Literary London

Richard Rogers Bowker  (1848-1933) was a New York editor and publisher. In 1880 he came to London to launch the English edition of Harper's New Monthly Magazine. In July 1887 he wrote to Collins asking to meet but on 18th Collins replied to say he was too ill. Collins promised to write again when his health had improved. It seems from this piece that the meeting probably did take place, though details here could be gleaned from friends or other material. It also contains an error - Wilkie's mother was not an artist and Bowker probably confuses her with Wilkie's aunt Margaret Carpenter.

London As a Literary Centre
By R. R. Bowker

Second Paper: The Novelists

The link between present writers of fiction and the great generation is Wilkie Collins, now by seniority the dean of English novelists. Thackeray, had he lived, would have been seventy-seven; Dickens, George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, Charles Reade, were all born in the same decade of 1810-1820. Mr. Collins, born in 1824, was their junior, but his association with them, and especially his close intimacy and collaboration with Dickens, make him a part of that great past. But he is also of the working present. His work runs back forty years from his latest volume of Little Novels to that biography of his father, the Royal Academician William Collins, published in 1848, which was his stepping-stone from law to literature, and which preceded his first novel, Antonina, by two years. His mother also was an artist, distinguished in portrait-painting. An invalid much of the time, with that enemy of Englishmen, the gout, threatening his eyes, Mr. Collins is nowadays little seen in London society; but for many years he has kept strictly at work in London, at his house in Gloucester Place, not far from the busy turmoil of Baker Street, though he is now leaving this house for new quarters. Here the great drawing-rooms were given up for his desk-work when he was writing a novel, or for striding up and down the floor, reciting speeches and acting out scenes, if it were a play he was at work upon. One finds him a man still of striking appearance, but much aged by illness since he was seen in America, with a leonine head, the plentiful hair and flowing beard nearly white, contrasting with a short and smallish though once powerful body, and tiny white hands. The stoop of his shoulders suggests long application to his work, but his manner and speech have the vigor and crispness of an unexhausted spirit of youth.

Wilkie Collins is the novelist of construction; and plot and character and incident are always the development from a central dramatic idea, "the pivot on which the story turns," as in The Woman in White, the substitution of one woman for another in a lunatic asylum, and in The Moonstone, the projection of an Eastern jewel, with the superstitious devotion of its attendant priests, into modern civilized society. This idea settled, he weaves his plot, selects his characters, builds up his incidents, all with reference to it, and above all things writes one continuous story, and not two or three alternating stories in one. This makes him indifferent to methods of publication, for as he means to keep up an unflagging interest throughout, he expects to hold his reader, whether to sit up all night to finish the volume, as many of them complain to him, or from week to week or month to month. His first aim and chief difficulty is to "begin at the beginning," so that the story tells itself straight on to its predetermined end without harking back, and he thinks many novelists who aim to be artists much too careless about this. Sometimes he has written out the latter part of his book first, and the first almost last of all, with this in view. He never transfers real people, and seldom real places or incidents, to his books; yet he has found that no one can invent a name, and a new book often brings protests from more than one correspondent against too close copies or misleading perversions of what they suppose to be his originals. One outraged Frenchman, who saw himself in a particularly unpleasant villain, kindly offered, if Mr. Collins would come to Paris, to meet him with pistols and seconds at the gare.

Mr. Collins never spares himself, and takes minute pains with the details of his work. Most of his novels, by the time they reach publication in book form, have been written or revised seven times: the first writing; a revision next day before the autograph manuscript goes to a copyist; a second and third revision upon the copyist’s manuscript; a fourth on the proof; a fifth on the printer’s "revise"; a final revision after the story has appeared in a periodical as it is made ready for a book. It is this hard writing which makes easy reading and good English. Nowadays he restricts himself to four hours, and those of daylight, but in former times he wrote almost continuously, spurred on by the eager delight of the work itself. When he began, his favorite hours were from near midnight to just before dawn; but "ghosts" cured him of that. They used to accompany him upstairs as he gave up work for bed, and a particular green woman with tusk teeth stood at the turn, and said good-night by biting a piece out of his shoulder. He gave them good riddance by revolutionizing his hours of work, and now the latter part of the day is apt to be given over to novel-reading, for he is a catholic customer for his fellow-craftsmen’s wares, enjoying them as a reader and not as a critic. Believing that a novel should be, first of all, a story, he thinks Cooper the great American fictionist, and wonders that his countrymen can call the author of the Leatherstocking stories and sea tales "a writer for boys." His aim has been to follow any successful story with one of entirely different kind and scene, as when No Name followed The Woman in White. The success of these books was indeed enormous. On one of them he was paid L.3000 for book form alone, and the next, which proved to be Armadale, was secured by a rival publisher, who offered L.5000 before the book was outlined or a line written. No such prices seem to be paid for novels now as then, but it has not been given to this generation, as to its fathers, to welcome within a triad of years (1859-61) such books as The Virginians and Philip, A Tale of Two Cities and Great Expectations, Adam Bede and The Mill on the Floss, White Lies and The Cloister and the Hearth, The Bertrams and Framley Parsonage, and The Woman in White.


From: Harper’s New Monthly Magazine LXXVII, June 1888 No. CCCCLVII.

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