On Wilkie Collins and Hugh Conway “Poor Fargus”

Jun 13, 2013 | Articles

Fred Fargus joined the family auctioneering business in Bristol as a junior partner at the age of 20 on his father’s premature death in 1868, but decided to sell up when his uncle retired in the summer of 1884. ((For a brief biography of Fargus more detailed and accurate than that in the Dictionary of National Biography, see “Death of Hugh Conway”.)) By then Fargus was far more widely known as the author Hugh Conway. Under that pseudonym, by the early 1880s he had published a slim volume of verse, the lyrics to several romantic songs, and a handful of short tales of mystery and the supernatural. The stories appeared not only in the Bristol Times and other local publications, but also in metropolitan magazines like the weekly Chambers’s Journal and the monthly Blackwood’s. Unexpectedly, though, it was a short novel which appeared at the price of sixpence in November 1883 as the third of the paperback Christmas Annuals issued by the Bristol house of J. W. Arrowsmith which became the publishing sensation of the year and brought him sudden national and international fame. ((The two earlier Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annuals, both priced at a shilling, had been failures: the first, a collection of tales entitled Thirteen at Dinner and What Came of It appearing in late 1881, had included Fargus’s first published story “The Daughter of the Stars” (Arrowsmith, iii). ))  Less than half of the initial edition of 6,000 of Called Back, as the novella was entitled, had sold by the end of the holiday season, but in the new year sales picked up, the story was reissued as a shilling volume in Arrowsmith’s Bristol Library, and a total of 30,000 copies were cleared by March 1884. At the same time, in collaboration with J. Comyns Carr, the author rapidly created a dramatic version which enjoyed long runs in both provincial and metropolitan theaters.

This sudden turn of events seems to have been precipitated by an enthusiastic notice in Henry Labouchère’s widely-read society weekly Truth: 

Who Arrowsmith is and who Hugh Conway is I do not know, nor had I ever heard of the Christmas Annual of the former, or of the latter as a writer of fiction; but, a week or two ago, a friend of mine said to me, “Buy Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual, if you want to read one of the best stories that have appeared for many a year.” A few days ago, I happened to be at the Waterloo Station waiting for a train. I remembered the advice, and asked the clerk at the bookstall for the Annual. He handed it to me, and remarked, “They say the story is very good, but this is only the third copy I have sold.” It was so foggy that I could not read it in the train as I had intended, so I put the book into my pocket. About 2 that night, it occurred to me that it was nearing the hour when decent, quiet people go to bed. I saw the Annual staring me in the face, and took it up. Well, not until 4.30 did I get to bed. By that time I had finished the story. Had I not, I should have gone on reading. I agree with my friend—nay, I go farther than him, and say that Wilkie Collins never penned a more enthralling story. (3 Jan 1884, cited in Arrowsmith, iv) 

According to the original agreement Fargus ceded the entire copyright of Called Back to Arrowsmith for only £80. However, on the success of the book, this was cancelled by mutual consent and a royalty was paid for a period of six years. By summer 1887 over 350,000 copies of the book had been sold throughout the British Empire (Arrowsmith, iii-iv). A much larger number were undoubtedly printed in various cheap and unauthorized editions in the United States, and the story was quickly translated into all the major European languages. Many contemporary commentators, like the Truth reviewer or Margaret Oliphant in Blackwood’s (312), tended to compare the story to Wilkie Collins’s sensation novels of the 1860s, but readers are now more likely to recognize Fargus’s tale as one of the first examples of the modern best-selling thriller.

