Letter to George Bainton

This letter was elicited by Revd. George Bainton (1847-1925) for use in a book he published in 1890 called The Art of Authorship - Literary reminiscences, methods of work, and advice to young beginners - personally contributed by leading authors of the day. He had written to scores of authors without telling them he was going to publish their words. Collins subsequently contacted him on religious points for his book The Legacy of Cain.

The letter from Collins was introduced in this way

WILKIE COLLINS, whose death has left a sad blank in the ranks of present-day writers of fiction, was an author of special power. There is moral tonic in his books, stimulating thought, fine and persuasive appeals to the imagination, as well as marvellous plot and weird incident. His strikingly dramatic stories are clothed in language as simple and direct as it is strong and beautiful. The uniform fascinating grace and ease of his diction ceases to surprise us when we read with what minute and pains­taking care it is produced. He says,

Bainton omits the address, signoff and the first and last paragraphs.

90, GLOUCESTER PLACE, │ PORTMAN SQUARE. W. │ London │ September 23rd 1887

Dear Sir,

Let me first acknowledge the debt that I owe to your friendly letter. A reader like you encourages and rewards a writer like me. I gratefully feel that you have a right to all that I can tell you, in relation to the methods which have formed my style.

After some slight preliminary attacks, the mania for writing laid its hold on me definitely when I left school. While I was in training for a commercial lifeand afterwards when I was a student at Lincoln's InnI suffered under trade and suffered under law with a resignation inspired by my endless engagement in writing poems plays and storiesor to express myself more correctly, by the pleasure that I felt in following an undisciplined imagination wherever it might choose to lead me. I produced, it is needless to say, vast quantities of nonsense, with an occasionala very occasionalinfusion of some literary promise of merit. But I did not think my time was entirely wasted - for I believe I was insensibly preparing myself for the career which I have since followed.

My first conscious effort to write good English was stirred in me by the death of my fatherthe famous painter of the coast scenery and cottage life of England. I resolved to write a biography of him. It was the best tribute that I could pay to the memory of the kindest of fathers. "The Life of William Collins R.A." was my first published book. From that time to this, my hardest work has been the work that I devote to the improvement of my style. I can claim no merit for this. When I first saw my writing presented to me in a printer's proof, I discovered that I was incapable of letting a carefully constructed sentence escape me without an effort to improve it.

The process by which my style of writing is produced may be easily described.

The day's work having been written, with such corrections as occur to me at the time, is subjected to a first revision on the next day, and is then handed to my copyist. The copyist's manuscript undergoes a second revision, and is then sent to the printer. The proof passes through a third process of correction, and is sent back to have the alterations embodied in, what is called "The Revise". The Revise is carefully looked over for the fourth time, before I allow it to go to "Press", and to preserve what I have written to my readers. My novels are published serially, in the first instance. When they are reprinted in book-form, the book-proofs undergo a fifth, and last revision. Then at length my labour of love comes to an endand I am always sorry for it. The explanation of this strange state of things I take to be that honest service to Art is always rewarded by Art.

Enough, and more than enough by this time, of me and my writing. I can only hope that this long letter may be of some little use to you in the object that you have in view.

Believe me, Dear Sir, │ Vy truly yours │ Wilkie Collins

The Revd George Bainton

See The Art of Authorship New York 1890 pp89-91

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