Memoirs of an Author

Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1834-1925) was a regular contributor to Dickens’s periodicals and knew Collins well through that work. His memoirs contain a coherent few pages on Collins, markedly less negative about him than his Memories of Charles Dickens published nearly 20 years later in 1913. This earlier memoir is much less about Fitzgerald and is firmer on detail than the later one and is probably more reliable. His recollections of Wilkie's brother Charles are included at the end.

He [Dickens] loved to quote Wills’s rather oracular utterances. Once he ‘fell foul’ of him for not having directed the printer to change the name of one of Collins’s characters, when ‘Wills explained that on the whole, and calmly regarding all the facts from a politico-economical point of view, it was a more triumphant thing to have two mistakes than one; indeed that, philosophically considered, this was rather the object and province of a periodical.’ He would repeat with gusto another of his sayings, à propos of the preparation of the Christmas number: ‘We must perpetually put ourselves in communication, with the view of dealing with it.’ He liked, too, to get him to tell his favourite nautical yarn, ‘The Larboard Fin;’ and he would thus tempt Wilkie Collins ‘Wills will tell us the story of "The Bos’un," whose artful chaff in that sparkling dialogue played the devil with T. I. Cooke.’ I must have heard, but have forgotten, the incident. [pp80-81]

Of all the contributors, the one who had perhaps the largest share in the success of the journal was Wilkie Collins, or more correctly William Wilkie Collins. He was then a rather brilliant young man pleasant, lively in talk, of much industry and enthusiasm in his calling. Dickens was very partial to him, and found great enjoyment in his company. They were constantly together, dining or ‘foraging in the City,’ making expeditions over the country or acting, during that ‘splendid strolling,’ as Mr. Forster has called it.

It was at a dinner-party—a very special one—given by Wills at Gloucester Gate that I first met Collins. This was ‘offered’ to the ‘chief’ himself and his daughter; and among other guests were Collins, Dr. Lankester—then a somewhat conspicuous personage, now forgotten—Mrs. Procter, and a few more. I was struck by the cheery, exuberant tone of Collins’s ‘talk’; he seemed to pose as a conversationalist, and to take the lead. His talk certainly was bright and entertaining enough. Dickens was not so conspicuous, but still effective, striking in, as he did now and then, with some pleasant, sly, or humorous comment. After dinner I remember his ‘rallying’ me on two books I had written—‘The Life of Sterne,’ and that of ‘Dr. Dodd’; and he was very delightful on what he called this penchant for ‘my two model parsons.’ Collins, however, entered gravely into the discussion of the fate of ‘the unfortunate Dr. Dodd.’

At this dinner I recall Collins describing, in his fluent, dramatic way, how he was subject to a curious ghostly influence, having often the idea that ‘someone was standing behind him,’ and that he was tempted to look round constantly. Dickens talked in a very interesting way of keeping a diary, and its importance. He discussed the proper mode of doing so secundem artem. He did not directly say that this was part of the mechanism used by the literary man—his stock in trade—but he seemed to imply it. On this occasion was planned my first visit to Gad’s Hill, and Dickens, in his own thorough business-like fashion, had his note-book out in a moment, and was pencilling down eagerly the directions as to trains, etc. I have the little scrap before me at this moment.

At another dinner I recall his making this remark: ‘It is an odd and curious thing, that whenever I have drawn a character from life, it has been pronounced by the public to be unreal; but when I have drawn entirely from my own imagination, it has been pronounced to be so lifelike.’ This was, of course, merely his own observation; for the public could not know in either case where he had found his originals.*

* Some of the best passages that Dickens ever wrote will be found in his letters to Wilkie Collins. There is a parody of Johnson’s and Boswell’s talk, which is irresistible, and far better than Chalmers’ old one. No doubt he wrote to Wilkie with more freedom and gaiety than to anyone else.

Collins had early attracted attention by an agreeable little book, called ‘Rambles beyond Railways,’ now rather scarce; but he soon found his way to ‘Household Words.’ His passion for writing was extraordinary. Indeed, no one but the genuine writing man knows how absorbing this taste can become, and how ‘flat’ everything is apt to seem in comparison. Collins’s first attempts in the journal were short stories of a ghostly or mysterious tone; and in their way these are very complete and perfect things. Such, for instance, is ‘The Terribly Strange Bed,’ his first contribution, with its slowly descending top, soon to crush the sleeper out of existence.

At one time, not long after Dickens’s death, Wilkie Collins conceived the idea of giving readings of his works here and in America. He determined to make his coup d’essai at a morning benefit for some charity or deserving actor. The theatre was the Olympic, and I was standing at the door when he drove up and descended with a rather complacent air. He chose this piece of ‘The Terribly Strange Bed.’ He appeared at his desk as a very portly, comfortable-looking personage in spectacles. At that time he had grown rather bulky in his figure. It must be said the reading was of a singularly tame kind, without any emphasis or the least notion of dramatic effect. He read in a very low tone, but was apparently quite satisfied with himself and the performance. He dwelt much on the word bed, as if there was something funny and piquant in the notion. Clever man as he was, the impression he produced was that of all things in the world he had selected the one for which he was the least fitted. A really sagacious person is usually adroit enough to make a show of doing the thing, and will have picked up some notions by imitating others. He ought, at least, to have among his gifts the easy art of avoiding the appearance of failure. Collins concluded as he began, with an air of complacent satisfaction. He went to America, I believe, and read there, but without any success.

