The Letters of Wilkie Collins (Vol 1 & 2)

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Wilkie Collins is one of the few ‘major Victorian creative personalities’ (to use the rather infelicitous phrasing of the editors of this collection), whose letters have hitherto remained uncollected and unpublished. Sadly, many of the letters which might have proved most interesting for the biographer, the literary historian, or the merely prurient, will remain uncollected because they have disappeared or been destroyed. Thus this volume adds nothing to our knowledge of Collins’s correspondence with Dickens; a correspondence which no doubt would have thrown a great deal of interesting light on their collaborations, the London literary scene of the 1850s and 1860s, and the life of the English flaneur in mid-nineteenth-century Paris. Another significant absence from these volumes, as the editors readily confess, is any trace of Collins’s correspondence with his mistresses Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd, and other members of his ‘morganatic family’ as he refers to them in one letter. However, while much has disappeared much remains, indeed much more than the economics of modern publishing will permit to be reproduced here. Baker and Clarke have traced more than 2,000 items of Collins’s correspondence in institutional and private holdings, and they produce transcriptions of 591 of the most ‘important’, letters, 127 in summarised form (pressure of space again), as ‘the foundation for any outline of his life and any judgement of the kind of man he was.’

What kind of man do these volumes reveal? Who was Wilkie Collins? The young Collins was a great advocate of the new Republic of letters who saw the disappearance of the ‘Great Man’ (1:61) and democratisation of letters as a levelling up, and who put his faith in ‘King Public’ as a ‘good King for Literature and Art’ (1:79), and a ready ally for The Leader in its campaign for law reform. He was a man extremely preoccupied with money matters. The first volume (especially those sections covering the years in which Collins was trying to establish himself as a writer) contains numerous requests to his mother for money and just as many letters to his friend Charles Ward making complicated arrangements for the transfer of money from one account to another or one place to another. Later on, prompted it would seem by the deaths of Dickens and of his brother Charles, this man whose fiction often turned on complicated plots built around wills and inheritance busied himself setting his own complex affairs in order, regularly updating his will to ensure that his irregular dependants would be taken care of. Collins was also greatly interested in the monetary aspects of the fiction industry, ever anxious about his own contracts (and increasingly tenacious about gaining the best terms) and extremely interested in the details of other writers’ deals with publishers and the profits they obtained from them. Like Dickens Collins was a great champion of one of the main causes of the professional writer, a reform of the Copyright Law, and there are several forthright statements of his views about the iniquities of intellectual property theft by newspaper editors, adapters of novels for the stage, and the American and European publishers of pirated editions. These letters reveal a man who took the profession of literature very seriously. Later in life he dealt assiduously, and occasionally illuminatingly, with queries about his own writing practice, and offered advice to fellow writers. (A particularly interesting letter to Charles Reade (2:340) offers detailed professional advice about possible revisions to the latter’s dramatic adaptation of his novel Put Yourself in His Place). He was also alert to changes in the publishing industry, deploring the ‘present idiotic system of publication in 3 Vols.’ (2:353), and remarking to George Smith in 1871 that ‘a very few years more will see a revolution in the publishing trade for which most of the publishers are unprepared’ (2:349).

Like the letters of so many Victorian writers (George Eliot’s spring to mind) Collins’s correspondence is full of references to his bodily (mal)functions. Collins had more cause than most for this preoccupation, and some of these letters are painful reading. The editors make some attempt to unravel the mysteries of Collins’s illnesses by investigating his Pharmacopoeia, but the precise causes of his numerous ailments remain a matter of speculation. Given his own physical decline it is unsurprising that Collins should have been so interested in degeneration; what is surprising is the extraordinary vigour and energy of many of the letters of his declining years. Other surprises include his curious, playful correspondence with the eleven year-old Nannie Wynne (whom he addressed as ‘Mrs Wilkie’) which only came to light in 1988, and in which he enacts a fantasy of marriage. It is also intriguing to see this erstwhile boon companion of Dickens proffer his entertainingly Scrooge-like views on ‘the season of Cant and Christmas’ (2:409).

The editors reproduce this diverse correspondence chronologically, and divide it into ten sections, each of which corresponds to an important stage in Collins’s life (an exception to chronology is made in the case of the Nannie Wynne letters which appear in a small section of their own). Each section is prefaced by a brief introduction summarising its contents and referring to Collins’s current fictional projects. Baker and Clarke have struggled manfully, but not always successfully with Collins’s difficult handwriting; most readers will want to offer more plausible readings of odd words here and there. A more serious deficiency is the extremely light touch adopted in the provision of explanatory annotation on some of the addressees and on events, persons, places, and books mentioned by Collins. This is a missed opportunity. However, despite these cavils these handsomely produced volumes will be a necessary addition to any self-respecting nineteenth-century library collection.