Free of his duties as an auctioneer and inundated with commissions, Fargus turned out a vast amount of new fiction in the year following the success of Called Back. He wrote both a full-length serial and a trio of short stories for the provincial newspaper syndicates, in addition to regular contributions to metropolitan periodicals. Among these was A Family Affair, which was serialized in Carr’s monthly English Illustrated Magazine from October 1884, before appearing as a triple-decker from Macmillan the following year. It is generally considered the young Fargus’s best work, and an indication of considerable literary potential. ((Fargus has received little modern critical attention, but this position is the one taken by most reference works, from the Dictionary of National Biography to Sutherland.)) However, Fargus’s most popular and remunerative efforts were undoubtedly the two further thrillers for Arrowsmith, Dark Days and Slings and Arrows, which appeared as the Christmas Annuals for 1884 and 1885 respectively. ((Dark Days proved particularly successful; it was also dramatized and widely translated, and provoked a parody in Andrew Lang’s Even Darker Days, also issued in 1884 under the pseudonym “A. Huge Longway.” )) However, many of these narratives appeared in volume form only posthumously. Perhaps the excess of literary labour led to physical exhaustion, for early in 1885 Fargus showed symptoms of tuberculosis and was advised to seek rest and recuperation in a warmer climate. While in the Riviera in the spring, following visits to Milan, Florence, and Rome in search of copy, he was diagnosed as suffering from typhoid fever. When convalescent, he caught a chill, suffered a relapse, and died at Monte Carlo on 15 May 1885.

Like almost everyone else in England, Collins was well aware of Hugh Conway’s brief moment of glory. Around a month after the writer’s death, he wrote to his agent A.P. Watt suggesting that, in order to copyright the title of his new story so that it could not be stolen by pirates if used in advance publicity, he should adopt the method pioneered by “Poor Fargus” with Dark Days (14 June 1885, PEMBROKE). ((More generally on the relationship between Collins and Watt, see Law, 100-10.)) This was to issue a “bogus” story of a half-a-dozen pages or so under the same title, a practice in fact adopted with both The Evil Genius and The Guilty River (see Gasson, 58, 72).  Moreover, it seems likely that the narrative form of The Evil Genius was influenced by A Family Affair, which combines sensationalism with delicate social comedy in treating the themes of adultery and illegitimacy. It is then perhaps not surprising that when J.W. Arrowsmith approached Collins after Fargus’s death to see if he would take over the Bristol author’s role for the Arrowsmith’s Christmas Annual for 1886, Collins was happy to agree to write a story “equal in length to ‘Called Back’” (to A.P. Watt, 18 Aug 1886, PEMBROKE). The result was The Guilty River, though it was far from achieving the popular and commercial success of Fargus’s efforts. When Watt wrote to Bristol on Collins’s death to settle the royalty account, Arrowsmith informed him that he still had 25,000 unwanted copies of the Bristol Library Edition of the story on his hands (5 Oct 1889, BERG; see Peters, 418-9). By then Fargus’s mantle had already passed to Walter Besant, who wrote all the Arrowsmith’s Annuals from 1887 to 1890, presumably with greater financial success. ((Besant’s stories for Arrowsmith were: Katharine Regina (1887), The Inner House (1888), The Doubts of Dives (1889), and The Demoniac (1890).)) And in the 1890s many Annuals were produced by the rising young stars of imperial mystery and suspense, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Great Shadow (1892), Anthony Hope’sThe Indiscretion of the Duchess (1894), and Henry Rider Haggard’s The Wizard (1896)–all also reissued as short shilling romances in the Bristol Library.

The Guilty River and Called Back have more in common than simply their length, and there are grounds for comparing their narrative contents and strategies. Both center on a love triangle, where one of the male rivals is suddenly handicapped by sensory deprivation, the rejected suitor attempts or commits murder, and the result is a transgressive but finally happy union. In The Guilty River, the young landowner Gerard Roylake falls in love with Cristel Toller, the brown buxom daughter of the miller his tenant. To achieve fulfillment, however, he has to counter not only the social disapproval of his step-mother and the neighbouring gentry, but also the extreme jealousy of the miller’s mysterious and nameless lodger, a physician of great beauty and promise who has lost both his hearing and his sanity on discovering that homicide runs in the family. In Called Back the rich and independent Gilbert Vaughan hastily marries the pale willowy beauty Pauline March, the half- English daughter of an Italian patriot, only to discover at leisure that she is an amnesiac with the mental and emotional capacities of a child. Thus, before the union can be consummated, the husband needs to assume the role of detective in order to remove the veil from his wife’s past. In doing so he simultaneously comes to understand a mysterious and melodramatic incident in his own youth, at a time when he was struck temporarily by blindness. The villain of the piece is the stiletto-wielding Macari whose desire for Pauline led him to murder her brother, in a traumatic scene strangely witnessed by both Gilbert and Pauline, then unknown to each other but finally happily united.

