A Lost Autobiographical Sketch

Hidden away in the dauntingly extensive Richard Gimbel Charles Dickens Collection at the Beinecke Library, Yale University, is a Dickensian treasure trove of manuscripts, letters and rare editions, collected by Colonel Richard Gimbel (1898-1970) over forty-five years. Although less frequented for its Wilkie Collins manuscripts than the Morris L. Parrish Collection of Victorian Novelists at Princeton University Libraries is, there is much in this collection to entice those interested in Collins: the manuscript of the collaborative novella ‘The Perils of Certain English Prisoners’ (1857), with chapters from both Dickens and Collins, for example, bound in green morocco leather as a gift from the older man to his friend and collaborator; a smattering of letters; and a ‘lost’ autobiographical sketch. I stumbled on this ‘lost’ sketch last Spring in the course of my own research into Dickens’s biographical legacy, and after making a note of its contents spent several months pondering its significance. I am grateful to the Wilkie Collins Society for helping me to clarify what the manuscript is, and it is through them that I have discovered that it has been presumed lost until now.

The autobiographical sketch in question was dictated by Collins and sent to George Makepeace Towle (1841-1893) to serve as the basis for an article on the author in Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art (3 September 1870). Towle was an American journalist with whom Collins corresponded, and who had visited him in London in 1868.1 Like Gimbel, Towle was a Yale man, graduating in 1861, and going on to contribute to Dickens’s periodical All The Year Round. He also worked for the Boston Post from 1871-1876. Gimbel, who bequeathed his collection of materials and items relating to Charles Dickens to Yale University, was an avid collector and curator. He is perhaps better known in antiquarian circles for his interest in American literature, particularly Edgar Allan Poe and Thomas Paine: he lived in Edgar Allan Poe’s Philadelphia house for a time, turning it into a museum that would later be given over to Philadelphia, and setting up a foundation for literary research there.2 Bridging his love for both Poe and Dickens, Gimbel was the one who purchased Dickens’s stuffed raven, Grip, and eventually left it, along with his Poe collection, to the Free Library of Philadelphia where it now resides. Gimbel’s collecting was not restricted to nineteenth-century interests, or even literary ones: he also built up an impressive aeronautical history collection of more than six thousand books and three thousand images, and was named Curator of Aeronautical Literature in the Yale University Library. The collection of Dickensiana he gifted to Yale was described by John B. Podeschi, who catalogued the collection, as ‘probably the largest accumulation anywhere of Dickensian material’ (ix). Certainly it took many years to catalogue the full collection: the process was begun in 1971, and the final catalogue published in 1980. Gimbel collected Dickens-related materials including first editions, letters and manuscripts from 1925 onwards. Podeschi’s catalogue provides some background to the collection, but there is no clear indication of how the autobiographical sketch came into Gimbel’s hands.

The sketch is here described as ‘lost’ because no biography, study or article seems to have been aware that it is there. It has been ‘lost’ insomuch as it found its way into private hands on an unknown date, and it was only ten years after Gimbel’s death that a catalogue of the full collection was published. This catalogue is unfortunately not available online. Even if a researcher is able to lay hands on the catalogue, the sketch is somewhat vaguely listed as:

An autograph manuscript of 3 pages, on 3 leaves, being an autobiographical sketch of Collins. In the bibliography that closes this piece (which goes up to 1870), Collins writes that the play No Thoroughfare was “written in collaboration with Dickens and Fechter.” (478)

Podeschi may not have been aware that this sketch had been given up as lost. Due to the collection being focused on Dickens rather than Collins, it is unsurprising that it has remained largely unnoticed. It is one short entry in a long list of items, and as such the manuscript has to be read to be recognised for what it is. William Clarke, who visited the Beinecke as part of his research for The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (1988), makes use of Towle’s article for which the sketch was furnished, but notes ‘The article is clearly based on an interview with Collins’ (note to page 46). Even considering the manuscript lost, the mention of an interview does not tally with a letter to Towle in which Collins speaks of an enclosed ‘Memoir’ (21 May 1870).3  A comparison of the article and the manuscript shows that this is indisputably the ‘lost’ Memoir that Collins dictated, and that it has very nearly been ‘discovered’ by several biographers over the last three decades.

