The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Writing to Edward Pigott in July 1854, in a letter marked “Private,” Wilkie Collins offers his “deep sympathy” to his close friend and associate—not because Pigott has lost a family member but because the scandal surrounding Thornton Hunt’s adulterous relationship with Mrs. George Lewes, and sanctioned by her husband, threatens to damage the reputation of Pigott’s weekly, the Leader, with which all four men are connected. “If you take the steps, which I believe you will think as necessary as I do when you hear all particulars,” Collins advises, “you will…extricate yourself from a dangerous and degrading connection” (1:106). Coming from a man who would eventually live with another man’s wife—Mrs. Joseph Clow, also known as Caroline Graves—while fathering three children with a second partner, Martha Rudd, Collins’s harsh disapproval of Lewes and Hunt seems particularly ironic, and helps to gauge the distance he traveled in becoming a figure largely celebrated for his lack of convention. Perhaps more significantly, Collins’s letter calls into question the opposition it seeks to secure—the divide between private and public matters. In so doing, it testifies to what Karen Chase and Michael Levenson term “the spectacle of intimacy” among Victorians. In a letter marked “Private,” Collins helps to circulate various “reports” about Hunt and Lewes, discussing a scandal that publicized intimate details, and in which the domestic lives of the Leader’s editors threatened to damage Pigott professionally. Providing his friend with “testimony” against Lewes and Hunt, Collins imaginatively puts them on trial, and in the process renders suspect the alleged separation of the spheres.

Addressing the relation of public to private in their Introduction and illuminating their choice of title, the editors of The Public Face of Wilkie Collins explain that “the noticeable majority of Collins’s letters are concerned less with artistic and personal issues than with business and public affairs” (xxiii). Identifying each of Collins’s letters as belonging to one of four major categories (“Social, Artistic, Publishing and (other) Business”) and then regrouping the four categories into two—“the spheres of Private and Public”—they note that “the number of letters concerning Publishing affairs” nearly doubles those “devoted to either Social or Artistic matters” and belonging to what they consider the private realm (xxiii-xxiv). There can be no doubt that the correspondence made newly available to us in these volumes has great importance because it provides “an extraordinarily rich insight into key developments in print culture in the later decades of the Victorian period,” as the editors claim (xxx). Written over a span of nearly sixty years, Collins’s letters chart developments in the laws governing copyright and in the professionalization of authorship as well as revealing the rise of the literary agent and the challenge posed to the circulating libraries and three-volume publication in the second half of the Victorian period.

But if most of Collins’s letters concern the public world of publishing and derive significance from that fact, they also prove valuable in showing how Collins challenged the very divide between public and private. From nearly the outset of their Introduction, the editors note that their categorizations involve “judgement calls that would be complex to justify in open court” (xxviii)—conceding, for instance, that while they list Collins’s correspondence with Charles Ward as “Social,” it also addresses business matters. Yet Collins’s letters do not simply bridge categories: at times, they evade or subvert them, merging private with public, social with artistic, and demonstrating that their author not only constructed a “face” for public view but assumed various persona in his intimate relations as well. Distinguishing their four volumes from the two edited by William Baker and William M. Clarke in 1999, which foreground Collins’s correspondence with his mother and with his friend Charles Ward and thus provide “a life in letters,” the editors present theirwork as one that exemplifies “the business of letters” (xxx). Yet Collins personalized his business relations, as the editors show—while also devoting himself to the business of private life.

The publication of this extensive and well-edited collection of letters is most welcome: a major event in Collins scholarship and in Victorian studies generally. It aptly follows the appearance of the twelfth and final volume of the Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters and enables us to read the letters of the two friends and literary collaborators side by side. Organized chronologically, The Public Face of Wilkie Collinstranscribes approximately 2,500 letters from more than 80 archives and private collections worldwide, with over 2,100 published in full for the first time. It also cites and briefly describes, in their proper chronological positions, all of the letters included in the 1999 Baker and Clarke collection that are not transcribed in full in the four new volumes. Transcribing—or, rather, re-transcribing—dozens of letters that were included in an incomplete or summarized form in Baker and Clarke, it corrects errors that, at times, substantially obscured Collins’s meaning and cast doubt on the overall reliability of that earlier collection. The “sharp unfragmented walks” to which Collins allegedly refers in writing to his mother from Normandy in August 1847 (Baker and Clarke, 1:47) become “dark unfrequented walks” in the new collection (1:17), as they should, and a “ghostly set of people” (Baker and Clarke, 1:46) becomes a “ghastly” (1:17). The new volumes also correct the dating of many letters in Baker and Clarke and revisit and correct a less familiar, annotated edition of Collins’s letters—those from the University of Texas, transcribed in William Coleman’s 1975 doctoral dissertation. The editorial principles of the new collection are well conceived, clearly explained and consistently applied. Each volume contains facsimiles of two autograph letters, and useful appendices in the last include correspondence written for Collins in his last days and about his affairs after his death as well as various publishing agreements. In a final “Addenda” section, the editors provide several letters made known to them after the volumes were in proof.

One of several tables in the Introduction lists every person who received at least two letters from Collins, citing the number of letters in each case, the time span in which they were written, and assigning them to one specific category (“social” or “artistic,” for example). While these categorizations seem too rigid to be of much help to readers, the factual information conveyed here is very useful. We learn, for example, that Collins addressed nearly 300 letters to his literary agent A. P. Watt in the 1880s, over 160 to his mother between 1831 and 1868, and 125 to his solicitor William Tindell in the 1860s and 1870s, with these three topping the list of recipients in the four volumes. But numbers can be deceiving, as the editors explain, since letters to some recipients (Collins’s mother, for instance) are generally much longer than those to others. Whatever their length, Collins’s letters were received by a wide and sometimes surprising range of correspondents, including such figures as Charles Edward Mudie, Catherine Dickens, and Lillie Langtry, with men (or male-gendered corporations) outnumbering women by a ratio greater than five to one.

