Story-teller.” Universal Review 1 (May-Aug 1888): 182-92.

———. The Woman in White. 1996. Ed. John Sutherland. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Derrida, Jacques. “Aphorism Countertime.” Trans. Nicholas Royle. Acts of Literature. Ed. Derek Attridge. London: Routledge, 1992. 414-33.

———. “As If There Were an Art of the Signature.” Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas. The Work of Mourning. Ed. Pascale-Anne
Brault and Michael Naas. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001. 135-37.

———. Memoires for Paul de Man. Trans. Cecile Lindsay, Jonathan Culler and Eduardo Cadava. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

———. The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1987.

Forgues, Émile. “William Wilkie Collins.” Revue des deux mondes 12 (15 Nov 1855): 815- 48.

Heller, Tamar. Dead Secrets: Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992.

Nadel, Ira. B. “Wilkie Collins and His Illustrators.” Wilkie Collins to the Forefront: Some Reassessments. Ed. Nelson Smith and R. C.
Terry. New York: AMS Press, 1995. 149- 164.

Nayder, Lillian. Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship. Ithaca: Cornell
University Press, 2002.

———. Wilkie Collins. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1997.

Page, Norman, ed. Wilkie Collins: The Critical Heritage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1974.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. London: Secker and Warburg, 1991.

Rance, Nicholas. Wilkie Collins and Other Sensation Novelists: Walking the Moral Hospital. Rutherford: Fairleigh Dickinson University
Press, 1991.

Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins: A Biography. London: The Bodley Head, 1951.

Trodd, Anthea. “The Early Writing.” The Cambridge Companion to Wilkie Collins. Ed. Jenny Bourne Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2006. 23-36.

Storey, Graham, ed. The Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 10. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Storey, Graham, Kathleen Tillotson, and Nina Burgis, ed. The Pilgrim Edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens. Vol. 6. Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1988.


References

  1. To this day, whatever the nurse is “forbidding” Collins has remained a mystery: “The first letter of this word is clearly ‘h’, the second probably ‘y’. The remainder is indecipherable. Wilkie had been taking hypophosphates. ‘Hypodermic’ is another possibility, or the powerful sedative hyoscine.” (Peters 431) In Baker and Clarke’s edition of Collins’s letters, the wording of this second note is slightly altered and the sentences are arranged in a different order (Baker and Clarke 567). []
  2. A tale concerning murder, attempted suicide, and a fraud involving a substitution plot, the narrative ofBlind Love is in many ways reminiscent of Collins’s better-known sensation novels. The eponymous “blind love” relates to Iris Henley’s misguided devotion to Lord Harry Norland, an infatuation which greatly upsets her father who wishes her to marry the more reliable Hugh Mountjoy. While the novel has been overlooked by readers and critics alike in favour of Collins’s sensation fiction – a fate it shares with most of Collins’s so-called “later novels” – it offers an intriguing juxtaposition of contemporary issues (such as the question of Irish Home Rule) and a fictional retelling of a recent and fairly high-profile crime, the Von Scheurer insurance fraud case. []
  3. The figure of the double and the notion of doubling have long been associated with Collins’s oeuvre. As Catherine Peters points out, there are “many” examples of “the double in Wilkie Collins’s life and work”: “All his life, Wilkie Collins was haunted by a second self.” (1 []
  4. It was not only in terms of their respective conception of art that Collins and his father differed. InThe Secret Life of Wilkie Collins, William Clarke explains: “Politics had hardly raised much interest except perhaps through his father’s stern Toryism, which at hardly any period of his life fitted [Wilkie’s] temperament.” (28) Clarke then goes on to reproduce an excerpt from a letter Collins wrote to his friend William Winter, dated 30 July 1887, which further emphasises the differences between father and son. In the letter, Collins recalls his father’s opposition to the 1832 “Reform Bill”, which, Collins reveals, was in stark contrast to his own boyish delight (Collins was eight at the time) at witnessing “the tramp of people” marching in favour of it: “I ran out to see the fun, and when the Sovereign people cheered for the Reform Bill I cheered too.” (29 []
  5. In a similar vein to Heller, Ira B. Nadel writes: “In the biography of his father, the pictorial elements that later distinguished Collins’s writings appear in the detailed descriptions of William Collins’s writings” (153). []
  6.  in a letter dated 2 October 1889, Besant appealed to Andrew Chatto, of Chatto and Windus, to allow him to explain his role in terms of completing Blind Love: “I want to write a preface stating my share in the book. I hoped to keep this a secret but I saw it stated in the World [a contemporary journal] yesterday that I had finished it and in justice to Wilkie Collins and myself too I should like to give the real facts of the case.” (Baker, Gasson, Law, and Lewis 391 []
  7. Despite Besant’s assurances, as Peters points out, “Besant did alter the final sentence of the novel. Wilkie’s manuscript reads, ‘Blind love to the last! How like a woman!’ The Published version has, ‘Blind Love doth never wholly die.’” (Peters, 430) []
  8. The Memoirs includes a letter in which William Collins informs his mother: “Mr. Collard […] has enabled me to look smart, by lending me a cravat, marked, too, with his initials, W. C.”’ (1: 94) The citation of the letters “W. C.” in William Collins’s letter, which at once represents William Collins’s and Mr. Collard’s initials, points to the fact that, like a borrowed item of clothing, he, like his son, is neither in full possession of his name nor his signature. []

‘There is nothing either of Wilkie or Collins about it’: Naming and Signing in Wilkie Collins’s ‘Memoirs of the Life of William Collins’ and ‘Blind Love’ by Ryan Barnett
The Wilkie Collins Journal 11 (2012)

[ back to top | more articles ]

Print pagePDF pageEmail page
Share or save this page