Unlike Dickens, whose troubled childhood and time spent working in Warren’s Blacking Factory were not known until John Forster’s seminal Life of Charles Dickens (1872) revealed them after his death, Collins did not feel the need to conceal the conditions of his early years and education. The challenge for Collins biographers has generally been uncovering his private life later on in his career and the women in it.4 The author had provided biographical accounts to more than one journalist when requested: one such sketch was written for Baron Alfred-Auguste Ernouf on 1 March 1862 for his series on English novelists in La Révue Contemporaine (28 August 1862). Graham Law and Andrew Maunder’s Wilkie Collins: A Literary Life (2008) opens by introducing a brief passage from this ‘little autobiography’ about his childhood. They write,

Contemporary sources both public and private confirm that, as far as the facts are concerned, this represents a more or less reliable account of the education of the author. (2)

The ‘little autobiography’ is a strikingly sparse account and is characteristic of Collins’s other descriptions of his early life. He touches on his early formal education in one sentence (‘I was educated at a private school’), while the time he spent in Italy receives slightly more attention (‘I learnt more which has been of use to me, among the pictures, the scenery, and the people, than I ever learnt at school’) (qtd. in Law and Mauder, 2). Like Collins, Law and Maunder are eager to move on: their focus is his literary career, and Collins’s brevity and dismissal of his formal education directs the focus towards his writing and away from his formative years. The autobiographical sketch written for Towle is also very brief, prepared ‘[i]n great haste’ – Collins claims in a letter to have dictated it at the breakfast table (letter to Towle, 21 May 1870) – but it is more fleshed out than the Ernouf account with regards to Collins’s childhood. It is only three pages long in total, from his birth to the success of Antonina, or The Fall of Rome (1850), after which the author suggests ‘The rest of the story of my life is simply the story of the books which I have written.’ Echoing Dickens’s wish, as expressed in his will, to ‘rest my claims to the remembrance of my country upon my published works’ (Forster 3.517), Collins focuses on the moments that lead to his literary development, leaving the intervening twenty years to be told by his books. Towle’s piece, however, goes further in describing his subject’s later life.

The journalist seems determined to weave Collins’s life together with Dickens’s. This may reflect the time at which it was published. The memoir was dictated in May 1870 and was published in September: on the 9 June 1870, the day that Collins finished his latest novel, Man and Wife, Dickens died (Baker and Clarke 317). The short memoir does not reference Dickens at all, while Towle’s article mentions him within four sentences in writing of Collins’s brother’s marriage to Dickens’s daughter Kate (Towle 279). In fact, he is wrong is saying that Charles Collins married Dickens’s eldest daughter, for Kate had an older sister, Mary (also called ‘Mamie’). This is something Collins would, no doubt, have been able to correct had he been involved in an on-going discussion with Towle about the article. Towle goes on to dedicate a long paragraph to the relationship between Collins and Dickens, comparing the author not altogether favourably to his Inimitable friend:

Wilkie Collins was for many years one of Dickens’s closest and most cherished friends. They might often be seen walking together in the London streets, especially in the neighborhood of Covent Garden and the Strand; Collins, short and rather thick-set, with bold forehead, long black beard, large bright-blue eyes, and gold spectacles, forming a decided contrast with the airiness and “sailor-like aspect” of his great friend. (280)

The comparisons continue, with Collins described as

[…] wanting in that peculiarly happy brilliancy and apt oratorical force, which, on festive, as well as serious occasions, distinguished Charles Dickens above all Englishmen. (280)

Towle also takes the time to praise Dickens’s acting, but suggests rather scandalously that ‘the association of Miss Hogarth with Dickens in this play was the occasion of the separation from his wife’ (280), Georgina Hogarth being Dickens’s sister-in-law.5 Collins’s acting, incidentally, is not mentioned at all. Later we are told he has a ‘plain house’ compared to Dickens’s ‘famous old house’ (280), and of his novels Towle writes:

His works rather give evidences of a possibility of greatness in him, than declare him already great. He lacks […] the surpassing tenderness and unapproachable humor of Dickens […] (281)

