My Dear Wilkie: The Letters from Dickens to Collins

Jun 13, 2013 | Articles

This essay is a bibliographical study into the letters written by Charles Dickens to his close friend Wilkie Collins. The publication in 2002 of the final volume of the Pilgrim edition of The Letters of Charles Dickens enables us to catalogue the known letters which Dickens wrote to Collins and collate them with previous sources (see Table 1). Four further letters not in PILGRIM are identified. ((Abbreviated references to collections of letters (such as “PILGRIM”) are explained in the list of Works Cited.)) Careful study of the extant letters allows us to draw some conclusions about the relationship between Dickens and Collins and how it changed over time.

I Letters

The Victorians had ambiguous feelings about letters. They valued the frequent, rapid, and reliable postal service which had followed the introduction of the penny post – paid by the sender not the recipient – in 1840. ((For a useful summary of how the postal system worked before and after this revolutionary change, see Daunton, ch. 1.)) But they feared the permanent testament which letters made of their intentions, views and wishes. Burning letters was almost a national pastime and when Dickens joined in he did it with his typical verve. On 4 September 1860, Dickens wrote:

Yesterday I burnt, in the field at Gad’s Hill, the accumulated letters and papers of twenty years. They sent up a smoke like the genie when he got out of the casket on the seashore; and as it was an exquisite day when I began, and rained very heavily when I finished, I suspect my correspondence of having overcast the face of the Heavens. ((To W.H. Wills, 4 September 1860, PILGRIM IX 304.))

The weekend before he wrote that letter, Dickens had finally left his home, Tavistock House in London, ((To Mrs Davis, 1 September 1860, PILGRIM IX 300.)) and moved his final possessions to Gad’s Hill Place – a house near Rochester in Kent which he had bought more than four years earlier, in March 1856, but did not take possession of until March 1857 (Watts, 21-3). The infamous bonfire at Gad’s Hill was just the first step. Five years later Dickens wrote “now I always destroy every letter I receive – not on absolute business, – and my mind is, so far, at ease.” ((To William Charles Macready, 1 March 1865, PILGRIM XI 21-2.))

The letters he burned were, of course, those written to him. He could not control those written by him to others. As he consigned letters from Thackeray, Tennyson, Carlyle and, of course, Wilkie Collins to the flames he is reported as saying “Would to God every letter I had ever written was on that pile” (cited in Storey, 107). ((Storey’s account is based on talks with Dickens’s daughter Kate who died in 1929.)) Like many of Dickens’s wishes, this one was not fulfilled. Within ten years of his death, hundreds of his letters were published, and as the years went by subsequent editions added more letters until finally the editors of PILGRIM have published a total of 14,252 (PILGRIM XII, viii). Of these, PILGRIM identifies 165 letters to Wilkie Collins, 1.15% of the total.

The earliest source for letters from Dickens to Collins was the two volume edition of Dickens’s letters published in 1880 and edited by his eldest daughter, Mary (Mamie), and Georgina Hogarth, his wife’s sister and Dickens’s housekeeper for much of his married life. This “careful selection from his general correspondence” was intended as a supplement to Forster’s biography of Dickens and would be “supplying a want which has been universally felt” (MDGH I, vii). The “want” existed because Forster’s biography contained many letters which Dickens had written to him, but almost none Dickens had written to anyone else.

The original MDGH volumes contained just 21 letters to Collins but in the preface the editors acknowledged Collins’s assistance:

A separate word of gratitude, however, must be given by us to Mr. Wilkie Collins for the invaluable help which we have received from his great knowledge and experience, in the technical part of our work, and for the deep interest which he has shown from the beginning, in our undertaking. (MDGH I, viii-ix)

Collins was the only person Georgina consulted about the edition and she told her friend Annie Fields in 1879 that she had followed his suggestions of a “few trifling alterations … very good ones and easily made” and Collins finally gave his “unqualified approval”. ((Georgine Hogarth to Annie Fields, 16 June 1879, HUNTINGTON. See also Adrian, 212 & 291n24.)) Collins arranged a meeting with Georgina Hogarth on 16 October 1878 to talk to her about the project. ((Collins to Georgina Hogarth, 11 October 1878, PARRISH. Beginning with that cited here, several extracts from letters by Collins are taken from transcripts carried out by my fellow editors on the forthcoming Pickering & Chatto edition (BGLL), Andrew Gasson, William Baker and Graham Law. I am grateful for permission to publish these passages here.)) The following March he was advising Georgina on whether some letters should be included, ((Wilkie Collins to Georgina Hogarth, 18 March 1879, B&C II 420-1.)) and in July he was consulting the publisher George Bentley about the price to be charged for the two volumes of letters:

I think I told you that I was advising Miss Hogarth and Miss Dickens, in the business of editing Dickens’s Letters. They ask me to help them to decide the question of price. The book will be in two volumes demy oct: and each volume will contain 456 pages. – Thirty shillings or Two pounds – which is the wisest selling price to decide on? Do you think I am right or wrong in supposing that the lower price (£1..10..-) is the safest price to ask in these times? ((Wilkie Collins to George Bentley, 27 July 1879, B&C II 423. Bentley must have supported Collins’s view as the set was in fact sold at the lower price. I am grateful to Bill McHugh of Northwestern University Illinois for this information.))