Although we are told that Collins’s hero has been educated on the Continent and his villain’s mother was a New World slave, The Guilty River is set uniformly and claustrophobically in the gloomy woods crowding the banks of a murky river in middle England, one of those heavily symbolic landscapes familiar from the author’s early sensation novels (Cooke, 21). At the same time the social issues raised are deeply embedded in the swamps of class prejudice. In contrast, Called Back is keener to exploit stereotypes of national and racial identity. Though revolutionary politics are not themselves a serious issue, political conspiracy in Italy and political exile in Siberia provide an exotic background, so that the narrative can move from London’s West End to Old Town Edinburgh on a shrieking express train that looks forward to John Buchan, or indeed switch from Turin to Moscow in jet-setting James Bond style.

Fargus had written Called Back in less than six weeks (Arrowsmith, iii), but the aging and ailing Collins got into serious difficulties when he attempted to work to a similar schedule. Publication of The Guilty River was arranged for 15 November 1886, with a simultaneous appearance in New York in Harper’s Handy Series. Collins had been late finishing The Evil Genius in March, only a month or so ahead of the newspaper serialization, and was seriously ill for some time afterwards, so that he only set to work on the Arrowsmith story in August and was still less than half way through in early October. He was forced into working twelve hours a day from the beginning of November to complete the story, and even then unrevised proofs had to be sent to New York to meet the publication deadline. ((See the letters to Watt, 18 Aug and 10 Oct 1886 (PEMBROKE), and to Harper & Brothers, 6 Nov 1886 (PRINCETON).)) Partly as a result, the pacing of the two narratives is also markedly different. Fargus’s tale in fact gets off to a rather slow and laborious start, but, after the murder scene, increases the grip of suspense inexorably until the release of the dénouement. Collins, in contrast, gets in with a strong opening sequence underlining thedoppelgänger relationship between hero and villain, but after the failed murder attempt, the narrative loses its way and ends in bathos and confusion. The tale “was spoilt for want of room” as Collins put it in a postscript to a letter to William Winter (30 Jul 1887, Collins, 2:540-2).

The greatest contrast, however, is in narrative tone, as evidenced by the following climactic scenes where both heroes are forced to imbibe an unknown liquid. Collins’s hero is made to swallow the antidote to the poisoned tea he has naively drunk, by his lover who is quicker to divine the intentions of the villain:

“Drink it,” she said, “if you value your life!”
I should of course have found it perfectly easy to obey her, strange as her language
was, if I had been in full possession of myself. Between distress and alarm, my mind (I suppose) had lost its balance. With or without a cause, I hesitated.
She crossed the room, and threw open the window which looked out on the river. “You shan’t die alone,” she said. “If you don’t drink it, I’ll throw myself out!”
I drank from the tumbler to the last drop.
It was not water.
It had a taste which I can compare to no drink, and to no medicine, known to me. I thought of the other strange taste peculiar to the tea. At last, the tremendous truth forced itself on my mind. The man in whom my boyish generosity had so faithfully believed had attempted my life. (The Guilty River, Ch. 13) 

Stumbling in his blindness on the scene of the crime, Fargus’s hero is made to drink a narcotic by the conspirators before he is restored to freedom:

