The Eighteen-Sixties

'The Early Novels of Wilkie Collins'

Walter de la Mare wrote this essay about Collins's novels for the Royal Society of Literature. In it he quotes at length from a letter by the actor Sir Arthur Wing Pinero (above) giving his recollections of Collins when he acted in his plays. Pinero died in 1935.


That Wilkie Collins warmly welcomed and gladly took advantage of suggestions from the producers of his plays is attested also by Sir Arthur Pinero in a letter from which he has very graciously permitted me to quote. He too speaks of Collins’s unfailing kindness towards those who can best realise the blessing it can confer:

“I was then an actor in the ‘stock’ company of the Alexandra Theatre, Liverpool, and Collins came to Liverpool to produce at that theatre in a tentative way his dramatic version of ‘Armadale’ entitled ‘Miss Gwilt’…I was cast for the small but important part of Mr Darch, an elderly solicitor, and in the course of the rehearsals Collins was extremely kind to me;…I remember his appearances at rehearsal very clearly. He used to sit, his manuscript before him, at a small table near the footlights, and there he made such additions and alternations as Miss Ada Cavendish [who was financing the production] deemed necessary. He did this with the utmost readiness and amiability, influenced perhaps by her habit of calling him ‘Wilkie’, a familiar mode of address which, I recollect, surprised and shocked me not a little.

My next meeting with Collins was in connection with…an ill-fated drama of his which was done at the Adelphi Theatre. I forget the name of it…At the first performance I found myself standing beside the author at the back of the dress-circle. We exchanged greetings, and I noticed that, expecting a call at the fall of the curtain, he wore a large camellia in his button-hole. Everything went wrong. The audience, amused by some awkwardly phrased expressions, tittered; then, as the play advanced, broke into unrestrained laughter; and finally, enraged by an indignant protest from one of the actors, hooted the thing unmercifully…I never saw him again…

His goodness to me, so flattering from an eminent man to a mere youth, was ever in my mind, and to this day I feel grateful to him.”

The ‘ill-fated’ drama was entitled ‘Rank and Riches’, and G. W. Anson who played the ‘bird doctor’ in it, after shaking his fist at the audience, shouted through the uproar that they were ‘a lot of damned cads’ – a generalization that was never forgiven him.

(Walter de la Mare ‘The Early Novels of Wilkie Collins’ in The Eighteen-Sixties ed. John Drinkwater, Cambridge 1932, pp. 68-69 footnote.)

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