In October 1879 he thanked Georgina for an early copy of the Letters and reminded her “I am still entirely at your service. Don’t sanction small advertisements. One ‘across columns’ in the weekly newspaper, (one big one) is worth a dozen little ones—and costs less.” ((To Georgina Hogarth, 23 October 1879, B&C II 423-4. The book was published on 21 November 1879 – see Adrian, 214. Two editions of the letters were in Wilkie’s library on his death, one inscribed “with love from the editors”. See Baker, 100.)) A month later he was advising on dealing with Bernhard Tauchnitz concerning an edition in continental Europe. ((To Georgina Hogarth, 28 November 1879, B&C II 424. Tauchnitz published The Letters in February 1880 in three volumes – see Todd and Bowden, 299.)) A further volume was published in late 1881, which contained just one more letter to Collins, making 22 altogether, and all three volumes were republished as one chronological sequence in two volumes in 1882. Shortly before his death in 1889 Collins was still advising Georgina – this time on what to do with the remaining copies of various editions of the book. ((To Georgina Hogarth, 2 April 1889, ILLINOIS; BGLL.))

Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889 and within weeks his literary agent Alexander Pollock Watt suggested to Georgina Hogarth that a volume containing more of Dickens’s letters to Collins would be worthwhile. Shortly after that a list of known letters from Dickens to Collins was drawn up by Watt. ((Undated MS on Watt’s headed paper and in Watt’s hand, entitled “Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins,” 7 pages, BERG 7284908.)) This, along with some associated documents, is now in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library, and lists 136 letters to Collins, one letter to Augustus Egg ((Dickens to Augustus Egg, 8 March 1851, PILGRIM VI 310.)) – included because it is the letter which led to Dickens meeting Collins in March 1851 – and another from Dickens to Collins’s brother Charles. ((Dickens to Charles Collins, 19 November 1859, PILGRIM IX 164-5.)) The list is in five columns – year, number of pages, month and date, a short summary, and signature details.

Watt seems to have changed his mind about the list as he wrote it. The format changes from page to page and although he included the earliest ten letters already published in The Letters of Charles Dickenshe then appears to have decided to omit the subsequent 12 letters, dated from 13 July 1856, published there. There is also a separate document, apparently in Watt’s hand, which lists four additional letters as follows

The following I recommend should not be sold.
August 16, 1859. This letter contains references to Messrs Bradbury, Evans & Co, & to Mrs Dickens, about the time of the separation. It is signed in full and contains 4 pages.
December 29 1861. A letter of 4 pages, which contains a reference to Sheriff Gordon of Edinburgh, & his habits. Signed C.D.
July 20 1862. This contains a reference to Miss Georgina Hogarth’s health. Contains 4 pages, & is signed C.D.
April 22 1863. This contains references to various people which I think it would be inadvisable to allow to fall into other hands.

These four letters were handed back to Georgina Hogarth and her receipt dated 13 February 1890 is also in the collection. It reads “Received from A.P. Watt four letters of the late Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins dated respectively 26th August 1859 [sic, not 16 August]; 29th December 1861; 20th July 1862; and 22nd April 1863.” Above the receipt in Georgina Hogarth’s hand is added “These I should wish to cancel – to destroy if possible!” Of these four letters the first two have disappeared, perhaps destroyed by Georgina Hogarth. The last two are found in the Free Library of Philadelphia and are published in PILGRIM (X 109 and X 236). Indeed, the last letter was published in part by Georgina herself in The Letters of Charles Dickens omitting the personal references she found objectionable (MDGH II 198-9). Of the 169 letters from Dickens to Collins which modern scholarship has identified, 151 were either in this list, were scheduled for destruction or had been published in 1880. Only 18 others have either come to light or been identified in the following 122 years.

