Unequal Partners: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Victorian Authorship

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

Unequal Partners explores a range of material arising out of the relationship between Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, from direct collaborative works such as “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices” and “No Thoroughfare”, to different versions of The Frozen Deep. Hitherto, this material has received relatively little attention from critics. More recently, scholars (including Anthea Trodd and John Bowen in a collaborative project funded by the Leverhulme Trust) have begun to give this material the attention it deserves, and it is in this context that Nayder’s work asserts a series of important claims. As the introductory chapter toUnequal Partners makes clear, the collaborative work of Dickens and Collins is significant on a number of levels. Not only does it shed light on the changing relations between Dickens and Collins; it offers an insight into the Victorian publishing industry, as well as addressing “their collaborations in the larger context of Victorian labor disputes and political unrest, to which their stories explicitly and self-consciously respond” (5).

Having used the introduction to identify the themes with which her book is concerned, Nayder’s first full-length chapter considers the Victorian publishing business, paying particular attention to the way in which economic factors determined its overriding values. In contrast to the view of Dickens as a benevolent figure who sought to promote the careers of other writers in Household Words and (a view that Dickens was keen to encourage), Nayder insists that the “conductor” of these periodicals was primarily a producer who placed his own commercial interests before those of fellow writers. The case that Nayder constructs is one that some Dickensians are likely to find disconcerting, but it is hard to ignore the overwhelming evidence that she presents. Although more might have been said about other writers who suffered at the hands of Dickens (including Gaskell, who is only mentioned in passing), the material that Nayder outlines is damning enough. Among other things, the chapter challenges the notion that Household Words gave Collins his major break as a writer, arguing instead that “in becoming Dickens’s staff member, Collins did not simply join the ranks of professional writers. He also gave up his connection to the Leader, became affiliated solely with Household Words, and made his subordination to Dickens official, as one of the satellites of ‘Jupiter,’ as a contemporary reviewer put it” (33).

Yet this subordination to Dickens was something that Collins became increasingly resistant of in the years that followed. Nayder examines different collaborative works in the middle four chapters of her book, and in each case, she locates various stages in the deteriorating relationship between Dickens and Collins. Chapter two looks at “The Wreck of the Golden Mary” and reads it in terms of the dissension among the management team at Household Words . We are informed that “Dickens would take the central authoritative role in the new story, that of the heroic captain, while reserving the roles of passengers and crew members for his subordinates at Household Words ” (35). While Dickens’s work on the story is described as an attempt to redefine and defuse the threat of an insubordinate labor force, Collins’s contributions, though not openly rebellious, are seen to question the authority of Captain William George Ravender, Dickens’s fictional persona, and raise questions about the allegiance of the crew (and, by implication, the workers at Household Words ).

The critical framework that Nayder uses in chapter two is one that she returns to in the next three chapters. Increasing tensions between Collins and Dickens are explored, respectively, through variants ofThe Frozen Deep, the collaborative fiction of 1857, and “No Thoroughfare”. Each of these chapters offers sophisticated readings which show how Collins challenged the authority of Dickens through constructing more subversive narratives than the conservative Dickens was willing to accept. The hermeneutic that Nayder uses throughout is commendably wide ranging, and if the discussion threatens to become slightly laboured in a couple of places, it is due more to the amount of detail that she attempts to squeeze in than any inherent restrictions in her critical outlook. Indeed, one of the strengths of this book is the way in which it combines detailed biographical and textual research with stimulating theoretical accounts of gender, class, and imperial concerns. The diversity of Nayder’s critical approach facilitates the perceptive interpretations to be found in her writing about “The Perils of Certain English Prisoners” in chapter four and “No Thoroughfare” in chapter five.

Another strength of Nayder’s writing is the way in which she combines an extensive knowledge of existing criticism with her own original perspectives. This bears fruit in chapter six when she turns her attention to two texts dealing with empire – Collins’s The Moonstone and Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A considerable amount of work has already been written on the imperial dimensions of these works, much of it conflicting, but Nayder’s discussion avoids merely going over old ground. Reminding us that of “the four central crimes committed” in The Moonstone, Collins “mitigates only one – that of the Brahmins” (170), Nayder contends that Collins is seeking to highlight the crimes of the empire through his novel. She goes on to argue that Dickens’s novel was intended as a corrective to Collins, revealing a “different set of concerns on Dickens’s part” that “more clearly points to the dangers of imperial decline than the criminality of empire building” (182).

The shift in chapter six to two novels that, though not directly collaborative, are “the last and most acrimonious in a series of exchanges that began nearly two decades before” (165) offers a rich and fitting conclusion to the discussion of the relationship between Dickens and Collins. At the same time, it raises questions about why Nayder does not look for similar collaboration in the novels that the two published earlier in the 1860s. Chapter five considers No Name briefly by way of a prelude to the discussion that ensues of illegitimacy in “No Thoroughfare”, but it would have been interesting to hear more about the parallels between three extremely influential novels that were published in All the Year Round between 1859 and 1861 – A Tale of Two CitiesThe Woman in White, and Great Expectations. It is not difficult to see why Nayder has chosen to use the limited space available to focus on neglected material rather than works frequently discussed by critics, yet the absence of any serious discussion of this crucial stage in the relationship between the two authors remains an unfortunate omission. However, the failure to say everything that might be said should not detract from the important things that are said. Unequal Partners is a considered and authoritative contribution to our understanding of Dickens, Collins, and mid-Victorian authorship, and one that those working in this area are advised to consult.