Newsletter Spring 2019

PATRON Faith Clarke
Chairman Andrew Gasson, 21 Huson Close, London NW3 3JW
Membership Paul Lewis, 4 Ernest Gardens, Chiswick, London W4 3QU


The latest issue of the WCS peer reviewed Wilkie Collins Journal is now available online.  Our editor, Joanne Parsons, has put together with the assistance of guest editors Janine Hatter and Helena Ifill a Special Issue for Volume 16, ‘Victorian Popular Fiction’.  This number concentrates on Victorian journalism and in addition to the Introduction there are six essays and three Book Reviews.  The Journal can be found at  The current issue is available just to members.  Please note that the log in details have been changed to username: after and password: dark, both in lower case.  All previous numbers and Newsletters are available to non-members without the need for a password.

For the future, Joanne has planned two new special issues. The first, on Materiality in the work of Collins and his contemporaries, will be published later this year and next year there will be another on ‘Neo-Victorian’ interpretations on the work of Collins and his contemporaries.


The WCS continues to be affiliated to the Alliance of Literary Societies which represents over 100 individual societies.  The ALS holds its annual AGM weekend each spring.  This year the meeting takes place from Friday 17 to Sunday 19 May in Nuneaton, hosted by the George Eliot Fellowship.  There will be a Friday evening welcome at the Chilvers Coton Heritage Centre.  The Saturday programme will be based at Nuneaton Town Hall on Coton Road, Nuneaton CV11 5AA and includes several talks, the AGM, a raffle and dramatic extracts.  A trip to Astley is planned for the Sunday, including Astley Book Farm (the biggest second hand bookshop in the Midlands).  The George Eliot collections at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery and at Nuneaton Library are also available on the Sunday.

The conference fee to include talks and refreshments is £10 with a buffet lunch also available at £10.  The programme and booking form are now available to download from the ALS website at


As predicted in the collection of Wilkie’s ‘Parodies, Plagiarisms and Imitations’ which accompanied the last Newsletter, a new addition has already come to light in the person of GK Chesterton.  Apart from his literary endeavours, he was also known as an artist.  Some of his Caricatures with the overall title of ‘Villainous Plotting’ were published in The Odd Volume, published in 1911 in aid of the Funds of the National Book Trade Provident Society.  In particular he drew ‘Count Fosco and Mr Quilp’ which features a suitably large Fosco together with a suitably diminutive Quilp (from Old Curiosity Shop).  See

In addition, he writes in The Victorian Age in Literature (H. Holt & Co.; London, 1913 and available online at

There gathers round these two great novelists [Dickens and Thackeray] a considerable group of good novelists, who more or less mirror their mid-Victorian mood. Wilkie Collins may be said to be in this way a lesser Dickens and Anthony Trollope a lesser Thackeray. Wilkie Collins is chiefly typical of his time in this respect: that while his moral and religious conceptions were as mechanical as his carefully constructed fictitious conspiracies, he nevertheless informed the latter with a sort of involuntary mysticism which dealt wholly with the darker side of the soul….. For the rest, Wilkie Collins is these two elements: the mechanical and the mystical; both very good of their kind. He is one of the few novelists in whose case it is proper and literal to speak of his “plots.” He was a plotter; he went about to slay Godfrey Ablewhite as coldly and craftily as the Indians did. But he also had a sound though sinister note of true magic; as in the repetition of the two white dresses in The Woman in White; or of the dreams with their double explanations in Armadale. His ghosts do walk. They are alive; and walk as softly as Count Fosco, but as solidly. Finally, The Moonstone is probably the best detective tale in the world.

And at the end of Part V of The Scandal of Father Brown when discoursing on disguises, Chesterton writes:

Have you ever read “The Woman in White”? Don’t you remember that the fashionable and luxurious Count Fosco, fleeing for his life before a secret society, was found stabbed in the blue blouse of a common French workman?


Those concerned about climate change and our recent long hot summers may be interested in Rosemary’s Ashton’s One Hot Summer Dickens, Darwin and Disraeli, and the Great Stink of 1858 (Yale Universities Press, ISBN 978-0-300-22726-0, heavily discounted at Amazon and the Book Depository).  Although mainly concerned with the three main authors, the account gives various references to Collins and other contemporaries.  These include The Frozen Deep; Dickens’s separation from Catherine; the Garrick Club affair with Edmund Yates; and ‘Derby Day’ by Collins’s friend W. P. Frith.