Watt paid Georgina Hogarth ten guineas for her work “revising the letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins”. ((Receipt on Watt’s headed paper dated 25 February 1890 and signed Georgina Hogarth, BERG 7284908.)) The letters were edited with commentary by Lawrence Hutton and he wrote in the preface “Miss Hogarth selected the following specimens as being quite as characteristic and fully as interesting as any she gave to the public in her own volume, and they have been printed here under her own supervision.” They were first published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine over three months from September 1891. Publication in book form followed shortly by Harper in New York and by Harper’s London publisher, James R. Osgood, McIlvaine & Co. in London, the edition cited here. The text was identical in all three – the same letters to Collins, the same few letters to other people to give context, and the same commentary. It contained 108 letters from Dickens to Collins of which six had already appeared in MDGH, ((In HUTTON: 8 July 1855, 14 October 1862, in full; 13 July 1856, 6 September 1858, 7January 1860 (wrongly dated as 1859), and 25 January 1864 (wrongly dated as 24 January), in summary only.)) leaving 102 which were newly published. All but one, 6 February 1858, were in the Watt list.

So by the end of the nineteenth century, 124 letters from Dickens to Collins had been published, though a number had some passages cut. Although MDGH was reissued many times, and some new letters to individuals were published in specific volumes such as Dickens’s letters to W.H. Wills, Thomas Beard, and to his wife Catherine, ((See WILLS, BEARD, and CATHERINE. )) no further letters to Collins were published until Walter Dexter’s three volume edition of Dickens’s letters in 1938 for the Nonesuch Dickens. This added another 20, bringing the total to 144, though three of those were only noted without any content ((20 January 1852, DEXTER II 371; 13 December 1856, DEXTER II 815; 14 May 1859, DEXTER III 103)) and one was misdated. ((To Collins, 8 January 1853, DEXTER II 547, misdated [1854].))

Over the next decades a small number of previously unrecorded Dickens letters appeared in auction and dealers’ catalogues but they remained uncollected until the PILGRIM edition, begun in 1965. The first letters to Collins appeared in volume VI in 1988, and the series was completed in 2002. PILGRIM attempts to be definitive. It includes full transcripts of every extant Dickens letter and also adds in untraced letters the existence of which can be deduced from the content of the extant correspondence. Out of the 14,252 letters from Dickens, PILGRIM identifies 165 letters to Wilkie Collins, publishing the text of 162 and listing another three which are known only from references in other letters. ((Dickens to Collins 26 September 1860, PILGRIM IX 318; 10 May 1862, PILGRIM X 81; and October 1864, PILGRIM X 433.)) PILGRIM claims that 20 of the published letters are new. In fact two of those claimed by PILGRIM are not new, ((30 June 1853 and 24 January 1862, both published in HUTTON.)) while six others, not claimed by PILGRIM as new, in fact are, ((20 January 1852 was listed in DEXTER but only published in PILGRIM XII 638-639; 19 October 1855 counted as a separate letter of a different date written on the envelope of 14 October 1855, PILGRIM VII 721-2; 26 September 1860, listed only, no transcript, PILGRIM IX 318; 25 March 1862, PILGRIM X 81; early October 1864, listed only, no transcript, PILGRIM X 433.)) leaving 24 which were newly published or identified. PILGRIM also claims that a further 9 letters are published in full for the first time, previous editions having omitted more or less significant sections. That claim is not examined here. Two of the letters to Collins in PILGRIM still have no source apart from their first publication in 1880, ((17 January 1858, PILGRIM VIII 505; and 8 December 1868, PILGRIM XII 234-5.)) and another only has Dexter as its source. ((17 May 1857, PILGRIM VIII 327.))

Comprehensive as PILGRIM is, it omits a further four letters from Dickens to Collins.

Two letters which Georgina Hogarth wanted to “destroy if possible” (26 August 1859 and 29 December 1861)

One letter in Watt’s list for which no other reference has been found. It is described there as “1862, July 13, 2pp, Accepting invitation to dinner, signed C.D.” This letter is a bit of a puzzle. Dickens went to Paris “on short notice” on 10 July 1862, ((See to Osborne 16 July 1862, PILGRIM X 105-6; and to Mrs Henry Austin, 8 July 1862, PILGRIM X 105.)) and for the entire surrounding period Collins was in Broadstairs. It is possible the letter is misdated by Watt – several in the list are, though no others are assigned to the wrong year.

A newly identified letter written around 31 October 1851, the evidence for which is in one of the three extant letters from Collins to Dickens. Dated 2 November 1851 this reads in part: “The report of the great sale of tickets at Bristol had reached me here, before I received your letter. I am delighted – for the sake of the Guild to hear that a second performance at Bristol is to take place…” ((Collins to Dickens, 2 November 1851, B&C I 75 summary; BGLL.))

Another letter listed in PILGRIM as to Collins gives some concern. It is dated 25 March 1862 and the evidence comes only from an Anderson Galleries catalogue of December 1936. In it Dickens refuses to add his name to a proposal for founding a literary club and refers to Mr Fowle Walton, who PILGRIM takes to be Joseph Fowell Walton. It is a curt letter without salutation and of a different tone to letters written to Collins. He was at the time deeply involved in writing No Name and none of the known letters by him around this time relate to the subject matter of this letter.

