Nathaniel Thomas Beard was the younger son of Francis Carr Beard, Wilkie’s doctor and friend for much of his life. Nathaniel Beard was later chief clerk at Bentley’s publishing house. Beard’s ‘Some recollections of Yesterday’ published in the periodical Temple Bar in 1894 includes six pages of childhood memories of Collins’s visits to the family home at 44 Welbeck St. The letter which he concludes with was in fact written to him ‘My dear Nat’ it begins.
SOME RECOLLECTIONS OF YESTERDAY
My father first met Wilkie Collins at Charles Dickens’s house. My recollections of him begin early, in fact when I was quite a youngster, and used constantly to act "Mercury," bearing notes and messages between his house and our own. In turning over an old letter of his written to my father at this period, I was amused at a passage in it which awakened the remembrance of a thorough Irish bull of mine. It happened in this wise. I had been entrusted with a note to take to Harley Street, where Wilkie Collins then lived, and wait for an answer. On arriving, I was ushered as usual into Wilkie’s room, and said to him, "I’ve brought you a letter." Then, fumbling in my pocket, "Oh, I say, I’ve left it behind ! Never mind. You write the answer while I go back and fetch the letter." It was exactly characteristic of the man that he never even laughed, but said quite gravely, "Very well; but it will be rather difficult; perhaps you had better bring the note round first." He was too considerate to turn my youthful "bull "into ridicule to my face, but how he and my father laughed over it together afterwards time has since revealed.
Consideration and courtesy to old and young were his great charm, but he had a keen love of fun in his nature.
Until the later years of his life, when illness held him much in thraldom, he preferred a rather "rapid" mode of existence, and was fond of good living, even to deserving the epithet of gourmet. He kept a French cook, and professed the greatest abhorrence of most British customs, and especially of British cookery. Yet he was always dropping in, either by pre-arrangement or casually, to our usually very plain family dinners at home, and with three rather ill-behaved young people (my brother, my sister, and myself) about him, he seemed thoroughly to enjoy them. He invariably said the most ingratiating thing to each of us, and never seemed to lack interest when we replied. As we grew up his society became all the more agreeable, since we were the better able to appreciate it.
He was the least posé public man I ever met. He would tell amusing anecdotes, and make very pertinent remarks, but never talked "for effect." Indeed, I have often been struck with astonishment at his naïve questions, and requests for information upon subjects which were engrossing public attention at the time. I attribute this in great measure to his being no reader of newspapers. We always remarked that he said when quoting a subject, "I hear," or "I am told," never "I see," or "I read," so and so.
He used to come in a strange variety of costumes, quite haphazard as to appropriateness. He would sit down to dinner in a light camel hair or tweed suit, with a broad pink or blue striped shirt, and perhaps a red tie, quite as often as he would in a dark suit or regulation evening dress, but whenever he came and howsoever he appeared, we were always glad of his cheery society. Sometimes, however, when one of his bad gouty attacks was threatening, he would be depressed and nervous, and we all knew, by the horrible shaking of the room produced by his "fidgetting" with one foot upon the floor, when "Wilkie was out of order."
He was a man of very strong prejudices, one of which was that everything English was badly done, from politics to cookery. He had no sporting instincts, and I often wonder how it was my father found him so good a companion, save that the rule of contraries is sometimes as effective in friendship as that of similarity. In ‘Armadale’ it will be remembered that one of his young heroes is constantly made to ridicule the English love of "killing something," and ‘Man and Wife’ was more especially written as a protest against training and athletics generally. Most of his novels turned upon medical and physiological points, and in all of these he used to call upon my father’s medical knowledge to help him, and this was particularly the case in ‘Man and Wife.’ My father even took him down to some professional running grounds in order that he might witness the whole paraphernalia and method used by athletes and trainers, and so be au fait in the details of his book.
Often, when under treatment for gout in the eyes, and when for many days—even weeks—together he was compelled to keep them bandaged, my father would write parts of his books at his dictation. The books themselves can never be lasting favourites, because they nearly all deal with disagreeable and morbid subjects, but no one can read them attentively without appreciating the intense cleverness of their minute construction, or of just a handful of characters which have become, in a fashion, classics. Count Fosco and Mr. Fairlie in ‘The Woman in White,’ Captain and Mrs. Wragge in ‘No Name,’ and Miss Gwilt in ‘Armadale,’ could never be forgotten when once introduced to the reader.