The article does, however, grant him superiority ‘[i]n the invention of a plot, and in that alone’ (280). The image created is one of a more relatable figure in comparison to Dickens’s almost mythic representation, and Collins is presented as a writer with some skill, but with scope for development and improvement. Towle surrounds him with literary greatness, but gives him the capacity to adapt in a way that he does not when discussing Dickens or Charles Reade. In light of the health troubles that plagued him, particularly in the 1850s and 60s,6 Collins might also have enjoyed reading of himself as,

an excellent representative and type of a modern class of English literary men, who mingle freely and happily with the world and are of it; […] who have a kind of robustness, physical as well as moral and mental, and a generous vigor, which identify them with Young England in its best phase. (280)

The language works hard to align Collins with his more famous friend, discussing public speaking and taking long walks in terms more reminiscent of Dickens. The spectre of Dickens haunts Towle’s piece in a way that contrasts starkly with the manuscript provided: in the published article, which occupies only three pages (with a large image of Collins on one page), Dickens’s name crops up nineteen times. The effect is to position Collins as inextricably bound up with Dickens as mentor, collaborator, friend and even family member (due to the marriage of Charles Collins and Katey Dickens). Towle is able to infuse his subject’s life with a sense of literary importance through his connections, markedly different to the brisk, humble account given by the author himself.

Unfortunately this ‘lost’ manuscript cannot yield much by way of new information about Collins’s life, as the article that came from it makes liberal use of the author’s original phrasing, even when not quoting him directly. The ‘wholesome discipline and restraint of an English school’ is Collins’s phrase, for example, and is repeated verbatim by Towle without attribution, while a more cynical comment about the reviews of Antonina (‘Such a chorus of praise was sung over me by the critics, as has never been sung over me since’) is omitted. Scissors-and-paste journalism is a topic that has seen exciting new scholarly developments recently, with repetitions and copying becoming more traceable thanks to technology that makes it possible to search large datasets quickly and easily, but the relationship between Collins’s sketch and Towle’s article shows a new perspective that raises questions about the use of autobiographical accounts in creating broader biographical narratives.7 One of the most famous examples in Victorian studies, Dickens’s ‘autobiographical fragment’, as it has come to be known, and the way in which it is embedded in Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens, is another lost text that must be pieced together from Forster’s direct quotations and his possible scissors-and-paste use of other of Dickens’s phrases. The fragment relates Dickens’s time working as a child in Warren’s Blacking Factory, and is presented as a formative, if damaging, experience for the young Charles:

It is wonderful to me how I could have been so easily cast away at such an age. It is wonderful to me, that, even after my descent into the poor little drudge I had been since we came to London, no one had compassion enough on me – a child of singular abilities, quick, eager, delicate, and soon hurt, bodily or mentally – to suggest that something might have been spared, as certainly it might have been, to place me at any common school. (Forster 1.31)

Although this account would not be published until 1872, and there is no evidence that Dickens had confided in his younger friend about his childhood before his death, there are revealing comparisons to be drawn between this and Collins’s attitude to his education as expressed in the sketch, which are encouraged by Towle’s repeated bringing together of the two authors. In the sketch, we get a child who seems to deliberately learn ‘as little as possible’, and the writer claims that his informal education in Italy was more used to him than any formal education. Collins calls ‘remarkable’ those who are ‘capable of seeing possibilities of education in other systems than the system conventionally recognized about them’. Dickens, on the other hand, is desperate for formal schooling and is contemptuous of his parents, who ‘were quite satisfied. They could hardly have been more so if I had been twenty years of age, distinguished at a grammar-school, and going to Cambridge’ (1.31).