As Table 1 indicates, the final arithmetic leaves us with 169 possible letters to Collins. Of these, three owe their existence to deductions in PILGRIM from other letters; two were returned to Georgina Hogarth and probably destroyed; one from Watt’s list appears never to have been published, has now disappeared and may or may not be misdated; one is deduced in this essay from a letter by Collins to Dickens; and one is in PILGRIM but may not be to Collins at all. From the remaining 161, securely to Collins and with known contents, what can we deduce?

II My Dear Wilkie

Wilkie Collins met Charles Dickens in the afternoon of Wednesday 12 March 1851 at the house of John Forster, a close friend of Dickens who later was his first biographer. ((To Augustus Egg, 8 March 1851, PILGRIM VI 310; and to Mrs Watson, 9 March 1851, PILGRIM VI 312.)) Collins had been invited to take a small part in an amateur production of a play written by Bulwer Lytton called Not So Bad As We Seem. The vacancy had arisen when Dickens’s sub-editor and friend William Henry Wills had turned the part down. From that day until Dickens died in 1870, Collins was his friend, often his confidant and throughout most of the time his literary collaborator. They travelled together, dined together, drank together, grew beards together, went to plays together, wrote together, and walked the streets in London and Paris together. But in the few months from the autumn of 1857 to the spring of 1858, their relationship became much closer.

The new comprehensive list of letters from Dickens to Collins provides us with the salutation in 158 letters and the sign off in 153 – several signatures were cut off for autograph hunters. The 158 salutations show that up to the letter of 29 August 1857 Dickens began his letters “My Dear Collins.” From the next letter, 22 October 1857, he had changed that to “My Dear Wilkie,” a form he retained for the rest of his life. For the next six months, up to 28 April 1858, Dickens continued to sign off his letters as he always had, using the word “faithfully” and usually writing “Ever Faithfully.” But from 25 May 1858 he changed to “Ever Affectionately” and the word “affectionately” or its abbreviation appears in the sign off in every subsequent letter he wrote to Collins except for two – one of which was a letter “on absolute business”. ((The two letters were 9 April 1859, PILGRIM IX 48-49, and 27 January 1870, PILGRIM XII 472.))

How significant was this change? In writing letters Dickens addressed few people outside his family by their first name. Exceptions were Mark Lemon (whom he began addressing as “My Dear Mark” early in 1851), and Sir Edward Bulwer Lytton (who moved in two stages from “My Dear Sir Edward” to “My Dear Bulwer” also in 1851). Other close friends such as Douglas Jerrold and Frank Stone were consistently addressed by their surname; Daniel Maclise and Clarkson Stanfield by nicknames: “My Dear Mac” and “My Dear Stanny.” His subeditor William Henry Wills remained stubbornly “My Dear Wills” throughout decades of close acquaintance. ((The last known letter to him begins ‘My Dear Wills’ – 26 February 1870, PILGRIM XII 482.)) The very few extant whole letters to John Forster – most are available only in Forster’s own extracts published in his biography of Dickens – begin “My Dear Forster,” raising a question over the closeness of the two. Dickens was freer with closing a letter “affectionately” ((See to Wills, 14 September 1863, PILGRIM X 289, for the first identified occurrence; it became more common towards 1870.)) rather than “faithfully.” Forster, Frank Stone, and William Macready merited “affectionately” despite their surname in the salutation. Even Wills got the occasional “affectionately.” But only three people outside the family – Mark Lemon, Daniel Maclise, and Clarkson Stanfield – were addressed by first or nick-names and parted with “affectionately.” It was into this group that Wilkie Collins was admitted in 1857-8.

The twelve months from spring 1857 were turbulent ones for Dickens. He worked on his new house, fell in love, separated from his wife, fought with his publishers, broke off his relationship with several friends, and started the public readings which were to take much of his energy and generate most of his income until his death in 1870.

The key events began unspectacularly. In March 1857 Dickens took full possession of Gad’s Hill Place, which became his home until his death. Early in June his friend Douglas Jerrold died unexpectedly and Dickens decided to raise money for his family by reviving an amateur production of Wilkie Collins’s playThe Frozen Deep. The cast included friends – Collins among them – as well as his daughters Kate and Mamie and his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. Despite the visit of Queen Victoria to one of the four performances at the Gallery of Illustration in Regent Street the play failed to raise the £2000 which Dickens had hoped for. At the end of July Dickens went to Manchester to read The Christmas Carol to raise more money. After a deputation from the Mayor and acclaim from the audience he decided to perform The Frozen Deep there too. As he returned on Sunday he wrote to Collins:

As our sum is not made up, and as I had an urgent Deputation and so forth from Manchester Magnates at the Reading on Friday night, I have arranged to act The Frozen Deep in the Free Trade Hall on Friday and Saturday nights, the 21st and 22nd. It is an immense place, and we shall be obliged to have actresses… ((To Collins, 2 August 1857, PILGRIM VIII 394-5.))

