A Few Memories
Mary Anderson in 1888 in Romanian costume.
In A Few Memories (London and New York 1896) the American actress Mary Anderson (1859-1940) devotes ten pages to Wilkie Collins. She met him when she appeared at the Lyceum theatre in London in the mid 1880s. They remained friends until his death. In her day, Mary Anderson was renowned for her beauty. In 1890 she married Antonio de Navarro and retired from the stage becoming a well-known society hostess. The original manuscripts of the five letters cited here have disappeared. Two other letters to her are known.
We soon left our little house in Maida Vale for a larger one in Cromwell Road, which, alas! had no garden, and in consequence never grew dear to me. It was there I first met Wilkie Collins. He was "completely out of the world," to quote his own words, and preferred coming to us en famille, thus enabling us to have him quite to ourselves, and at his best. His anecdotes of Thackeray, Dickens, and Charles Reade were far more interesting than anything we could have read concerning them; for, in recounting his reminiscences, he added to them his own personal magnetism. His description of Reade laying his head upon his shoulder and crying at the funeral of Dickens, and his own feeling of desolation when, in turn, he, the last of the quartette, stood at the grave of Reade, were pathetic in the extreme. A great sufferer from gout in the eyes, he was forced to seek relief in opium. It was under its potent influence, he told me, that he invented the denouement of "The Moonstone." "I could find no amanuensis," he said, "to take down my dictation uninterruptedly, for at every paroxysm of pain they would invariably stop work to come to my assistance. Finally a young girl was found who wrote on steadily in spite of my cries. To her I dictated much of the book, the last part largely under the effects of opium. When it was finished I was not only pleased and astonished at the finale, but did not recognize it as my own." The effect of the drug, though it soothed the pain, excited him greatly, for he acknowledged that under its influence, when going up to his room at night, the staircase seemed to him crowded with ghosts trying to push him down. We soon grew to love him and to look forward to his visits. I once praised one of his books. "Ah," he answered, "I am only an old fellow who has a liking for story-telling, nothing more." All of his many letters in my possession are written in the simple way in which he spoke. I give several of them to illustrate his unaffected style. We had often discussed his writing a play for me. The scenario of Act i. was sent, but finding nothing congenial in the part, I returned it. The subjoined is his answer:*
* This and the following letters from Mr. Wilkie Collins are reproduced in these pages by kind permission of his literary executor, Mr. A. P. Watt.
"90 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, W.,
"April 14th, 1885.
"Thank you, dear Mary Anderson, for your letter. You confirm the doubt that I felt when I sent you the sketch of the first act — only as a specimen of the contemplated play — and you express so clearly your ideal of what the dramatic work should be which will attract your sympathies and enable you to do yourself justice that I already understand what is wanted — and I am eager to consult with you as to the details — to ask hundreds of questions and to try if we can together meet the one serious difficulty that I see — finding a good subject. If something could be found in American history — not connected with wars — I should like it best, because the dramatic writers of the United States have left that field free, and I could let my imagination go at a full gallop without the fear of unintentionally trespassing on the literary ground which the dramatists of Europe have so largely occupied. Some suggestive book to consult must be our first discovery, and we must look back nearly 100 years or we shall be defeated by the hideous costume of the beginning of this century.
"If I can get to the theatre it is useless to say that I will seize the opportunity. But the weather is terribly against me. I may tell you (between ourselves) that the mischief this time is a deranged condition of the nerves near the heart, and a very slight cause sets in action a terrific pain in the chest and the arms. But I am getting stronger, and the doctor seems to have no fear of the result, with one terrible ‘if’ — that is to say, ‘if I am careful.’
"Let me thank you for kindly sending the scenario, which reached me safely yesterday."
In spite of the most intense physical suffering he was one of the cheeriest spirits I have ever met.
Even in the midst of illness he continued to work.
"90 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, W.,
"Wednesday, March 11th, 1885.
