Frances Dickinson: Friend of Wilkie Collins

Jun 13, 2013 | Articles

A photograph of Dickens’s acting company taken after the London performances of The Frozen Deep, includes a woman in a bonnet sitting behind Wilkie Collins, between his friends Edward Pigott and Augustus Egg. She is neither young nor beautiful, but she has a lively, interesting face. This is Frances Dickinson, introduced to Dickens by Collins when an amateur actress was needed to replace Janet Wills in the part of the Scotch nurse Esther. She played in all the performances at the Gallery of Illustration, identified in the programme only as “Mrs. Frances.” She was evidently a very competent actress, for when performances in the Manchester Free Trade Hall were in prospect, Dickens wrote to Wilkie Collins: “It is an immense place and we shall be obliged to have [professional] actresses—though I have written to our prononcée [i.e. ebullient] friend Mrs. Dickinson to say that I don’t fear her, if she likes to play with them” (Pilgrim, vol.8, 395). However she did not: Mrs. Ternan took over her part, and her daughters Maria and Ellen those of the young girls, with the well-known consequences for Dickens.

Who was Frances Dickinson? Few once well-known nineteenth century journalists have now been so totally forgotten. In 1984 seven articles by her which appeared in the Art Journal in 1854 and 1855 under her established pseudonym “Florentia” were even attributed to Wilkie Collins (Maas, 168; Clarke). Yet in addition to being a member of the Dickens circle she knew the Trollope family, and Thackeray. She was married for a while to the Dean of Bristol. She merited an entry in Women of the Day during her lifetime (Hays, 64), an entry in Boase’s Modern English Biography after her death (vol.5, 215- 6), and obituaries in the Times (4 Nov 1898, 8) and Athenaeum (5 November 1898, 645). The books she wrote in later life, novels, travel books and popular history, were published in the United States as well as in Britain, well reviewed, and often reprinted; one was even translated into Swedish. The majority were included in the Tauchnitz collection, a sure sign of their popularity. One, Diary of an Idle Woman in Spain, was reprinted as late as 1927, nearly thirty years after her death. Behind this public success, she led a private life which at times recalls those of the heroines of her friend Wilkie’s novels, and her curious story reveals that the unconventional women Collins loved to draw had counterparts in real life.

Unlike the army of underpaid women in the nineteenth century for whom journalism was primarily a way of making a living, Frances Dickinson came from a privileged background, and she seems to have written mainly from an urge for self-expression, not out of financial necessity. She was an only child, born 6 March 1820, her father’s sixty-fifth birthday. Charles Dickinson was a member of an old Somerset Quaker family, many of whom became Members of Parliament for the county. Frances’ mother, Catherine Allingham, was a friend of Mary Russell Mitford, and her father wrote a fierce attack in turgid rhyming couplets on British imperialism, especially in India, Ceylon and the Congo. Though he owned a manor house in Somerset, Frances was brought up at another Dickinson property, Farley Hill Court, near Reading, Berkshire.

Her father died when she was six, and in spite of a dispute over his Will, Frances inherited a fortune, in which her mother had only a life interest. In a series of anonymous articles which appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1852 to 1854, she described her happy childhood, running wild on the Berkshire estate. “I had ridden wild horses, driven tandem with dogs, mounted ladders, bird’s nested in lofty trees, waded in rivers, until I conceived myself as good as a boy,” she wrote of her first seventeen years. She depicts it as a Wordsworthian idyll: “I was a solitary child, placed apart from others, and drawing my ideas from books, and poetry, and plays … It is impossible for children, brought up in a little community together, where all is noise, fun, and sociability, to conceive the strange daydreams I experienced …” (“First Visit,” 644).

Her account of a reception for William IV’s birthday at Windsor Castle, to which she was taken, aged 12, by her mother, is less poetic, and reveals that she already had an iconoclastic eye. The Archbishop of Canterbury looked to her like a “little, old, shrivelled walnut.” Her description of ugly, red-faced Queen Adelaide, who wore “a superb circlet of diamonds, but so ill-arranged, and so badly put on, I observed the large black hairpins placed to keep it firm, sticking straight out from it,” anticipates—could it have inspired?—Lewis Carroll’s White Queen (“First Visit,” 642-3).

Frances Dickinson wrote, too, of her first “Season” in London, when she was presented to the young Queen Victoria. A country upbringing had left her unprepared for physical and social restrictions, and she recounts how she used to escape from corsets and ladylike behaviour to the attics of the London house with her maid, where the two young girls “fought and struggled with each other like schoolboys … or spreading the feather-beds on the floor, we made believe it was a haycock, and rolled in them until … we were so exhausted … that neither of us could move, but lay there laughing at each other like a couple of happy fools” (“Adventures,” 51).