It was not just the size of the Free Trade Hall that necessitated the changes in the cast. To many, actresses were not far removed from prostitutes. The respectable ladies of Dickens’s family could not appear on the public stage. So he was “obliged to have actresses”. After a couple of false starts, the actresses chosen were Frances Ternan and her two daughters, Maria and Ellen. Rehearsals were scheduled for 18 and 19 August before travelling to Manchester on the 20th. So on Tuesday, 18 August 1857 at the Gallery of Illustration in Regent Street, ((See to Fairbairn, 13 August 1857, PILGRIM VIII 409)) the poor and relatively unknown actress Ellen Ternan, aged 18, met the rich, famous and successful 45-year-old writer Charles Dickens. Two days later the entire cast, together with Dickens’s wife Catherine and her sister Georgina, went to Manchester. The play was performed for three nights, not two – and it is now clear that Dickens always had the extra Monday night in mind after the Friday and Saturday performances and even considered taking posters for the extra night down with him and playing it without a licence from the Lord Chamberlain. ((To John Deane, 12 August 1857, PILGRIM VIII 407.))

In those four days in Manchester Dickens became besotted with Ellen Ternan. Collins was among the first to know. Four days after returning from Manchester he wrote to his friend:

Partly in the grim despair and restlessness of this subsidence from excitement, and partly for the sake of Household Words, I want to cast about whether you and I can go anywhere – take any tour – see any thing – whereon we could write something together. Have you any idea, tending to any place in the world? …We want something for Household Words, and I want to escape from myself. For, when I do start up and stare myself seedily in the face…my blankness is inconceivable – indescribable – my misery, amazing … Shall we talk at Gad’s Hill? What shall we do? ((To Collins, 29 August 1857, PILGRIM VIII 423.))

Dickens soon knew what he was to do. Collins and he went to the North of England to write a piece together for Household Words. But he was less than honest with his friends when he wrote to them about this trip. He signed himself “Your faithful friend” when he wrote to Hannah Brown on 4 September: “We start on … Monday Morning, and have not the least idea where we are going to.” ((To Mrs Brown, 4 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 430.)) And the next day he told his long-time friend, Angela Burdett Coutts: “I have decided on a foray into the bleak fells of Cumberland”. ((To Angela Burdett Coutts, 5 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 432.)) They did start by going to Allonby ((To the Master of the Angel Hotel, Doncaster, 3 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 429.)) on the Cumberland coast. But before he composed those letters he had already written on 3 September to book rooms for himself and Collins from 13 September in the town of Doncaster, 120 miles south east of Allonby. So Dickens knew perfectly well where and when he was going to end up – Doncaster in the week of the St Leger horse-race, where Ellen Ternan and her mother and sister were acting at the theatre. One can only conclude that the whole expedition was engineered with that in mind.

On Monday 7 September they set off by train to Carlisle. Only then did Dickens write to his sister-in-law and his sub-editor to tell them that Doncaster was their final destination: “We shall not arrive at Doncaster until Sunday night … we have a grotesque idea of describing the town.” This in race week when a room could not be had for less than 12 guineas. Clearly to Dickens it was worth every penny. ((To Georgina Hogarth, 7 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 438, and to Wills, same date, PILGRIM VIII 438-9.)) Throughout the trip Dickens did not write a word to his wife (at least, no letters to her survive) nor send his love to her through his letters to her sister, though he assiduously sent kisses to his children. ((See to Georgina Hogarth, 9 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 441-2; 12 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 443-5; 15 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 447-8.)) The presence of Collins, Dickens and the Ternans is confirmed by The Doncaster Gazette and The Doncaster Chronicle. (( See, for example, The Doncaster Chronicle, Friday, September 18, 1857, 5 col.1.))  Claire Tomalin, in her biography of Ellen Ternan (ch. 7), finds evidence that they met in two rather Delphic references in letters to Wills describing the actress as “the riddle”; ((To Wills, 17 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 448-9, and 20 September 1857, PILGRIM VIII 450-1. Both references were excised in all editions before PILGRIM.)) and also in two passages in the five part fictional account which Collins and Dickens wrote about the trip. This was “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” which was published in Household Words with Dickens in the role of Mr Goodchild and Collins depicted as Mr Idle. In particular:

Mr. Goodchild would appear to have been by no means free from lunacy himself at “t’races”, though not of the prevalent kind. He is suspected by Mr. Idle to have fallen into a dreadful state concerning a pair of little lilac gloves and a little bonnet that he saw there. Mr. Idle asserts, that he did afterwards repeat at the Angel, with an appearance of being lunatically seized, some rhapsody to the following effect: “O little lilac gloves! And O winning little bonnet, making in conjunction with her golden hair quite a Glory in the sunlight round the pretty head, why anything in the world but you and me!” ((Household Words, 16 (31 October 1857) 411-2, in Chapter the Fifth, which refers to the time in Doncaster. The other passage refers to the rowdy behaviour of theatre-goers towards the actresses (412).))

