"This was, after some trouble, accomplished by engaging a convenient dwelling in the Avenue-road, Regent's Park--precisely in the quiet situation, on the outskirts of London, which Mr. Collins most desired to occupy." (Memoirs II 156-157)
The school was at 39 Highbury Place and the building is still there, now converted to offices and with modern flats added to the left behind a portico which may also date from Wilkie's time. Otherwise, the long terrace of eighteenth century houses is still much as it was in the 1830s. On the other side of the street is Highbury Fields. The school was just over three miles from the Avenue Road house but the journey was further by the omnibus which Wilkie used, and took more than an hour. Wilkie went there in the Michaelmas (autumn) term and his first surviving writings are the letters he wrote to his mother from this school.
The very first is dated 1 December 1838 and begins
"My Dear Mama
As my last contained the History and Design only of the Aenid of Virgil, I shall now proceed, as I promised, to give you the arrangement of that celebrated Poem."
His letters to his mother were normally more informal and chatty than this one, though he did write to his father about his school-work. Some of his letters he wrote in Italian "to show you that I have not forgotten it at all" and even when writing in English he occasionally signed himself "Guglielmo Wilkie Collini". From the letters we learn that his first term at Cole's School ended on Wednesday 19 December 1838 and that he had to return on 30 January, also a Wednesday. On Monday 11 March 1839 he writes home to confess that he was late in returning to school. As Easter Sunday in 1839 fell on March 31, it is unlikely he was home for half-term and so it seems he was home for the weekend of 2/3 March.
"As I thought you would like to hear from me in about a week after my arrival here, I now sit down to tell all the news I can collect. I arrived here about 2 minutes before prayer time which was sooner than I expected as we did not get the omnibus directly."
This is the earliest reference to taking an omnibus - then a fairly new way of travelling which threw you in the company of strangers. Such a journey is the setting for a key event in his 1852 novel Basil, the first he set in his own time.
The following autumn, Saturday 12 October, he was writing in appreciation of a parcel
"I did not write until I had tasted the cake, as I thought you would like to know that it was most delectably luscious. The whole parcel arrived quite safely, and I am very much pleased with the trousers, I think they are the nicest pair I ever had. You cannot think how delighted I was to hear such a good account of Papa, I suppose when I see you on Saturday the 26th he will be hard at work making up for lost time as the coachmen say"
Four years later, Wilkie's first known published work 'The Last Stage Coachman' appeared. A slight piece, taking the side of coaches against the encroaching railway. We also know that Wilkie was coming home, perhaps for half term, in two weeks on Saturday 26 October (the next Saturday to fall on the 26th was not until May 1840).
Despite the jolly tone of most of his letters, the time at Mr Cole's was not easy for Wilkie. In 1881 he wrote to his friend William Winter, pictured below.
"When I was at school,--perpetually getting punished as "a bad boy,"--the master used to turn me to good moral account, as a means of making his model scholars ashamed of their occasional lapses into misconduct: "If it had been Collins I should not have felt shocked and surprised. Nobody expects anything of him. But You!!"--etc., etc."
(letter to William Winter 3 September 1881 quoted in William Winter Old Friends New York 1909, pp218-219)
Wilkie also said that it was at school that he learned - perforce - to tell stories. His fellow pupils treated him badly - he claimed they called him a 'french frog' because he could speak both French and Italian from his time abroad - and he was bullied into amusing the dormitory with stories at night. Here is how Wilkie himself described it fifty years later, in a rare autobiographical piece.
"The oldest of the boys, appointed to preserve order, was placed in authority over us as captain of the room. He was as fond of hearing stories, when he retired for the night, as the Oriental despot to whose literary tastes we are indebted for 'The Arabian Nights'; and I was the unhappy boy chosen to amuse him. It was useless to ask for mercy and beg leave to be allowed to go to sleep. 'You will get to sleep, Collins, when you have told me a story.' In the event of my consenting to keep awake and to do my best, I was warned beforehand to 'be amusing if I wished to come out of it with comfort to myself.' If I rebelled, the captain possessed a means of persuasion in the shape of an improved cat-o'-ninetails invented by himself. When I was obstinate, I felt the influence of persuasion. When my better sense prevailed, I learnt to be amusing on short notice--and have derived benefit from those early lessons at a later period of my life." (The Universal Review June 1888)
"If I rebelled, the captain possessed an instrument of correction (an improved cat-o'-ninetails) invented by himself. He roused his satraps among the other boys, and ordered me to be brought before him in words which I have never forgotten: "Bring Collins out to be thrashed." When I was obstinate I took my thrashing. When my better sense prevailed, I learnt, in the presence of the instrument of correction, to make those calls on my invention which have been pretty often repeated in later years." (Wilkie Collins, Dorothy L Sayers, Toledo 1977 p46)
And despite these privations, the education there seems not to have been that good. In 1887 Wilkie wrote to his lifelong friend Nina Lehmann (whom he called 'the Padrona') about his struggle to finish his short novel The Guilty River - with a reminiscent reference to post horses. Nina and her husband Frederick are pictured here on their wedding day in 1852.
"For the last week, while I was finishing the story, I worked for twelve hours a day - and galloped along without feeling it, like the old post horses, while I was hot. Do you remember how the forelegs of those post-horses quivered, and how their heads drooped, when they came to the journey's end? That's me, Padrona - that's me.
Good God! is "me" grammar? Ought it to be "I"? My poor father paid ninety pounds a year for my education - and I give you my sacred word of honour I am not sure whether it is "me" or "I"."
The experiences at the hands of bullies may explain the almost wistful tone of his letters home and the gentle and considerate way he asks about his father, his mother, and his brother Charles. In one letter written on to "My dear Charlie" he teases him about his screams when he has earache, but then apologises "I am what the boys here would call bullying you, and therefore will immediately close the subject but I assure you, not withstanding all this nonsense, I felt the greatest pity for you." His father's illness at this time was more serious. He had a rheumatic inflammation of the eyes - a condition which would also afflict Wilkie for much of his life - which prevented him from painting at his normal rate. It was also responsible for the family's rather rapid move a year later
"His medical attendant...[said] his case...was one that required unusual caution in the minutest matters--even the clay soil on which his house was built was suspected of having some connection with the malady...and he was strongly recommended to take another abode on dry ground." (Memoirs II p166)
This advice was followed. In the summer of 1840 the family moved closer to central London, and back to Bayswater, not far from Porchester Terrace to a new house in what is now Sussex Gardens but then known as 85 Oxford-terrace.
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