Dickens’s ‘singular abilities’ also resonate with Towle’s description of the relative positions of the two writers: Dickens’s singularity is emphasised, while Collins is caught up in almost relentless comparisons. Dickens consumes books voraciously, desperate to learn, while Collins instead receives an artistically-inflected education from Italy and from his father, avoiding Cambridge in favour of commerce. The trajectory of both writers as young men – an education interrupted by a defining experience, in Dickens’s case his time at the blacking factory and in Collins’s his time in Italy, followed by a return to schooling and then office-based work – has key similarities. The relation of these two authors to their experiences is very different, and the ways in which they are recalled and reused in their fiction also diverge. Dickens had a habit of disavowing his earliest works. An anecdote recounted by his sister-in-law Georgina tells of him meeting a lady who had got hold of the manuscript of one of his early plays: he offered her the manuscript of a Christmas book he had recently finished in exchange for the manuscript of which he was embarrassed, which he then destroyed (Van Amerongen 116). Collins’s discussion of his first, unsuccessful, novel, Ioláni; or, Tahíti as It Was: A Romance which was itself thought lost, and not published until after his death, shows a more publicly self-critical and self-aware relationship with his early work. Of it, he says

They all declined [Ioláni]; and, they were quite right. The scene was laid in the Island of Tahiti, before the period of its discovery by European navigators! My youthful imagination ran riot among the noble savages, in scenes which caused the respectable British publisher to declare that it was impossible to put his name on the title page of such a novel as this.

Uncovering documents like the autobiographical sketch sheds light on the possible relationship between such published accounts and the urtext on which they are based, at a time when scissor-and-paste could mean that writers literally cut up manuscripts and letters for inclusion in life writing, as was possibly the case with Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74), and as was later seen in the creation of the Letters of Charles Dickens 1833-1870, Edited by His Sister-in-law and His Eldest Daughter (1880-82). The effect of Towle’s further examination of Collins’s later career and the omissions of the author’s own touches to the narrative of his life mean that reading the manuscript is a very different reading experience from that created by the article: the sketch conveys Collins’s own conception of how his work was shaped by his early influences and the role of his father, conflicting with the rather forced insertion of Dickens into the narrative in Towle’s piece. William Collins’s influence is shown throughout his son’s decision-making in a way that ties the latter’s literary work to the former’s influence. Just as his father ‘decided to go to Italy to find fresh subjects’, the son gains an education there that inflects his work: the manuscript ends with the success of Antonina, set in Rome. Collins’s assertion that his father, although eager for his son to go into the Church, did not force him into any one career belies the relationship between the two men: Baker talks of the ‘oppressive personality’ of Collins’s father (9), and there is a subtext to the manuscript that hints at the conflict between the artist and his son. Collins’s literary career is both interrupted and furthered by taking up the task of editing the memoirs of his father: he says ‘I saw my name on the title-page of a printed and published book, for the first time’. Although Collins tells us that he had written and published articles and stories, it is the story of his father, ‘which lay far nearer to my heart’, that signals the beginning of his literary career. The list of published works with which he ends the sketch begin with The Life of William Collins, R. A. (1848), once again asserting the primacy of his father’s influence.

Collins’s emotive description of this first publications contrasts with Dickens’s account of seeing his own story in print for the first time: the former does not focus on any of his early articles or stories, instead presenting the publication of the biography as a pivotal moment in his literary development. Dickens, in the Preface to the Cheap Edition of Pickwick (1847), wrote how on seeing his first sketch in print ‘my eyes were so dimmed with joy and pride, that they could not bear the street’. This characteristic effusion gestures at the ‘surpassing tenderness’ that Towle identifies in Dickens (281) that is absent from Collins’s account, but also raises the stakes: the focal moment here is not simply one of publication, but one bound up with family and acts of remembering. Both are accounts designed for public consumption, but the effect achieved is very different: Dickens’s anecdote centres on his own pride and a desire to escape public scrutiny in enjoying the newfound role of author, while Collins’s shows him putting fiction aside for a task which is at once personal and also public. His joy at authorship is overshadowed by his father. Where Dickens gives us a moment of personal pride, the moment at which Collins achieves the status of author is contingent on his father’s death. Considerations about the nature of authorship linger at the door, but are not invited to enter; the sketch ends, rather abruptly, with a short paragraph on the success of Antonina and a list of Collins’s works to date, ending with the nearly completed Man and Wife.