Ellen herself was described later by Kate Dickens as a “small fair-haired rather pretty actress” (cited in Storey, 93). Tomalin (ch. 7) concludes that whatever Dickens proposed to Ellen he was, at that time, rejected. Whoever knew, or did not, about the real purpose of the trip, Collins must have. And in the first surviving letter to Collins written after it was over, ((22 October 1857, PILGRIM VIII 470.)) Dickens adopts the “My Dear Wilkie” salutation – which he kept for the rest of his life. Shared intimacies had brought Collins one step towards a new closeness with Dickens.

Dickens certainly was troubled by his feelings for Ellen and they affected his marriage. In October 1857 he ordered the doorway between his dressing room and the bedroom he had shared with his wife to be “fitted with plain white deal shelves”. In future he slept alone in the dressing room on “a small iron bedstead”. ((To Anne Cornelius, 11 October 1857, PILGRIM VIII 465.)) Two months later he wrote to Mrs Lavinia Watson, a long-time friend:

I weary of rest, and have no satisfaction but in fatigue … I wish an Ogre with seven heads … had taken the Princess whom I adore – you have no idea how intensely I love her! – to his stronghold on the top of a high series of Mountains, and there tied her up by the hair. Nothing would suit me half so well this day, as climbing after her, sword in hand, and either winning her or being killed. ((To Mrs Lavinia Watson, 7 December 1857, PILGRIM VIII 488.))

Early in 1858 he sent Collins a specially bound copy of the Christmas number they had written together, ((“The Perils of Certain English Prisoners”, Household Words, Christmas Number, December 1857.)) with the message:

Thinking it may one day be interesting to you – say when you are weak in both feet, and when I and Doncaster are quiet and the great race is over. ((To Collins, 6 February 1858, PILGRIM VIII 517.))

And then again six weeks later:

The Doncaster unhappiness remains so strong upon me that I can’t write, and (waking) can’t rest, one minute. I have never known a moment’s peace or content, since the last night of the Frozen Deep. I do suppose that there never was a Man so seized and rended by one Spirit. ((To Collins, 21 March 1858, PILGRIM VIII 536.))

Noone knows precisely what crisis caused his final separation from his wife. But we do know that things came to a head in the week of 17 May 1858. It may have been precipitated when a piece of jewellery ordered for Ellen Ternan was mistakenly delivered by the jeweller to Catherine. ((There is a full account of the separation in Slater (135-62), where it is related to Dickens’s psychology and writings. There is also a well-documented account of this difficult period and the bracelet incident in Johnson, pt. 8 ch. 9.)) But by the beginning of June it was settled. Dickens provided Catherine with a house and £600 a year and he remained in Tavistock House with Catherine’s sister Georgina and all the children except the eldest, Charley, who went to live with his mother.

That led to rumours that Dickens had separated from Catherine because he “preferred his wife’s sister to herself”. Others associated him with an “actress” and a “professional young lady”. ((See the various letters in PILGRIM VIII 739-45.)) On 25 May he wrote to Collins:

A thousand thanks for your kind letter: I always feel your friendship very much, and prize it in proportion to the true affection I have for you … Can you come round to me in the morning … before 12. I can then tell you all in lieu of writing. It is rather a long story—over, I hope, now. ((To Collins, 25 May 1858, PILGRIM VIII 567.))

For the first time he signed the letter “Ever affectionately” – a form of closing he kept for the rest of his life. The rumours continued and Dickens decided to repudiate them in a personal statement which he persuaded The Times to run, ((The Times, 7 June 1858.)) and which he repeated in Household Words. ((Household Words 17 (12 June 1858) 601.)) However, his friend Mark Lemon refused to print the statement in Punch which he edited. Lemon had also reluctantly taken on the job of advising Catherine. In addition to the break with Bradbury & Evans who published Punch as well as Household Words, the split ended the friendship between the two men. Dickens did not write again to Lemon for ten years. By then “My Dear Mark … Ever Affectionately CD” had become “My Dear Lemon … Faithfully Yours Charles Dickens.” ((To Lemon, 6 October 1868, PILGRIM XII 195.)) Thus he remained. As Collins entered the closest circle, Lemon left.

