Retrospections of an Active Life

John Bigelow (1817-1911) was an American writer and diplomat whom Wilkie met in 1867. He corresponded with Bigelow and his wife Jane for twenty years and visited their home in 1873 during his trip to America. Here Bigelow recalls that visit with comments on Dickens and Forster. There is also an account of an earlier meeting at dinner at which Collins reveals his opium addiction. There is a short extract from a letter dated 1868 about Dickens after his five month trip to America. These reminiscences are taken from vols. IV and V of Bigelow's autobiography.

Wednesday, May 27th [1868]. Received a note from Wilkie Collins, in which he said:

“You have sent Dickens back to us looking younger than he did before he went away. Remembering the American Notes and Martin Chuzzlewit, I think it hardly possible to overrate the sense, moderation, and generosity which the American people have exhibited in their reception of him. I know of no other country in the world in which the national appreciation of literary genius would have been so simply, so heartily, and so nobly shown.” (IV 182)

The following day [25 July 1870] I met Wilkie Collins at the table of a common friend. He told me in the course of our conversation that he took an apothecary’s spoonful of laudanum every night; that it was all a mistake to say that opium shortened life, it lengthened it,1 etc.

1Collins died in the 65th year of his age. How much sooner he would have died or how much longer he might have lived, without his opium, is a secret and likely to remain one.

He is a martyr to rheumatism, and it is in this way that he gets sleep. If he did not take his laudanum, he assured me, he could do nothing the following day.

Collins and Dickens always denied that Thackeray belonged to the order of literary men; that he was a gentleman who took to writing; that he was not a novelist, merely an essayist; that his so-called novels were only a series of essays, and the essays were all that was good in them.

The will of Dickens, Collins said, gives his friends a great deal of dissatisfaction. The first person named in it is his mistress, a daughter of Jermain, an actress, and herself an actress whom he met and acted with on his trips for the Literary Club. Collins intimates too that Dickens’s sister-in-law, to whom he leaves all his private papers and whom he pronounces the best friend a man ever had, was very fond of him. The impression seemed to be that they were too intimate. Collins insisted that Dickens cared nothing for Miss Dickens [his daughter] who, if she wanted money or anything, wrote to her uncle. Dickens was inaccessible to her, while the sister-in-law could always see him.

Dickens’s will was executed only about a year before he died. His personal property was sworn under £80,000 or $400,000. His real estate, sold soon after and bought in by his sons, brought £7,500 more.

There may be a great diversity of opinion as to which of Mr. Dickens’s works was the best, but the English speaking race, I imagine, will generally agree that his “Will” was the worst. (IV 382-383)

Bigelow to Huntington...Sept. 30, 1873

...Wilkie Collins has come to give his American cousins reading lessons this winter, and from a note received since this letter was commenced, I learn that he expects to spend the night of the 6th with us on his way to Albany, where he is "to open" on the 7th....


The Squirrels, October 8, 1873. Drove up to meet Wilkie Collins, due by the 3.40 P.M train. It rained and blew as if it never expected another chance. [To my surprise he came, but did not bring his baggage so I had to send Odell up after them.] Just before starting for Collins, Mr. Robertson, son of the Brighton clergyman of renown, arrived. He had to leave at half-past seven P.M. for Catskill, where he was to be the guest of Sir Edward Thornton, who has a cottage in the neighborhood. As he was leaving the dining-room my good wife begged him to give her compliments to his father, whose sermons she had read with great satisfaction. As the poor man for whom this message was intended had been in heaven (let us hope) for many years, this message nearly convulsed everyone present, including Robertson. He was to leave for England on the 18th. He had been 3d Secretary of legation at Washington; very intellectual and handsome, full six feet and two inches in height.

Collins enjoyed his dinner, but his brandy after it yet more. [He says Benzon is dead.] Forster he thinks more hipped than sick. His [Forster’s] Life of Dickens worries him because of the criticism it has provoked. He has presented the selfish aspects of Dickens’ character. This seems to be in consequence of Forster’s plan to give only his own letters. Collins has a great many which Forster proposed to use, if he could use them in the same way, but that did not suit Collins and he retained them. Collins says he has a letter from Dickens assigning his reasons for separating from his wife. He thinks Forster very injudicious in publishing what Dickens says about his mother, who after all, behaved quite sensibly in insisting that this boy should contribute toward the family support by sticking labels on blacking bottles so long as that was the best remunerated work he could do. Collins said he would not have published those letters. [Flora took a great fancy to Collins and he to her. I took him to the wharf at 12am today & sent him on to Albany where he reads tonight. Should the weather not improve his reception in Albany will not be very encouraging.] He reads tonight in Albany. (V 129-130)

[This published version of Bigelow’s journal for this day is at slight variance with the original manuscript of the Journal at New York Public Library as published in Susan Hanes Wilkie Collins’s American Tour, 1873-4 Pickering & Chatto 2008 pp27-28. Her additional sentences are inserted in brackets.]

John Bigelow Retrospections of an Active Life vols. IV & V Doubleday, Page & Company, New York 1913. These later volumes of Bigelow’s autobiography were in fact prepared by after Bigelow’s death by his son using his father's notes.

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