Although brief, the manuscript of Collins’s autobiographical sketch is an intriguing find. It adds to the author’s auto/biographical archive, enabling the reader to move past Towle’s interpretation and interpolation of the text. The author’s comments about Ioláni have been picked up on elsewhere, as something unique to Towle’s article prior to this discovery, but the shaping of the narrative of Collins’s life in the original sketch, even in so few words, is suggestive. The stark differences between its tone and that of the article show the interpretative power of life writing, and draw attention to nineteenth-century journalistic practices, particularly with regards to short biographical articles of this kind which proliferated in the nineteenth century.


Baker, William. A Wilkie Collins Chronology. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007. Print.

—. and William M. Clarke, eds. The Letters of Wilkie Collins. Vol. 2: 1866–1889. London: Macmillan, 1999. Print.

Bourrier, Karen. ‘Victorian Memes.’ Victorian Studies 58.2 (Winter 2016): 272-282. Print.

Clarke, William M. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. London: W. H. Allen & Co. Plc., 1988. Print.

Collins, Wilkie. Autobiographical Sketch. MS. Gimbel-Dickens. Beinecke Library, Yale University. H1239.

—. Letter to George M. Towle, 21 May 1870. MS: Parrish (Box 4/12).

Cordell, Ryan. ‘Viral Textuality in Nineteenth-Century US Newspaper Exchanges.’ Virtual Victorians: Networks, Connections, Technologies. Eds. Veronica Alfano and Andrew Stauffer. New York: Palgrave, 2015. 29–55. Print.

Dickens, Charles. The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club. Cheap Edition. London: Chapman & Hall, 1847. Print.

—. The Letters of Charles Dickens 1833-1870. Edited by His Sister-in-law and His Eldest Daughter. London: Macmillan and Co., Ltd., 1903. Print.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. Three volumes. London: Chapman and Hall, 1874. Print.

Hanes, Susan R. Wilkie Collins’s American Tour, 1873-4. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008. Print.

Law, Graham, and Andrew Maunder. Wilkie Collins: A Literary Life. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008. Print.

Leary, Patrick. ‘How the Dickens Scandal Went Viral.’ Charles Dickens and the Mid-Victorian Press, 1850-1870. Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2013. 305-25. Print.

Merchant, Peter and Catherine Waters. Dickens and the Imagined Child. London: Routledge, 2016. Print.

Mooney, James E. ‘Richard Gimbel.’ Proceedings of the American Antiquaries Society 1.XXX, Part 2 (1970): 245-247. Print.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. Print.

Pigeon, Stephan. ‘Steal it, Change it, Print it: Transatlantic Scissors-and-Paste Journalism in the Ladies’ Treasury, 1857–1895.’ Journal of Victorian Culture (November 2016): 1-16. Web. 10 November 2016. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2016.1249393>.

Podeschi, John B. Dickens and Dickensiana: A Catalogue of the Richard Gimbel Collection in the Yale University Library. New Haven: Yale University Library, 1980. Print.

Towle, George M. ‘Wilkie Collins.’ Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art 4.75 (1870): 278–81. Print.

Van Amerongen, J. B. The Actor in Dickens: A Study of the Histrionic and Dramatic Elements in the Novelist’s Life and Works. London: Cecil Palmer, 1926. Print.

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  1. See Susan R. Hanes’ Wilkie Collins’s American Tour, 1873-4. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2008. []
  2. See James E. Mooney’s obituary of Gimbel in Proceedings of the American Antiquaries Society, Vol. 1.XXX, Part 2 (1970): 245-247. []
  3. Letter to George M. Towle, 21 May 1870. MS: Parrish (Box 4/12). []
  4. See William M. Clarke’s The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. London: W. H. Allen & Co. Plc, 1988. []
  5. For more on the Dickens scandal in America, see Patrick Leary, ‘How the Dickens Scandal Went Viral’ in Charles Dickens and the Mid-Victorian Press, 1850-1870 (Buckingham: University of Buckingham Press, 2013), 305-25. []
  6. `See William M. Clarke’s The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. []
  7. See, for example, Stephan Pigeon’s ‘Steal it, Change it, Print it: Transatlantic Scissors-and-Paste Journalism in the Ladies’ Treasury, 1857–1895.’ Journal of Victorian Culture (November 2016): 1-16. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13555502.2016.1249393>. []