Figure 1. Number of Known Letters from Dickens to Collins by Year

Collins stood by Dickens throughout the separation and was clearly seen by him as on “his” side. But Collins continued to be warm to Catherine, in 1862 sending her an affectionate note and photograph for an album she compiled, and in 1871 giving her an author’s box ticket to see The Woman in White. ((Collins to Catherine Dickens, 7 April 1862 and 18 October 1871, PM; BGLL.)) Based on documents such as Dickens’s letters to others – notably that to W.H. Wills of 26 July 1868, with its description of The Moonstone as “wearisome beyond endurance” (PILGRIM XII 159) – all Collins’s major biographers have assumed that the friendship between him and Dickens cooled towards the end of Dickens’s life (see Robinson 215, Davis 257-8 & 265, Clarke 127-8, 138, and Peters 311-2). Other evidence for the cooling, notably in the collaborative efforts of the two men, has recently been presented by Lillian Nayder (chs. 5-6), who sees it as indicating a deepening rivalry rather than a falling out. What is remarkable, though, is that the letters from Dickens to Collins provide no concrete support for the idea of the cooling relationship.

As Figure 1 shows, the frequency of the letters peaked in the mid-1850s when Dickens and Collins were working and travelling together. Collins was a staff writer on Household Words and then All The Year Round from October 1856 to early in 1862. As Collins’s independent fame grew – after The Woman in White was published in 1859-60 – the two friends undoubtedly spent less time together, both socially and for work, and Collins left All The Year Round. He was wealthy enough to travel independently and much of the time he spent abroad trying to cure his various ailments. From around 1865 he had relationships to sustain with Martha Rudd as well as his companion since 1857, Caroline Graves, and his first child was born in November 1869. Dickens’s public readings took him around the country and to the United States of America. The number of letters inevitably fell, only to grow again in 1867 when they reunited for their last collaborative work No Thoroughfare. ((“No Thoroughfare,” Household Words, Christmas Number, December 1867.)) Indeed in 1867 there are 18 known letters – the third highest total for any year.

After 1867 there are few letters – just seven in the next two and half years. Evidence for a cooling in the relationship has been seen in Dickens’s last letter to Collins which closes “I don’t come to see you, because I don’t want to bother you. Perhaps you may be glad to see me bye and bye. Who knows!” ((To Collins, 27 January 1870, PILGRIM XII 471.)) But the words before those do not indicate animosity. Dickens wrote, “I have been truly concerned to hear of your bad attack; but I have two hopes of it; first that it will not last long; second, that it will leave you in a really recovered state of good health.” The slightly melancholy tone is no more than that of a letter eight years earlier when Collins left his seven-guineas-a-week job at All The Year Round to earn £5000 from the publisher Smith & Elder for his next novel, Armadale: “I am very sorry that we part company (though only in a literary sense), but I hope we shall work together again, one day.” ((To Collins, 5 January 1862, PILGRIM X 5.)) When Dickens wrote in January 1870, Collins was unable to see anyone – literally. He had written to his lawyer Tindell two days earlier, “As for me, the gout has got me in the eye. I am confined to my room blinded for the time being.” ((Collins to Tindell, 25 January 1870, MITCHELL; BGLL.)) Barely three months earlier Collins had

… had a day at Gadshill, a little while since. Only the family. Very harmonious and pleasant – except Dickens’s bath, which dripped behind the head of my bed all night. Apropos of Gadshill, your cutting from the New York Times, has been followed by a copy of the paper and a letter from Bigelow. I don’t think Dickens has heard of it – and I shan’t say anything about it, for it might vex him, and can do no good. Why they should rake up that old letter now, is more than I can understand. But then a people who can spell Forster’s name without the “r”, are evidently capable of anything. ((To Frederick Lehmann, 25 October 1869, B&C II 326-327.))

The “old letter” referred to here is that written by Dickens in May 1858 to his friend Arthur Smith concerning his separation. This is the so-called “violated letter” that Dickens claimed he had not intended to be published, but merely to be shown to people who questioned what had happened (Forster, bk 8 ch. 2). However, to his dismay it was published in an American newspaper on 16 August 1858 and was then widely reprinted in America and Britain. For some reason, eleven years later, the New York Timeshad published it once more under the heading “Why Charles Dickens Separated From His Wife: His Own Statement. From The Boston Folio.” ((The New York Times, 28 September 1869, 5 col. 5; the misprint “Foster” is found around half way down the column.)) Clearly this would have upset Dickens greatly if he had learned of it, and Collins’s considerate action in concealing the news hardly seems the stuff of enmity. Further, a newly published letter to Charles Fechter also shows that Collins visited Dickens at Gad’s Hill Place barely two weeks before his death. ((To Charles Fechter, 28 May 1870, PILGRIM XII 536-538)) He is also reported to have been planning another visit in June when he had finished Man and Wife, an appointment only prevented by Dickens’s death (Robinson, 242; Davis, 265; Peters, 317).

