Wilkie Collins’s Library: A Reconstruction. Series: Bibliographies and Indexes in World Literature, #55

Jun 10, 2013 | Reviews

The Victorian library is a very interesting institution, and also a very interesting room. The nineteenth century saw the founding of numerous public libraries in England, and so far there have been few attempts to extend Roger Chartier’s extremely important work on the subject into Victorian England. ((Roger Chartier, The Order of Books: Readers, Authors, and Libraries in Europe Between the Fourteenth and Eighteenth Centuries, trans. Lydia G. Cochrane (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994).)) Did Wilkie Collins ever go to the library? William Baker does not tell us. But libraries are found in private households as well, and especially in need of critical analysis. ((See my “Victorian Interior,” Modern Language Quarterly 62 (2001), 83-116.)) The library is traditionally gendered male, and often connected to the smoking room or the billiard room; books are sometimes collected for reading, but more often as objects of luxury and ostentation. ((For a discussion of Victorian floor plans and their ideological implications, see Mark Girouard, The Victorian Country House (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1979).)) Baker’s reference book begins with a few pages on the importance of libraries in Collins’ novels, but this compelling topic soon gives way to the bibliography itself.

Baker’s library is “reconstructed” from two auction catalogues of Collins’ books which were sold after his death. Baker devotes ten pages to describing the dispersal of Collins’ books–the buyers, the prices (5-14)–and he notes how consistently low the prices paid for the books were. Baker attributes these low prices to “an agreement amongst established dealers and booksellers to allow the prices to be kept down,” a “classic ‘ring’” (10). Baker then goes on to provide an analysis of the make-up of Collins’ library (as drawn from these catalogues) in terms of “presentation/association volumes,” “imprint” (publication dates), “place of publication,” “language,” and “subject.” The bulk of Baker’s book consists of an alphabetical listing of all the books in the auction catalogues.

What Baker is after in his description of books is not stated theoretically, nor even very clearly.

The purpose of the present reconstruction is to combine these two catalogues containing information on books in WC’s library, so that identification of them can take place, to give some sense of their nature and contents, and to indicate what their importance may have been for him. Wherever possible, from the evidence available, the exact editions owned by WC, as well as the identification of works themselves, has taken place.

The uncertain syntax of the second sentence may be said to reflect a general uncertainty as to what do with all this bibliographical exactitude. What happens, in practice, is that entries are annotated by a sentence or two of who’s who about the author, with an occasional apt quotation from Collins’ letters, or a suggestion about how this or that book may have provided a source for one of Collins’ novels. Baker says that his bibliography does not proceed in the manner of W.W. Greg or Fredson Bowers, but rather “in the tradition of my own The Libraries of George Eliot and George Henry Lewes” (70). Unless one wants to spend ten years copying down Collins’ marginalia, I’m not sure that the information provided in Baker’s entries can actually be improved. The main question is: what to do with such a list?

The libraries of Eliot and Lewes, for example, are going to provide a much more obviously useful list. As two of the most erudite and deeply read authors in Victorian England, whose works almost inevitably represent enormous labors of research, it is very helpful to know what Lewes and Eliot had readily available to them. What scholars will be able to do with this list of Wilkie Collins’ books, however, is less apparent. We know that he did research at various clubs (65), and there are major authors gone missing from this list (there is not one volume of Trollope, for instance). So one can’t conclude definitively, one way or the other, as to whether Collins is familiar with a book not on the list. The collection itself is “eclectic,” as Baker says, with a tendency towards the “popular” (a more theoretical analysis of the categories of “high” and “low” culture in the mode of Pierre Bourdieu might be possible). So how this reference book might assist in future Collins scholarship is an open question. I personally prefer reading around in the obscure titles of Robert Browning’s library, but it is probably important for students of Victorian literature to remind themselves periodically of the still quite varied reading of a less “intellectual” man of letters.