Although during 1858 Collins travelled around Britain, including Wales in early June and Broadstairs in August, he was in London for most of that sweltering summer.  The temperatures may sound familiar to modern readers, possibly exceeding even our own in 2018, currently claimed to be the hottest on record. The thermometer reached 86° F on 14 June 1858, rising to a record 94° F in Hyde Park (near Collins’s Marylebone) on 17 June with one source giving a brief 102° F at Greenwich.  June 1858 was generally regarded then as the hottest month on record with temperatures about 8 degrees above average.  There was some let up in July but temperatures were still in the 80s and the Thames was compared with the Ganges.

Collins was ambivalent about hot weather.  Writing to his brother Charles in June 1856 he noted “Today, however, has been lovely – scorching hot summer weather at last” and to Anne Benson Proctor he wrote from Rome in December 1863 “the weather became the weather of one of our fine English summers.  Day after day of blue skies and bright sunshine, and soft breezes.”  Nevertheless, in Chapter 3 of The Woman in White, perhaps recalling recent experience, he was prompted to write “The heat had been painfully oppressive.”

By September 1864, however, he wrote to his mother “I am going tomorrow to Gadshill for a few days, taking my work with me.  The oppressive atmosphere weighing on us, just now, as you know never agrees with me.  I must see if the Kentish air will relieve my muddled head.”  Later in his life, by August 1880, he complained “Our weather here, has been very oppressive.  Undeveloped thunderstorms, perpetually threatening, and only now and then fulfilling the threat, press a little heavily on sensitively-organised people (of whom I am one)”; and towards the end of his life in August 1887, writing to Sebastian Schlesinger, “I have been, and shall remain, wretchedly out of health.  The heat of this summer has completely unnerved me.”


A small oil painting (9 x 12 inches) which looks very similar to the ‘Visiting the Puppy’ frontispiece engraving to Volume II of Wilkie’s 1848 biography of his father, The Memoirs of William Collins, R.A., was recently offered at auction.  It was sold for £480 on 21 March as lot 564 by fine art auctioneers, Brightwells of Leominster.  The picture was noted as ‘Attributed to William Collins RA (1788-1847)’ but was accompanied by a more detailed description provided by WCS member and William Collins expert, Alan Bean.

There were a number of pictures relating to the theme of children admiring puppies in the artist’s 1847 Studio Sale at Christie’s (lots 111, 120 and 655).  In his notebooks though, Collins only recorded one finished painting incorporating puppies, namely his early 1812 painting ‘Children with Puppies’, painted for Thomas Freeman Heathcote.  In comparison with the painting at Brightwells, the 1812 work is a far more complex scene with three separate groups of children.  In order to paint three groups of children in ‘Children with Puppies’ it is likely that Collins would have made preparatory sketches for each group. Accordingly, it is possible that the Brightwells painting represents one of a number of such sketches for the 1812 painting. Interestingly enough, the third boy in the right hand group in ‘Children with Puppies’ wears a battered hat which obscures the upper half of his face, similar to the boy in the current example.

The central group in ‘Visiting the Puppy’ is very closely related to the engraving by John James Hinchcliffe (1805-1875) which is the frontispiece illustration to Volume 2 of Wilkie Collins’s 1848 biography of his father.  On the basis that Wilkie Collins would have been intimately involved in all aspects of that publication including a choice of the illustrations, it seems possible that the work at Brightwells is the painting from which Hinchcliffe prepared his plate, and that it is indeed probably by William Collins.  An early state of the engraving related to the subject, which has the title and artist’s name only and not the engraver’s, is in the British Museum, (ref 2006 u.3219).

The Lot 564 picture can be seen at and can also be found at


Sotheran’s – which claims to be the world’s longest established antiquarian bookseller – has been offering for sale a large number of Wilkie Collins first editions.  It is very unusual to find such an almost complete collection in original cloth and generally fine condition, though that is reflected in the prices.  All volumes contain the bookplate of John Martineau (1904-1982), a collateral descendant of the Victorian writer and sociologist Harriet Martineau (1802-1876).  The collection was put up for sale by one of his descendants.

Many of the titles have been sold but some still remain and details can be obtained from Sotheran’s, 2 Sackville Street, London W1S 3DP; 020 7439 6151; or  Ask for Oliver Clegg or Rebekah Cron.

Wilkie himself bought books from Sotheran as witnessed by three payments in his accounts:19 November 1860 to Willis & Co., £8-13s-6d; 21 July 1864 to Willis & Co., £10-3s; 14 February 1872 to Sotheran & Co., £5-18s-6d.