Writing to a friend in 1888, towards the end of his own life, Collins recalled being “… with Dickens at Paris in 1855. We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be. Nobody (my dear mother excepted, of course) felt so positively sure of the future before me in Literature, as Dickens did.” ((Collins to Robert du Pontavice de Heussey, 15 March 1886, PARRISH; BGLL.)) The new evidence presented here suggests that they died as they lived, the closest of friends. Earlier conclusions about the cooling relationship may thus need to be reappraised.

III My Dear Dickens

The other side of this correspondence is missing. Letters to Dickens from Collins, like all the rest, were burnt in the fire at Gad’s Hill and subsequently. Only three remain. One is a letter which fulfils Dickens’s criterion of a letter “on absolute business”. On 7 August 1860 Collins accepts an engagement to work for two years as a writer on Dickens’s periodical All The Year Round on a salary of seven guineas a week plus a share in the profits. ((Collins to Dickens, 7 August 1860, B&C I 185.)) The others are small letters. One, cited above, is about a play they were performing. The other asks leave to come and stay at Gad’s Hill. Both somehow survived. All are addressed “My dear Dickens” but their sign offs change from “… attached and obedient servant W. Wilkie Collins” in 1851 to “Ever yours Wilkie Collins” in 1860 to “Ever your afftly W.C” in 1864. ((Collins to Dickens, 2 November, B&C I 75, and 8 September 1864, B&C I 249.))

But that is not the end of the Collins side of the correspondence. There is one final secret waiting to be discovered in these 169 letters. Almost every one either replies to a letter from Collins or invites a reply – some do both. From these clues we can reconstruct something of the missing half of this correspondence. That will be the subject of a second essay, which will also return to the claims that their relationship cooled towards the end of Dickens’s life.

Works Cited

(To save space, single citations from periodicals are given fully in the notes but excluded here.)
1. Collections of Letters
B&C = The Letters of Wilkie Collins. Ed. William Baker and William Clarke. 2 vols. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1999.

BEARD = Dickens to his Oldest Friend. Ed. Walter Dexter. London & New York: Putnam, 1932.

BGLL = The Public Face of Wilkie Collins. Ed. William Baker, Andrew Gasson, Graham Law and Paul Lewis. 4 vols. London: Pickering & Chatto, Forthcoming [2005].

CATHERINE = Mr. & Mrs. Charles Dickens: His Letters to Her. Ed. Walter Dexter. London: Constable 1935.

HUTTON = Letters of Charles Dickens to Wilkie Collins 1851-1870 . Ed. Lawrence Hutton. London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co., 1892.

MDGH = The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Mary Dickens and Georgina Hogarth. 3 vols. London: Chapman & Hall. 1880-2 [1879-81].

NONESUCH = The Letters of Charles Dickens. Ed. Walter Dexter. 3 vols. London: Nonesuch Press, 1938.

PILGRIM = The Letters of Charles Dickens. Pilgrim edition, ed. Graham Storey et al. 12 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-2002.

WILLS = Charles Dickens as Editor. Ed. R.C. Lehmann. London: Smith, Elder, 1912.

2. Manuscripts collections
BERG = Berg Collection, New York Public Library

HUNTINGTON = Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

ILLINOIS = University of Illinois at Urbana

MITCHELL = The Mitchell Collection, Glasgow Public Library

PARRISH = Morris L. Parrish Collection, Princeton Univeristy

PM = Pierpont Morgan Library, New York

3. Other
Adrian, Arthur Allen. Georgina Hogarth and the Dickens Circle. London: Oxford University Press, 1957.

Baker, William. Wilkie Collins’s Library. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2002.

Clarke, William. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins. London: W.H. Allen, 1988.

Daunton, M.J. Royal Mail: The Post Office since 1840. London: Athlone Press, 1985.

Davis, Nuel Pharr. The Life of Wilkie Collins. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1952.

Forster, John. The Life of Charles Dickens. 3 vols. London: Chapman & Hall, 1872-4.

Johnson, Edgar. Charles Dickens: His Tragedy and Triumph. 2 vols. London: Victor Gollancz, 1953.

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

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors. London: Secker & Warburg, 1991.

Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins. London: Bodley Head, 1951.

Slater, Michael. Dickens and Women. London : J.M. Dent, 1983.

Storey, Gladys. Dickens and Daughter. London: Frederick Muller, 1939.

Todd, William, and Ann Bowden. Tauchnitz International Editions in English. New York: Bibliographical Society of America, 1988.

Tomalin, Claire. The Invisible Woman. London: Viking, 1990.

Watts, Alan S. Dickens at Gad’s Hill. Goring-on-Thames: Cedric Dickens/ Elvendon Press, 1989.