Presently a curious odour—that of some drug was perceptible. A hand was laid on my shoulder and a glass full of some liquid was placed between my fingers.
“Drink,” said the voice—the only voice I had heard.
“I will not,” I cried, “it may be poison.”
I heard a short harsh laugh and felt a cold metallic ring laid against my forehead.
“It is not poison; it is an opiate and will do you no harm. But this,” and as he spoke I
felt the pressure of the little iron circlet, “this is another affair. Choose!”
I drained the glass and was glad to feel the pistol moved from my head. “Now,” said the spokesman, taking the empty glass from my hand, “if you are a wise man, when you awake tomorrow you will say, ‘I have been drunk or dreaming.’ You have heard us but not seen us, but remember we know you.” (Called Back, Ch. 2) 

Though neither tale can bear great claims to enduring literary worth, Fargus’s use of language is here undoubtedly more crisp, more concise, more modern. In sum, though Collins attempts intermittently to reproduce the light romance of Fargus’s thriller, he is constantly seduced by the attractions of heavy Gothic.

Although Called Back represented a key intervention in the market, Arrowsmiths of Bristol were not the only progressive house to explore the economic possibilities of publishing new shorter romances in single volumes at a fraction of the price of a triple-decker. Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story A Study in Scarlet appeared at only a shilling as Beeton’s Christmas Annual for 1887, while, even earlier, the best-selling tales of adventure which established the reputations of both Stevenson and Haggard appeared as five- shilling volumes from Cassells (Treasure Island, 1883, and King Solomon’s Mines, 1885) or Longmans (Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde, 1886, and She, 1887). The only new fiction which Collins seems to have read with much enthusiasm during the last years of his life were these adventure stories by Haggard and Stevenson. The former was also a client of A.P. Watt at this stage, and when Collins’s agent sent him copies of the Cassells editions of King Solomon’s Mines or Kidnapped he responded with by then uncharacteristic animation (4 Jan and 29 Jul 1887, PEMBROKE; see Peters, 419-29). However, the failure of The Guilty River seems to have discouraged him from any further attempts at writing thrillers himself. While Collins was struggling to complete his assignment for Arrowsmith, Watt was asked whether the author would also write a short romance of the same type for J. & R. Maxwell, the publishing house now run by John Maxwell’s two sons. Collins replied that, though he might be “tempted by a five shilling series,” if the offer involved “a shilling or two shilling series, then no” (10 Nov 1886, PEMBROKE). The Legacy of Cain and Blind Love, Wilkie’s last two novels, both rather old-fashioned exercises in sensationalism, thus duly appeared as old-fashioned triple-deckers from Chatto and Windus.

Works Cited


BERG = Berg Collection, New York Public Library.

PEMBROKE = Letters from Wilkie Collins to A.P. Watt, 1881-9 (LCII 2840-2), Pembroke College Library, University of Cambridge.

PRINCETON = Morris L. Parrish Collection, Princeton University Libraries.


A[rrowsmith], J.W. Preface to Hugh Conway [F.J. Fargus], Called Back, Bristol: Arrowsmith, 1898, iii-iv.

[Collins, Wilkie.] The Letters of Wilkie Collins. Ed. William Baker and William M. Clarke. 2 vols. London: Macmillan, 1999.

Cooke, Simon. “Reading Landscape: Wilkie Collins, the Pathetic Fallacy, and the Semiotics of the Victorian Wasteland.” Wilkie Collins Society Journal, NS 2 (1999) 18-31.

“Death of Hugh Conway.” Bristol Times and Mirror (16 May 1885) 5.

Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins: An Illustrated Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Law, Graham. Serializing Fiction in the Viction Press. London: Palgrave, 2000.

Oliphant, Margaret. “Three Young Novelists.” Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 136 (Sep 1884) 296-316.

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

Sutherland, John. The Stanford Companion to Victorian Fiction. Stanford, Cal.: Stanford University Press, 1989. 72