Though no beauty, Frances Dickinson was lively and intelligent, and her fortune made her extremely marriageable. Surrounded by suitors, she fell in love, so she tells her readers, with a much older man who was not interested in women, though besieged by them. Rebuffed, she married at 18 a penniless Scottish officer, Lieutenant John-Edward Geils, and went to live with him at his heavily mortgaged estate at Dunbuck, near Glasgow.

She gave birth to four daughters, but the marriage only lasted seven years. In 1845 she parted from her husband, and returned to live in England, though spending much time abroad. Her action for a judicial separation from her husband, begun in July 1846, and heard in the ecclesiastical Court of Arches, was bitterly contested by Geils, and dragged on for two years before it was granted in August 1848. The unsavoury details of his adulteries with two of the household servants and his alleged mental and physical cruelty were fully reported in the Times, and as late as 1860 the case was described in The Critic as “perhaps the worst … that ever was reported in the English press” (cited in Pilgrim, vol.8, 361n). Frances suffered all the opprobrium then heaped on a woman, however innocent, involved in such a public marital dispute. In May 1849 she issued a Summons for Divorce in the Scottish courts (Scottish Record Office. Ref. CS239/G/41/2)—divorce was then possible under the Scottish legal system, though not in England without a special Act of Parliament. According to Kelly’s Post Office London Directory, by 1850 she had resumed her maiden name, calling herself “Mrs. Dickinson,” though she was not finally granted her Scottish divorce until 1855, and it did not become valid in English law until 1857. Lieutenant Geils, according to the hints in her published articles, retained the children for a while, as the law then allowed, refusing to let Frances see them. When she did manage to reclaim them, Geils ceased to contribute to their support. Though her London address—she shared a house with her mother in Cavendish Square from 1845—and her country properties, Farley Hill in Berkshire and Queen Charlton in Somerset, suggest Frances Dickinson was still comfortably off, she may have travelled for reasons of economy as well as to escape the stigma of being separated from her husband and children. Whatever her reasons, it was at this time that she began to write, to travel, and to establish herself on the fringes of literary London, perhaps a less rigid milieu than the county society of Berkshire.

The first sign of her authorship so far traced is a book published by Richard Bentley in 1851. The Priest Miracles of Rome, a Memoir for the Present Time is an anti-Catholic tract, prompted by the Pope’s appointment of Cardinal Wiseman as Archbishop of Westminster, which had been greeted with a storm of protest in the Anglican community. The book, which compares Cardinal Wiseman and St Dunstan as a pair of charlatans, is a hectically written polemic. Were it not for the British Library attribution it would be difficult to believe that the author was in fact Frances Dickinson. Only its journalistic exploitation of the hot topic of the day relates it to her other writing.

Frances Dickinson’s writing is lively and she sometimes turns a phrase with Dickensian flair, but most of it is now of interest only to the literary and social historian. The lightweight journalism which poured from her pen in the 1850s is a mixture of information, triviality and gossip cunningly designed to appeal to the average mid-nineteenth century magazine reader. Her earliest identified articles appeared in Bentley’s Miscellany from 1852 to 1854. The first piece attributed to her, a version of a fairy-story entitled “The Dream- Ladder,” appeared in the same issue as “The Life of Mr. Perugino Potts” by Wilkie Collins. ((Attribution from Bentley Receipts, University of Illinois, Illinois D 18.)) Thereafter she found her true vein in autobiographical reminiscences about her childhood and youth. Her strength lay in a frank personal tone which reveals a great deal about her character and personal circumstances, and those of her friends and enemies, under the veil of anonymity.