Neither Caroline Graves nor Martha Rudd are included among Collins’s female correspondents, a “significant gap” in the record, the editors observe (xx). Nonetheless, these women make their way into the collection—through references and allusions in Collins’s letters to others as well as in his telling silences and the evidence of physical destruction to pertinent portions of the correspondence. Their mediated presence in the four volumes helps us understand how Collins constructed and negotiated his intimate relationships while providing glimpses of their complexities. Martha Rudd first enters into the correspondence in Volume 2, as the single initial “M.”—when Collins writes to his solicitor in 1871 about his will and the “ready money to be left to C. and M. on [his] death” (2:268). She resurfaces at wide intervals: Collins refers to her in a second letter to Tindell, in 1874; he alludes to her in 1882, when telling his Canadian publisher of his “‘morganatic’ family” (3:360); and he identifies her as “Mrs. Dawson” in an 1886 letter to his wine merchants (4:142). As the “C.” to Martha’s “M.,” Caroline Graves appears in at least as many permutations, as the correspondence Collins dispatched from Whitby in August 1861 reveals. To his landlord at 12 Harley Street, he refers to Caroline as “Mrs. Collin’s [sic],” showing the two passing for husband and wife (1:242); to Charles Ward, he writes of “Caroline,” who is “getting great benefit from this fine air” (Baker and Clarke, 1:201); to his mother, he writes as if he were in Whitby alone, completely eliding Caroline’s presence. “I am at last established here, in excellent rooms, and in one of the finest places in England,” he tells her, a statement that suppresses at least as much as it reveals. “Despite appearances,” the editors point out when annotating this first of the Whitby letters, “WC was travelling in company with Caroline Graves” (1:240, 241 n. 2). “Note … that in the following letter to his mother [Collins] uses the first personal singular throughout,” they remind us in glossing correspondence he mailed from Paris in October 1863, during a “trip made with Caroline Graves and her daughter” (1:306 n. 2).

In providing such directives, the editors offer an implicit commentary on Collins’s letters to his mother, flagging significant and purposeful elisions. But generally speaking, their annotations are less interpretive than factual—although the process of determining the facts sometimes requires keen interpretive skill on their part. While the editors recognize that today’s readers need “a good deal of…assistance” to understand Collins’s letters, they “have tried hard to make [their] interventions unobtrusive” (lvii). They succeed in doing so, supplying annotations that are useful and to the point—considerably more substantial and well researched than those in Baker and Clarke though still rather less extensive than those in the monumental Pilgrim Edition of Dickens’s letters. When possible, they identify and place Collins’s correspondents; they explain a wide range of biographical, literary and political references, and provide publication information and details of dating and physical bibliography; and, on occasion, they refer readers to pertinent secondary sources and quote from them. Out of thousands of annotations in the four volumes, only a handful seem to require emendation—the glossing of “Thompson” as T. J. Thompson rather than George Thompson appears questionable in one instance (1:81 n. 4) as does a possible reference to “Alfred [Dickens]” as “unidentified” (1:138 n.2). In glossing Collins’s 1858 recommendation of Charles Reade to Francis Underwood and the Atlantic Monthly, the editors might note the furor ultimately created by the publication of Reade’s Griffith Gaunt in 1865-66, which brought the novelist into court and set Collins in opposition to Dickens; and a note might explain Collins’s reference to “the last two pages … written expressly for this [1861 Sampson Low] edition” of Hide and Seek (1:245)—Collins’s own “Note to Chapter VII,” which outlines his debt to John Kitto’s Lost Senses. Considering the impressive editorial achievement of these four volumes, however, such emendations and suggestions are merely quibbles.

The extensive new material in this collection should influence and inspire Collins scholarship for years to come. It illuminates Collins’s artistic aims and methods and his work as a dramatist, identifies little-known source materials, reveals Collins’s sense of himself as an increasingly significant figure in the literary landscape, and shows how that landscape altered during his lifetime. It illustrates the savvy Collins developed in negotiating agreements with publishers as well as the changing nature of those agreements, and demonstrates his willingness to share his knowledge and strategies with writers less experienced than himself.

Nearly fifty letters to Harriet Collins from the collection at Pembroke College, Cambridge, deepen our understanding of his relationship with his mother—the intimacy of their bond, its charm and humor—while also showing that restraint or reservation, and a sense of audience, inevitably limited his closest family ties. At the same time, letters to Collins’s publishers and his literary agent, most previously unknown, disclose striking moments of intimacy in his more distant, professional relationships. Writing to his mother, Collins persistently declines to acknowledge the presence of his companion Caroline Graves; writing to his Canadian publisher George Maclean Rose, a man he barely knows and appears to misunderstand, Collins explicitly refers to his illegitimate children and alludes to his “irregular” tie to Martha Rudd (3:360). His intermingling of reserve and intimacy, the personal and the professional, also characterizes his relationship with A. P. Watt, which takes shape in the third and fourth volumes of the collection. Difficult to categorize, mixing distance with disclosure, Collins’s dealings with Watt, like his relationship with his mother, confirm our sense of him as “the king of inventors,” as Catherine Peters aptly puts it. He emerges from these four volumes as a figure whose “public face”—or, more aptly, whose public faces—appear in intimate contexts, and for whom public and private are not simply “two faces of the same human coin” (xliii) but currencies that are easily exchanged and sometimes conflate the counterfeit with the real, devaluing that opposition. The Public Face of Wilkie Collins reveals the many faces of a writer inspired by his sense of audience, reveling in his ability to construct multiple plotlines for his own life, and animated by a desire to perform.