"DEAR MARY ANDERSON, — May I call to-morrow (Thursday) afternoon at 3.30, if I shall not be in the way? Illness, nothing but illness, has kept me away. My heart has been running down like a clock that is out of repair. For the last fortnight the doctor has been winding me up again. He is getting on well enough with his repairs, but I have been (medically) intoxicated with sal volatile and spirits of chloroform; the result has been a new idea of a ghost story. I am hard at work frightening myself, and trying to frighten the British reader.
"90 Gloucester Place, Portman Square, W.,
"January 20th, 1888.
"Mr. Terriss, dear Mary Anderson, is not Romeo. I am Romeo — because I am in sympathy with you. At the time when, by my calculation, you must have been writing your nice little note, I was asking myself at what time in the afternoon I should be most likely to find you at home and disengaged if I put my patch on my weak eye and called at Cromwell House. When may I climb the area railings, with my umbrella in one hand and my guitar in the other, and hope to see Juliet in the balcony (well wrapped up)? In plain English, will you choose the day and the hour of the afternoon when I shall not be in the way, and ask your brother to send me just a line, which I shall be only too happy to obey? Over and over again I have thought of writing, and have put it off in the hope of being well enough to speak for myself. At last there is nothing the matter but weakness and certain vagaries of the optic nerves, which persist in seeing a pattern of their own making, as black as black lace, in this form:
[Here follows drawing.]
"It might be prettier, might it not? I think it is a reptile of the pre-Adamite period.
"With kindest remembrances to my kind friends at home,
"Always yours affectionately,
The play mentioned by Mr. Collins was never finished, though in one of his later letters he still expressed his usual interest in the subject. "I have got Bancroft’s History of the United States," he said, "and mean to try if I can find a hint in that long book which may suggest something appropriate as a subject, always excluding the ‘Puritans,’ who have been, in a literary sense (as you say on the other side of our ocean), ‘played out.’"
Not long before his death he was compelled to leave his house in Portman Square, where he had lived for years. On this event he says: "Since I last wrote, my lease at Gloucester Place has expired, and my landlord, the enormously rich Lord ______, asked me such exorbitant terms for allowing me to continue to be his tenant that I confronted the horror of moving in my old age." A short time after this he died. From our first meeting we were in constant intercourse, and I have nothing but the sweetest memories of his little bent figure with its great kind heart.
[Mary Anderson discusses her work on Pygmalion & Galatea and the supporting play. She then moves back to Wilkie Collins]
Wishing to discard "A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing" and get a one-act play from the author of the "Bab Ballads," in order to have a complete Gilbert bill, we induced him to give us his powerful little piece entitled "Comedy and Tragedy," which had not yet been acted. The fine speech of Clarisse describing what an actor is did not belong to the play. This had been written some time before by Mr. Gilbert, who introduced it into "Comedy and Tragedy" with great effect. The little whirlwind in one act took the audience by storm.
The following letter from Wilkie Collins tells how the play affected him:
"DEAR MISS ANDERSON, — I resist the temptation to call to-day, because I dare not interfere with the hours of rest which must be especially precious to you, I am sure, after the strain laid on you by the exertions of last night. Let me try to express my gratitude and the gratitude of the ladies who were with me on a later afternoon. Only let me have (liberally) two lines. One line to say, I hope and trust, that you have had a good night, and are feeling better to-day; and one line to choose your own afternoon at four o’clock (or later, if it will be more convenient) for letting me call and make the attempt to tell you of the strong impression that your acting produced on me, I will only say now that the subtlety and delicacy, the perfect grace and feeling, of the Galatea did not in the least prepare me for the magnificent burst of passion and power in the second character.* If I had been dropped suddenly into the box at the moment when you hear the cry in the garden, and had been taken out of it again a minute afterwards, I should have said to myself, ‘I have seen a born artist. ‘Perhaps the best criticism I can offer will be to report that (during the last half of the piece) my hands were as cold as ice, and my heart thumped as if it would fly out of me. With more thanks than I can express,
"Always truly yours,
P. S. — The fifth of April is registered as a ‘Festival’ in my calendar."
From A Few Memories by Mary Anderson (Mme, de Navarro) Osgood McIlvaine & Co London and Harper & Bros New York 1896 pp142-152
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