Wilkie Collins and Edmund Yates: A Postscript

In his article “Wilkie Collins, Edmund Yates and The World” (Wilkie Collins Society Journal 4 (1984) 5-17), Andrew Gasson documented the long friendship between Collins and Yates, noting a number of effusive tributes to Collins in Yates’s weekly newspaper The World (along with some unfavourable or lukewarm notices of particular novels or plays). The culminating tribute was the obituary in The World on 25 September 1889, two days after Collins’s death. On Collins’s side the warmest declaration of friendship came in a letter of 9 June 1883 thanking Yates for the eulogy “Letters to Eminent Persons, LXXII, Mr. Wilkie Collins,” which had appeared in The World three days earlier. Gasson was troubled, however, by “apparent inconsistencies” in the relationship. Despite their long intimacy Collins dedicated none of his novels to Yates, as he did to most of his closest friends, and none of Yates’s own numerous books was listed in the sale catalogue of Collins’s library, not even any gift or dedication copies such as might have been expected from a close friend. (In fact none of Yates’s books was dedicated to Collins.) Collins’s only known contributions to The World were The Fallen Leaves and a shorter tale The Clergyman’s Confession, and it is unlikely that he was ever on the staff of The World, although the entry on him in the Dictionary of National Biography states that he was. Yates, according to Gasson, was the first critic consistently to apply ambivalent terms like “weird,” “eerie,” “grotesque” and “fate” to Collins’s works, and he gave Collins “remarkably scant attention” in his Recollections and Experiences published in 1884.

One of the apparent “inconsistencies” noted by Gasson can be easily explained. Neither of the two articles in The World containing the terms that Gasson regards as ambivalent (or implicitly disparaging) was in fact by Yates. The author of one of them, “Mr. Wilkie Collins in Gloucester-Place,” was probably, though by no means certainly, Bernard H. Becker.1 That it was not Yates himself is clear from his later statement that only one of the “Celebrities at Home” series to which it belonged was his own work.2 The author of the other, the eulogy of Collins in the series “Letters to Eminent Persons,” which appeared under the pseudonym “Kosmos,” was Thomas Hay Sweet Escott, Yates’s right-hand man on The World and, since 1882, editor of The Fortnightly.3

What Gasson describes as the “mystery” of Yates’s apparent “disregard” of Collins in his Recollections is less easy to solve. But a letter from him to Yates among the Edmund Yates Papers in the University of Queensland Library at least makes it clear that, if Collins had read Yates’s Recollections, he had not been hurt by their “scant mention” of himself. Written only a few months after the publication of the Recollections, the letter is the shortest in the collection—even with the postscript half-apologizing for its brevity—but it unmistakably exudes the comfortable affection born of the youthful camaraderie between the two men. It is a simple message of congratulation to Yates on his early release from Holloway Prison to which, as Gasson notes, he was committed for a criminal libel in January 1885.

10 March 1885
My dear Edmund Hooray! Ever yours— W .C.
P .S. You will be overwhelmed with letters. Mine shall not bore you.

Collins gave further evidence of his unabated friendship for Yates when he attended the large public dinner held at the Criterion on 30 May 1885 to celebrate Yates’s recovery from the illness that had struck him down during his imprisonment (The World, 3 Jun 1885, 16). Collins, as The World itself had remarked some years before, was a “modest genius,” who preferred to avoid such gatherings (“Great Unknowns”). Yates of course knew that Collins had special reasons for living as privately as possible, and this in itself may partly account for the paucity of reference to him in Yates’s Recollections. Characteristically, however, Yates was the first to hint at Collins’s “secret life” once he was in his grave, describing the suggestion in one posthumous memoir that the “dinginess” of Collins’s house was probably owing to “the absence of womankind” as “a startling statement to Mr. Collins’s intimates” (“One Who Knew Him”).

Another item in the Edmund Yates Papers bearing on the relationship between Collins and Yates is a letter from Edward F. Smyth Pigott to Yates written on 5 October 1889, just after Collins’s death.

I have seen, with some surprise, my name among the members of a Committee formed, at the instance of Mr. Harry Quilter, to promote a memorial to Wilkie. I had never heard of any such project; still less had I been asked to join any such Committee.
It would be ungracious to object to an act of, I daresay, well-meaning courtesy, or to any proposal, however mistaken, to do honour to our dear lamented friend. But I am anxious to confide to you my intimate conviction that nothing could have pleased Wilkie less,—not to say, nothing could have annoyed him more—than the anticipation of being wrangled over in his grave, or of provoking grudges after his death, which his simplicity and sincerity of character had always kept at a distance whilst he lived.
His work was the only monument he cared for; and he was the last of men to claim the honour of a medallion in a crypt.

Pigott, perhaps best known nowadays as the Examiner of Plays savaged by Bernard Shaw for his philistinism (Holroyd, 333-5), had been one of Collins’s most intimate friends since the early 1850s, when Collins was a frequent contributor to his paper The Leader; and he was also an old and close friend of Yates.4 It was clearly his opinions that prompted what Gasson calls Yates’s “protest” at Quilter’s proposal for a memorial in the next number of The World—a protest that doubtless helped ensure the miserable failure of the appeal (“What the World Says”).5

Works Cited

1. Periodicals
“Journalism in England.” In New York Daily Tribune (2 Oct 1882).

“A Talk with Mr. Edmund Yates.” In Black and White (21 Jan 1893) 71-2.

“Great Unknowns.” In The World (19 Jul 1882) 9.

“One Who Knew Him.” In The World (2 Oct 1889) 13.

“What the World Says.” In The World (16 Oct 1889) 21.

2. Books
Holroyd, Michael. Bernard Shaw: Volume 1, 1856-1898, The Search for Love. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1990.

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

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  1. Becker was identified as the journalist primarily responsible for the “Celebrities at Home” in an obviously well-informed article, “Journalism in England.” (The reference to Becker is on page 7 of an offprint of this article which is among the Edmund Yates Papers in the University of Queensland Library.) Three volumes of selections from the “Celebrities” were published by The World in 1877, 1878, and 1879, but no authors were identified. This suggests that they were by a number of different hands. []
  2. Yates told an interviewer that the only article in the “Celebrities at Home” series that he himself had written was the one on Henry Irving, in The World 20 Sep 1876: 3-4 (“A Talk with Mr. Edmund Yates,” 71-2). []
  3. Escott is identified as “Kosmos” in both “Journalism in England” and in a letter from Yates to Escott dated 13 Jan 1882 (British Library Add MS 58796). []
  4. There are three letters from him to Yates among the Edmund Yates Papers, all bespeaking his warm affection for Yates and his wife. []
  5. The Daily Telegraph also denounced the proposal in a leader, possibly by (or instigated by) Yates’s friend George Augustus Sala. Less than £400 was subscribed and the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s refused permission, on moral grounds, for the erection of a memorial. See Peters, 433. []