Wilkie Collins and Frances Dickinson knew each other in the early 1850s, and they remained friends until his death in 1889. In 1872 he dedicated Poor Miss Finch to her “in remembrance of an uninterrupted friendship of many years.” Given their common interest in amateur dramatics, it is possible that they encountered each other as early as 1848 or 1849, when Wilkie Collins was arranging dramatic performances at his mother’s house in Blandford Square. They probably met at Richard Bentley’s evening parties, which Wilkie Collins attended more than once. Frances Dickinson was in Florence in November 1853, when Wilkie Collins spent a few days in that city with Dickens and Augustus Egg, and Collins may have called on her there. Though no letters to Frances Dickinson from Wilkie Collins are known to have survived, he was certainly in correspondence with her. In May 1854 he wrote to the editor of the Art Journal, S.C. Hall, accompanying an article “written by a friend of mine now resident in Rome … sent to me to be offered for publication in England. As it treats of a subject of some Art-interest, I take the liberty of sending it to the Editor of the Art Journal.” ((Wilkie Collins, ALS to S.C. Hall, 3 May 1854, Harry Ransom Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.)) Hall took up the offer, and the Art Journal published a series of seven articles by Frances Dickinson under the pseudonym “Florentia,” on the art and artists of Rome, which appeared from June 1854 to August 1855. The friendship continued to flourish: when Wilkie Collins was temporarily homeless in 1856, he told his mother that he might stay with his friend Edward Pigott, or with Mrs. Dickinson. ((Wilkie Collins, ALS to Harriet Colllns (5 April 1856), Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.)) Frances Dickinson became a family friend, well acquainted with Wilkie Collins’s brother Charles and their mother Harriet. Charles Collins stayed with her at Queen Charlton Manor and reported to his mother: “The party is a very gay one and I am sure it would be the best thing in the world for Wilkie to be here. Do persuade him.” ((Charles Collins, ALS to Harriet Collins (Queen Charlton Manor, n.d.), Pierpont Morgan Library, New York.)) In 1865 or 1866 Frances Elliot, as she now was, stayed with Harriet Collins, who found her “as droll as usual thinner but youthful still [she was 45 or 46]. Wilkie gave up his room to her & slept at the nice little Hotel opposite as did the German Soubrette [Mrs. Elliot’s maid].” ((Harriet Collins, ALS to William Holman Hunt (July 24, n.y.), Parrish Collection, Princeton University Library.)) (One wonders whether the incorrigible Wilkie used the opportunity to attempt dalliance with the Soubrette.)

The friendship left traces in Wilkie Collins’s fiction. A short story he wrote in 1859, “A New Mind,” uses Frances Dickinson’s situation at the time of her divorce, harking back to the time when

England stood disgracefully alone as the one civilized country in the world having a divorce-law for the husband which was not also a divorce-law for the wife. The writer in the Times … hinted delicately at the unutterable wrongs suffered by Mrs Duncan; and plainly showed that she was indebted to the accident of having been married in Scotland, and to her subsequent right of appeal to the Scotch tribunals, for a full and final release from the tie that bound her to the vilest of husbands which the English law … would have mercilessly refused. (Collins, 112-3)

His novel The Evil Genius also shows signs that he was familiar with her sufferings as a divorced woman, and those of her children, cold-shouldered by “respectable” families, as are Catherine Linley and her daughter Kitty.

During the 1850s Frances Dickinson wrote frequently for the New Monthly Magazine. The earliest piece that can with certainty be attributed to her is “Gossip from Florence,” published in December 1853 over her pseudonym “Florentia,” here used for the first time. It is her usual popular mixture of descriptive “picturesque” writing, commentary on art, music and politics, and gossip about expatriate English society. The novelist Mrs. Frances Trollope, mother of Anthony, who lived in Florence from 1843, is observed “playing whist in a corner in stern and rigid silence.” Donizetti’s opera Poliuto is given short shrift: “Paulina, the heroine, is finally led off to execution in company with the obstreporous [sic] Christian, a very Roman Chartist, in a very unbecoming kind of brown bombazine bathing dress” (“Gossip”). From May 1854 to October 1855 she contributed eighteen articles in a series entitled “Diary of a First Winter in Rome.” In both this and another series entitled “Polperro” which appeared in September, October and November 1855, immediately prior to the granting of her divorce petition on 7 December 1855, she interpolated details of her own private life and expressed her hatred of her husband, claiming that she was “banished” by his vengeance, and separated from her children by his malice, only able to see them by stealth. “Polperro” describes travelling with them in Cornwall, where she covered much of the same ground as Wilkie Collins had done for Rambles Beyond RaiIways in 1851. After the divorce the complaints about her husband cease, though she continued to relish scandal. Another series of articles in the New Monthly Magazine appearing throughout 1857 was entitled “The Baths of Lucca.” These prompted a furious reply in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, identifying “Florentia” as an English lady who held up “even personal defects to public ridicule” and had, in an earlier piece, repaid the hospitality of her banker “by attempting to caricature almost every guest of his whom she names” (Remarks).