In ‘The Moonstone’ he takes a really fine departure in the tragic and romantic introduction of the Indian mystic element and character, among the everyday English people with whom the main story lies. I am inclined to think ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘Armadale’ his two best efforts, though ‘No Name’ and ‘The Woman in White’ run them very close in point of merit. It is rather curious to observe that with the exception of ‘The New Magdalen’ few of his novels proved successful upon the stage, although in their book form they were written almost entirely from the dramatic point of view. I think the objection of "morbidity" must have hindered their success upon the stage, as it revolted the taste of many of their readers when in story form. He always maintained that since Scott and Fenimore Cooper nobody ever wrote stories, although everybody wrote novels. He therefore made it his aim to write for story, before any other consideration—and it must be granted that for thrilling interest and situation of a kind his books stand alone.
I have mentioned his taste for good living, but not his extreme interest in all matters culinary. He had studied French cookery, and made friends when in France with every good hotel cook he could interview. During his friendship with my father he managed to instil into him some of the enthusiasm he felt in this matter, and conversation at dinner often turned upon the mode in which to flavour dishes in the most approved French style. At one time an awful predilection for garlic in every form of made dish or pie was indulged; the consequence being that experiments of a like kind were tried by my father with his ordinarily indifferent British cook, and that for a time all we eat was grossly over-flavoured with the pungent root, often much to the detriment of our digestive powers, while I am sure we must have been detected at almost any distance by the very "Spanish" atmosphere we carried about with us.
One evening Wilkie and my father had talked themselves into quite a culinary fever over a certain "Don Pedro pie," which the former had recently tasted during his travels. At last they arranged that the thing should be put to tangible proof. The next day, the materials having been procured for this delicacy, Wilkie came round, and he and my father went solemnly into the kitchen together, each adorned with an apron which had been borrowed from the cook, and instructing, pointing out, and occasionally joining with the cook in the practical details of the manufacture of the much-praised dish. Then they returned to the upper regions, flushed but victorious, and the dish was the dinner—or the main feature of it—for the evening. It was a glorious success, but there was just one little drawback. The garlic had predominated so strongly that no one save the two chefs themselves could venture upon tasting it. The upshot of it all was that Wilkie went home and took to his bed, while my father remained at home and took to his. They were both very ill for several days, with a horrible gastric attack, and garlic was never more mentioned in the house.
The eldest of my aunts who then lived with us, and who was tall and gracefully majestic, and altogether a very grand specimen of a lady, used solemnly to declare that during my father’s attack she could not walk up or down stairs without detecting the odour of the all-permeating vegetable.
She could not help having a strong liking for Wilkie as a man, although she did not much approve of his books and opinions. They were indeed generally on the most excellent terms, but now and again a little friendly "breeze" would sweep over the course of their conversation.
Once, when my sister was quite a schoolgirl, she was doing or saying something annoying at the table, when my aunt checked her. Wilkie looked up at the head of the table and said, "I hope, Miss ——, you are not going to take the devil out of that girl." My aunt’s appearance was magnificent to see as she "rose" to the reply. "Mr. Collins, wherever and in whatsoever form I encounter the devil, you may have no doubt that I shall fight him to the death." And upon my word, at that moment I should have been sorry to be Wilkie Collins—it was like the "strike" of an eagle, and one positively cowered under it; but no bones were broken, and peace was soon restored.
As a set-off to this I must tell of how when Wilkie was walking to our house one evening he got caught in a shower of rain, which made his feet very wet. My father insisted upon his taking off his boots at once and borrowing any slippers or shoes from among us which might happen to fit him. Now he was quite a small man, and with pretty little hands and feet—very like a woman’s. It was all very well to order him into any of the household slippers he could wear. There were none that he could wear—for we all proved a great deal too large-footed to be able to accommodate him. At last my aunt rummaged out a pair of her own slippers, checked black and white, and with steel buckles, which were worn a little loose, it is true, but which were the nearest approach to a fit that could be found. Wilkie was of course all graciousness and smiles (proceeding, no doubt, from two causes) at the attention, and came in to dinner.
Presently, during a change of courses, an unusual pause occurred in the talking. I looked across the table at Wilkie, and saw him, turned half round in his seat, feeling after something under the table. A smile flickered round the room. He had lost his slipper! In a moment he found it again, and in his triumph kicked up his foot, slipper and all, on a level with the table, and displayed to my aunt, to her intense amusement, how much too loose her footgear was for his diminutive proportions.
