Empty Chairs


After his wife's death in 1921 and just a year before his own, Squire Bancroft re-told his memoirs under the poignant title Empty Chairs (London 1925). The short passage relating to Wilkie Collins's opium addiction is very similar to that in The Bancrofts of 1909.

Wilkie Collins was another Victorian novelist of high repute, whose books would give great pleasure to modern readers if they sampled The Woman in White, Armadale, or The Moonstone, and left themselves in debt to such creations as Count Fosco, Margaret Vanstone, Mercy Merrick, and many more. We knew him well, and sided with his view of the well-known unfortunate episode in the early history of the Garrick Club which resulted in the expulsion of Edmund Yates, through his youthful indiscretion in writing of Thackeray in a way that so great a giant could have afforded to ignore.

At the most, he might have called for an apology—which was offered but declined. "Wilkie" stood by Dickens in the defence of Yates, and they resigned their membership together.

For years Collins was a confirmed opium taker and a slave to the drug. He once left the Engadine, in its primitive days, and found himself, to his horror, without any. He and an intimate friend, who happily spoke German like a native, were travelling together: they represented themselves to be doctors and so obtained from chemists at Coire, and afterwards at Basle, the maximum supply the Swiss law allowed, and so reached Paris without the catastrophe Collins described in alarming words.

At my table, Wilkie Collins, George Critchett, who had left general practice and become an eye specialist, and Sir William Fergusson, the eminent Victorian surgeon, were present together. Critchett told Sir William that Collins had confided to him what was the dose of laudanum he then took every night, and had his permission to ask Sir William if it was not more than enough to prevent any ordinary person from awaking. Fergusson replied that the dose of opium named would suffice to kill the twelve men who sat round the table.

From Empty Chairs by Squire Bancroft, London 1925, pp103-104

go back to biographies list

go back to Wilkie Collins front page

visit the Paul Lewis front page

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2006