After The Frozen Deep, Frances Dickinson’s acquaintance with Dickens had flourished. Dickens addressed her, once they had got to know each other well, as “My dear F… Ever yours affectionately.” Her letters to him were destroyed in one of his Gad’s Hill holocausts, but his frank replies provide a tantalizingly incomplete glimpse into her tangled private life; he was clear- eyed about her failings and absurdities. She, with typical impetuosity and a considerable degree of fellow feeling, dared to write openly to Dickens about his secret relationship with Nelly Ternan, asking to be allowed to meet her. Dickens wrote back in a panic that it would be “inexpressibly painful to N. to think that you knew her history” and asking her to be on her guard against her friends Tom Trollope and his wife Frances, Ellen Ternan’s sister: “… make no reference to me which either can piece into anything. She is infinitely sharper than the serpent’s tooth. Mind that.” (Nonesuch, vol.3, 476).

Though she often exasperated him, Dickens always wrote to Frances Dickinson with warmth and affection. In a long letter of 1860 from Gad’s Hill he gossiped about Wilkie Collins’s relationship with Caroline Graves: “Wilkie has finished his White Woman (if he had done with his flesh-colored one, I should mention that too) and is in great force” and gave her an unsentimental and mocking account of his daughter Kate’s marriage to Charles Collins. He also discussed Frances’s own unsatislactory situation with a reluctant elderly lover, who was evidently not coming up to scratch:

… are you quite sure that what you are disposed to resent as indifference, is not the stealing apathy of advanced age? … As to yourself I might be very moral in my admonitions and didactic remarks; but you are a woman and I am a man, and we should both know better, even if I were. (Pilgrim, vol.9, 287-8)

This apathetic suitor was her future husband, the Dean of Bristol. There is more being hinted at in Dickens’s letter than at first appears. On 9 August 1863, Dickens wrote a warning to Wilkie Collins that he and his brother should be discreet about Frances Dickinson’s past:

… she is extremely anxious you should know that profound confidence as to that adventure with the Doctor has become more than ever necessary, by reason of her having established the fact that the marriage (as no doubt he very well knew at the time) is no marriage and is utterly void. My own impression is that she contemplates a real marriage with somebody else, at no distant time. (Nonesuch, vol.3, 359-60)

No evidence about this “adventure with the Doctor,” has been found. A marriage of dubious validity may have taken place abroad. There is a hint in one of her 1857 articles from Bagni di Lucca that she had an amorous relationship with a local English doctor, with whom she took long unchaperoned walks in the Italian countryside (“Baths,” 109). Dickens was right about her impending real marriage. Three months later Frances Dickinson, 43 years old, married the Very Reverend Gilbert Elliot, a widower of 63. The marriage certificate gives her condition as “single,” though the Dean must have been aware of some, at least, of her previous history.

In spite of his age the Dean seems to have had much to commend him to Frances Dickinson. He was a remarkably handsome man, a much respected churchman and preacher, and a relation of the Earl of Minto. Nevertheless this match ended as disastrously as Frances Dickinson’s earlier escapades; less than three years later she was in trouble again. The story of the collapse of her marriage, and Dickens’s patient attempts to mediate between the Dean and his lady, a task he eventually gave up in despair, can be traced through his letters. It is clear that he thought that Frances was being inconsistent and manipulative. Her attempt to retrieve what was left of her fortune in its entirety—no easy matter before the Married Women’s Property Acts—is understandable, but she does seem to have behaved with ruthless opportunism. When she decided she had had enough of the Dean, she tried to blackmail him into agreeing to a Separation without making any claim on her money, by threatening to reveal “the secret between us”—the earlier marriage—now claiming it was valid. At the same time she wanted to keep the veneer of respectability. Dickens wrote pointing out “the monstrous absurdity of your repudiating your marriage on the one hand, and requiring that the Dean shall live with you at such and such times to keep up appearances, on the other …” (Nonesuch, vol.3, 737).

It would have been even more disastrous for the Dean, as a Church of England clergyman, to be implicated in a case of bigamy than for Frances Elliot to surmount yet one more scandal. Some kind of compromise was reached, and the couple quietly separated.

Frances Elliot now increased her literary output, but more discreetly than formerly, concentrating on the scandal and gossip of the past only. Dickens rejected some ghost stories she submitted to All the Year Round in 1867 complaining of their inconsistency and absurdity. He offered to publish two others, but there is no trace of them in All the Year Round. However Dickens did publish at least one piece by Frances Elliot, “The Old Cardinal’s Retreat” which appeared in 1870.