He had a great affection for the old school of Italian opera Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi, and Meyerbeer—but loved not the Wagnerian introduction of latter days. Although he was an enthusiast about Jenny Lind’s acting and singing, he professed a great contempt for her character, and always spoke of her as "that charlatan," much to my aunt’s inward indignation, for she had a great belief in the absolute truth and purity of Jenny’s private life. "Of course you could not expect a man of Wilkie’s views to believe in the beauty of such a character as hers," she would say; "I do not believe he could even understand it." He used to quote, as an illustration of the songster’s insincerity, that one evening she was looking out of her windows before starting for the opera house, watching the stream of vehicles crowding to Her Majesty’s in time for the performance: "Ah, what a pity," she exclaimed, "to think of all these people wasting their time in going to hear me sing, when they might be doing so much good with it." The remark was thoroughly characteristic of the woman, and I have no doubt was meant perfectly genuinely, but it was certainly open to mis-construction in the mind of a non-believer in her character. There was something almost unnaturally "good" about her, and she appears to have been aggressive in her stand-off manner and manifestation of rectitude of thought and purpose. The Life published of her some two or three years ago gives evidence of this, and in reading it one is at times tempted to wish that Heaven had made her a little less faultless and a little more human.
Wilkie Collins could tell a story very incisively and dramatically in a few words. I have always to think twice before being sure that I have not read the one which made "Monk" Lewis’s reputation, simply from hearing it narrated by him, with all its force and supernatural terror condensed into about ten minutes of time.
One evening when he was dining with us en famille, the conversation turned upon Lady Macbeth, and he remarked that the generally accepted tall, black-haired, beetle-browed type of Lady Macbeth was all a mistake. "You may depend upon it," said he, "that she was a rather small, fair-haired, blue-eyed woman, with a pink and white complexion, and very determined."
We had a pretty little cousin dining with us who so exactly answered to this description that as he spoke our eyes involuntarily turned to her conscious, blushing face—she was rather shy—until at the climax my brother and I burst into unseemly laughter, and amidst a shower of "chaff" Wilkie Collins saw what he had done, and the little cousin was restored to composure, and enabled to join in the laugh raised at her expense by his easy and amused "apology."
The last few years of his life were distressing, owing in great measure to the constant ill health and pain from which he suffered, and the unceasing necessity for work which accompanied them. I remember seeing him after an evening spent at our house, about two years before his death, walking up the street with the aid of a heavy stick, bowed nearly double, and looking like an old man of eighty, though he was but sixty-five when he died. My father stood on the doorstep, watching his departure, and exclaimed quite pathetically: "Look at him. Who could suppose he was ten years younger than I?" He died in September, 1889, of Angina pectoris, after long illness, during which my father was with him at all hours of the day and night.
Only a few months ago my brother and I lighted upon the last thing he ever wrote: a small fragment of notepaper with the words, "I am dying—come if you can," faintly and almost illegibly pencilled upon it. (Needless to say whether my father went or not.) He died an hour or two afterwards, and with him died a friendship which had lasted for about thirty years. I have by me the quill pen, worn to a stump, with which he wrote his last works, and in my collection of autographs is a letter which seems worth transcribing, if only to show the kindliness of the nature which could make time amidst the wear and tear of professional and public life to send a pleasing account of a slight incident in order to gratify a young man’s hobby. It will be observed that he was living at Gloucester Place at the date of its being written. He removed thither when leaving Harley Street, but died in Wimpole Street.
90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, PORTMAN SQUARE, W.,
13th August 1877.
MY DEAR ——,—Once upon a time, while I was on my way to a grand breakfast in the City of New York, I was stopped in one of the squares by a very well-bred young gentleman, who said he recognised me by my photographic portraits, and who asked me if I would give him an autograph. I said "Yes; but where am I to send it?" He said, "Quite unnecessary, sir. If you don’t mind you can give it to me now." With that he pulled an autograph book out of one pocket, a pen out of another, and an ancient "ink-horn" out of a third. "How am I to write it?" I asked. He answered, "You can write it on my back." He turned round and "gave me a back" as if we were playing at leap-frog. I wrote him his autograph (greatly to the amusement of the public in the square), and we shook hands and parted. I quote this young gentleman’s example as giving you a useful hint in the pursuit of autographs. If he had not stuck to me while he had me, I might have forgotten him just as inexcusably as I forgot you.
And now here is my autograph at last!—Very truly yours,
From ‘Some Recollections of Yesterday’ Temple Bar CII, July 1894 pp320-326
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