The payments to Willis & Co were in fact to Willis & Sotheran, an earlier name for the firm and the addressee on the letter accompanying the cheque for £10-3s.

Sadly, we do not know what he bought for these sums.  In 1872 Wilkie paid the firm a subscription for Dramatists of the Reformation edited by William Logan and James Maidment.  But having read the first volume (of what would become 14) he wrote to Sotheran & Co on 1 November cancelling the subscription.


BBC Radio 4 Extra continues to revive Collins adaptations brought out of the archives.  Most recently the 2001 dramatisation of The Woman in White in four episodes was broadcast on Radio 4 Extra and subsequently made available online.  It was adapted by Martyn Wade, with Toby Stephens as Walter Hartright, Juliet Aubrey as Marian Halcombe, Emily Bruni as Laura Fairlie, Jeremy Clyde as Sir Percival Glyde, Alice Hart as Anne Catherick, Sean Baker as Mr Gilmore, Ioan Meredith as Pesca, and Edward Petherbridge as Frederick Fairlie.  You can hear all four parts here

It is always worthwhile keeping an eye on the Radio 4 Extra programme schedule as we never know when Basil, No Name or one of Collins’s short stories may reappear for a short while.


A 1973 TV dramatization of Wilkie’s story ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’ features as one episode (of 13 of course!) on a new DVD of Orson Welles’ Great Mysteries – Volume 1 published in February.  Each of the mysteries is introduced by the great man (Welles not Collins!).  The adaptation follows the original fairly well but is much less tense in the key bed-smothering scene.

‘A Terribly Strange Bed’ was Wilkie’s first contribution to Household Words in the issue of 24 April 1852 for which he was paid £7-10s for the 7775 word tale.  A workman might have earned £1 or £1-10s a week then.  Wilkie republished it in his anthology After Dark in 1856 and it is found in numerous later collections of mystery or ghost stories in many languages.

A radio version starring Peter Lawford was broadcast as part of CBS Radio’s Suspense series on 7 June 1954. Even earlier was a reading of the story, adapted for schools, on the BBC Home Service on 12 March 1946.  Other readings have been broadcast on BBC radio, most recently by Robin Bailey on 14/15 October 2009.  You can buy the DVD price £15 from search ‘Orson Welles’.


Wilkie’s copyright battles during his life are well-known.  But a newly-found report shows the battles did not stop at his death.  More than a year after he died, his executors brought two cases against pirate stage versions of The Woman in White and The New Magdalen.  The High Court heard the cases on 12 December 1890. The Judge, Sir Arthur Kekewich (1832-1907), rejected the first application because Wilkie’s own dramatization of The Woman in White had been made more than a decade after the story was published as a novel.  That made it fair game for unauthorised dramatisers.  But the Judge upheld the second claim as Wilkie had published his dramatic version of the book before the novel was published, thus retaining his copyright.  (The Legal News 21 March 1891 XIV p.90).

Neither pirated version appears in the Lord Chamberlain’s collection around that time so either or both may have been re-runs of the several pirated editions that had been performed during Wilkie’s life.

A fascinating insight into the first pirate stage adaptation of The Woman in White was published by Karen Laird in 2015.  Within three months of the novel’s publication in three volumes The Woman in White: A Drama in Three Acts was staged at the Surrey Theatre in Blackfriars Road which was south of the Thames and well away from the normal theatreland of the West End.  Probably written by J. M. Ware, the play ran for 24 performances from 3 to 30 November.  Wilkie was aware of it.  Just before it opened, he wrote to one of the senior people at the novel’s publisher, Sampson Low.

They are going to dramatize the story at The Surrey Theatre – and I am asked to go to law about that. I will certainly go and hiss – unless the manager makes a “previous arrangement” with me. ([0381] to Edward Marston, 31 October 1860).

There is no evidence that any of those three options happened.  The play got generally excellent reviews in, for example, The Times (8 November 1860, p.6) and the Athenaeum (10 November 1860, p. 638).  The production went on the provincial theatre circuit including Bath, Bristol, and Edinburgh before Christmas.

Laird praises the way the story was adapted for the stage, beginning when Walter is ensconced in Limmeridge House and ending with Fosco’s murder.  She says Wilkie used similar abridgements in his official dramatization which was so successful in 1871, running for 120 performances at the Olympic.  Karen Laird The Art of Adapting Victorian Literature 1848-1920 (2015: Ashgate, Farnham, ISBN 9781472424396), pp. 147-177.