In 1871 Frances Elliot published the first of a number of books under her own name, or a variant of it. She sometimes called herself Frances Elliot, sometimes Mrs. Minto Elliot. She had no claim to the latter name except on the tenuous grounds of her estranged husband’s relationship to the Earl of Minto, but it is as Frances Minto Elliot that she appears in the National Union Catalog, and the catalogues of the British Library and the Bodleian Library. During the next 25 years she produced volumes of travel, fiction, and popular history, often consisting of compilations of her earlier journalism. Collections of biographical and historical essays, Old Court Life in France and Old Court Life in Spain, were among her most popular books. In all she published twelve books between 1871 and 1896. She inexplicably failed, however, to place a book based on material she had collected about Byron, and his relationship with the Gamba and Guiccioli families (Trelawney, 247).

A final glimpse of this remarkable woman in her later years is given in the reminiscences of Ella Hepworth Dixon who, decades later, still remembered her undimmed vitality and unconventionality:

I can see her now, a pale, distinguished looking woman with black hair done in a mass of thick plaits on the top of her head: a coiffure which, in very un-Victorian fashion she loudly announced was a wig. ‘I wear a wig,’ she would say, puffing at her cigarette, ‘my daughters wear wigs. Everyone should. It saves a deal of time and trouble.’ … She must have thoroughly enjoyed life, for she was always busy and always kind … Mrs. Elliot, indeed, lived in a social whirlwind; in her later years she became a little confused about her engagements. You would find yourself installed in a box with her at the Lyceum to see Mr. Henry Irving, when suddenly she would remember that she had left her granddaughter, Donna Daisy Chigi, alone with two young men in a box at the Opera. One of us would be hastily despatched to keep Donna Daisy company, and the whole party of young people hastily collected at the end of the evening and taken off to supper at the Savoy. If you went out for a night’s amusement with Mrs. Elliot you never knew where you would ultimately find yourself. (Dixon, 29-30)

Two of her daughters, surprisingly for the children of so vehemently anti-Catholic a mother (if anything connected with that mother’s history could finally surprise) married Catholics; one an Italian, the Marchese Chigi, the other a Spanish diplomat. It was at the Palazzo Chigi, Siena, that Frances Dickinson/Geils/Elliot died aged 78, on 26 October 1898, during the celebrations for the wedding of her granddaughter Mary.

Works Cited

1. By Frances Dickinson
Anon. [Attributed to Frances Geils, afterwards Frances Minto Elliot, in British Library Catalogue]. The Priest Miracles of Rome, a Memoir for the Present Time. London: Bentley, 1851.

Elliot, Frances Minto. Diary of an Idle Woman in Spain. New York: 1927.

Unsigned. “A First Visit to the Court of Queen Adelaide.” In Bentley’s Miscellany 31 (Jun 1852) 639-44. Unsigned.

“Adventures of a First Season.” In Bentley’s Miscellany 34 (Jul 1853) 50-7.

Unsigned. “Gossip from Florence.” In New Monthly Magazine 99 (Dec 1853) 442-450.

Unsigned. “The Baths of Lucca.” In New Monthly Magazine (Jan-Dec 1857).

Unsigned. “The Dream-Ladder.” In Bentley’s Miscellany 31 (Feb 1852) 185-196.

Unsigned. “The Old Cardinal’s Retreat.” In All the Year Round, NS 3:58 (8 Jan 1870) 127-131.
2. By Others
Boase, Frederick. Modern English Biography 1851-1900. 6 vols. London: Netherton & Worth, 1892-1921.

Clarke, William M. “The Mystery of Collins’s Articles on Italian Art.” In Wilkie Collins Society Journal 4 (1984) 16-24.

Collins, Wilkie. “A New Mind.” In Household Words 19 (1 Jan 1859) 112-13. Dickinson, Charles. The Travels of Cylleneus: A Poem in 66 Cantos. Privately printed,

Dixon, Ella Hepworth. As I Knew Them. London: Heinemann,1930.

Hays, Frances. Women of the Day. London: Chatto & Windus, 1885.

Maas, Jeremy. The Victorian Art World in Photographs. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1984.

Remarks upon the article termed “The Baths of Lucca” by ‘Florentia’ in “Colburn’s New
Monthly Magazine” for February 1857. No date or place of publication given. Bodleian Library, G.Pamph. 2368.

The Nonesuch Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. 3 vols. Ed. Walter Dexter. London: Nonesuch, 1938.

The Pilgrim Edition of the Letters of Charles Dickens. 10 vols. Ed. Madeleine House & Graham Storey. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-98.

Trelawney, Edward John. Letters. Ed. H. Buxton Forman. London: Oxford University Press, 1910.