The Leipzig based publisher Tauchnitz made its living by republishing popular English novels, in English, on the Continent of Europe for visitors to read.  Unusually, it paid authors for the right to do this.  In exchange the Tauchnitz editions were not allowed into the UK and there are several letters extant which Wilkie wrote to the agent Williams & Norgate to allow a few copies through for his own use.

An anecdote about how fiercely some Customs Officers kept the editions out the UK has been recently discovered in the Pall Mall Gazette.

Few travellers leave the Continent without bringing at least an odd volume or two. Ladies are said to be the worst offenders. Beauty exercises a certain power even upon the grimmest of Customs officers. The Dover boat had just arrived. The passengers walked over the gangway until the decks were cleared. One person remained, occupying a lonely camp-stool on the lee side of the funnel. It was a lady, young and beautiful. She gave no sign. Her eyes were riveted to the pages of a volume which lay on her lap; the wind had loosened her hair, which fell over her shoulders in picturesque disorder. Page after page she read, unconscious of the glassy gaze of the official to whom she had become the centre of an absorbing interest. At last he came up and tapped her politely on the shoulder. She started violently, and with a beseeching look. ‘Let me finish it, pray.’ ‘I must impound it, madam.’ ‘You must? ‘How much more have you to read’?’ ‘Half-a Volume.’ ‘I suggest a compromise,’ replied the officer. He took the volume, tore it in ‘two pieces, and threw over the first half into the sea. ‘You may keep the rest.’ It was his sacrifice to beauty. The volume was a Tauchnitz edition of W . . . . . C . . . . . . ‘s most thrilling romance.  (Pall Mall Gazette, 25 April 1884, p. 11.)

It seems clear that the book concerned was The Woman in White published by Tauchnitz in two volumes on 6 September 1860, just three weeks after the novel was published in London.  See Todd & Bowden (1988: New York), p130.  Wilkie was very generous over the years in his praise of the Tauchnitz firm.  In 1862 he wrote:

I am very glad to hear that The Woman In White has proved successful in your hands.  It has largely increased my reputation here – and I am rejoiced to think that it has helped to justify your uniform liberality of conduct and feeling towards English writers.  ([0453] to Tauchnitz, 28 January 1862).

Tauchnitz published 28 of Wilkie’s books from 1856 to 1890.  But only eleven payments from Tauchnitz are recorded in Wilkie’s bank accounts between 1862 and 1881, totalling just over £659.  It is a significant sum but less than 1% of the money which passed through his bank account from 1860 to his death.


WCS member John Bowen, who is Professor of English at the University of York, has discovered a letter that has great significance for both Dickens and Collins scholars (TLS 19 February 2019 search ‘Unmutual Friend).

Edward Dutton Cook, critic and author, was a neighbour of Catherine Dickens after she and Charles split up.  In January 1879 Cook wrote to another critic, William Moy Thomas, about the events in 1858 that led to the split, based on accounts Catherine confided in him towards the end of her life.

“He even tried to shut her up in a lunatic asylum, poor thing! But bad as the law is in regard to proof of insanity he could not quite wrest it to his purpose.”

Those sentences are new evidence for things that have been suggested before but have often been dismissed.  We know that Wilkie Collins was one of the very few friends in whom Dickens confided about his feelings for Ellen Ternan.  So it is likely he knew that Dickens had tried to get his wife committed.  In 1859 The Woman in White was published initially in Dickens’s periodical All The Year Round.  At its heart is the incarceration of a woman in a lunatic asylum.  Other sources for that plot line have been suggested – not least Edward Bulwer Lytton trying a similar ploy with his own wife – but this letter and John Bowen’s analysis gives us a new one.


Dr Jason Hall of Exeter University who edited Jezebel’s Daughter for Oxford World’s Classics was interviewed in the ‘Five Books’ series by Beatrice Wilford and gave his own ‘Best Books’ by Collins.  These featured The Woman in White with “weird characters like Count Fosco, or Marian Halcombe”; the “quaso-mythological world of Rambles Beyond Railways; The Moonstone which “introduces Sergeant Cuff, a memorable literary detective”; Poor Miss Finch where “only in Collins novel: a character who is blue throughout”; and Heart and Science “Collins’s 1883 attempt to enter directly into the anti-vivisection debates”.  The full interview van be found at


These are the words used by Emily Bartlett Hines to describe Wilkie’s unmarried relationship with two women throughout much of his adult life.  In a very interesting essay, she describes Wilkie’s relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd in the context of society, his novels, and his life.  Nicely illustrated by Sophie Margolin at search ‘brazen polyamory.


Paul Lewis
Andrew Gasson

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