It was an amiable weakness in Dickens that, when his affections or partiality were concerned, he magnified all merits in proportion. A fairly good thing, clone by a friend of his, became ‘really most striking,’ or ‘one of the most remarkable stories I have ever read,’ etc. Thus ‘Hide and Seek’ was the cleverest novel he had ever seen ‘written by a new hand . . . in some respects masterly.’ His praises of the ‘Woman in White’ and ‘No Name’ were almost extravagant. No doubt he viewed them a good deal from the editor’s point of view, as being admirably suited to his purposes and exactly what he wanted.

‘Basil,’ Wilkie Collins’s first regular novel, was in some portions powerful enough, though coarse in treatment and subject. I fancy he did nothing so genuine or spontaneous afterwards, when he fell into mechanical, artificial methods. I remember the story perfectly, though it is thirty years and more since I read it—the hero falling passionately in love with a girl in an omnibus, the pursuit, and various degrading stages of the miserable passion; the rival of low life, one Mannion; the plot to entrap him by pretending to reciprocate his affections—all these were powerful elements and deeply impressed Dickens, with whom the book was a favourite.

Dickens found the society of his friend so congenial, and their intimacv became so close, that by-and-by he admitted him to the honours of regular collaboration in the Christmas numbers. At first he and Collins divided the more important stories of the number between them, but later they began jointly to construct the framework of the stories. I cannot but think that Dickens somewhat suffered by accepting this assistance. Wilkie Collins’s style was altogether different from his own, though the former tried hard to adopt the special tone and peculiarities of the greater writer. His work always seemed rather forced and a little pretentious, and was presented with a formal air which contrasted with Dickens’s superabundant spontaneousness. The most ordinary reader could not fail of noting their respective shares.

‘The Woman in White’ was the chief attraction in All the Year Round for the year 1859. Readers followed its ingeniously tortuous plot from week to week with extraordinary interest, and it must be admitted that the details were worked out with singular ingenuity and a crafty suspension and protraction of the incidents. I confess that I never could share this admiration, as the story seemed to me to be altogether artificial, and laid out with little regard to nature; it lacked heart and spontaneousness. The characters were mechanical, not drawn from real life, but modelled after theatrical conventions.

Count Fosco, the Italian, of whom the author was particularly proud, was a sort of stage Italian, after the pattern of Dickens’s own foreigners-a kind of standing type which all his followers copied.*

* It was Dickens, too, that invented the device of imparting a foreign tone by translating French idioms literally, such as, ‘If madame would give herself the trouble,’ ‘Perfectly,’ ‘In effect,’ ‘Holy Blue,’ etc. It was almost comic, indeed, to see, in all the French stories written by his disciples, how ludicrously this system was developed. I remember myself furnishing a number of tales of French life and character, in which the details were worked out after this unreal, fanciful method, and with all the accuracy and minuteness of an observer who was on the spot and had sojourned in the country all his life. These pictures must have affected a Frenchman very much as the French sketches of English life, dealing with ‘Lord Tom-Bob,’ and such things, affect us. We drew these sketches entirely from our imagination; and if the reality did not correspond, so much the worse for the reality.

Another feature in Wilkie Collins’s work was his odd interest in the secrets of servant-life, which he seemed to think were of extraordinary value. The housekeeper’s views, the ‘still-room maid’s’ opinions and observations, were retailed with much minuteness, and made to influence the story. Such things are below the dignity of official narrative: for it is notorious that the opinions and judgments of servants are not only valueless, but are often actual distortions of the truth. Still, there are many persons who have a strange reverence for butlers’ and housekeepers’ views on things in general.

Some amusement, too, was caused by his fondness for introducing formal ‘narratives’ or ‘statements’ made by these personages—an artificial and rather clumsy method of carrying on a story. Still, with all these blemishes, the work had much success, and at once gave the author a reputation. But where Collins was deficient was in humour or comic power—points in which he really fancied that he excelled. His pleasantry, such as it was, was purely verbal; he had no idea of comedy or of comic situations. He always seemed to suggest the idea that he was embarrassed with his little jest.

It was Dickens who introduced and developed the system of utilizing tours and, excursions, by supplying lively or humorous accounts of them for his journal. People, he felt, were always eager, though they were themselves familiar with the scenes in question, to know how they struck him. It was thus that in 1857, in company with his friend Wilkie, he planned an expedition into Cumberland, for the special purpose of writing about it. This took shape as ‘The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices,’ which filled some numbers.

Dickens’s share is, of course, in his lively, sparkling style, contrasting with that of Collins, who was more than usually impressive, if not pedantic, especially when he would be humorous also. I t was when coming down Carrick Fell that Collins slipped and ‘horribly sprained’ his ankle, and was carried home by the intrepid Dickens and the landlord of the inn under difficulties. There was compensation in this incident, which was welcomed as melodramatic, and worked up by the ‘Apprentices’ into an almost tragic business. Dickens’s scenic imagination often heightened the dramatic element in such things. It was delightful to note how his ready fancy instinctively saw something humorous in every image—as when the unlucky Collins was supporting himself on two sticks, he likened him to ‘the gouty Admiral in one of the old comedies.’

Wilkie Collins’s brother Charles was an interesting figure—a quiet, reserved being, a martyr to ill health, suffering agonies from an internal malady for which no remedy could be found. Yet he was always gentle and cheerful. He had begun as an artist, and had been one of the original pre-Raphaelite clique; but his passion was to be an author, which the fact of his having married one of Dickens’s interesting daughters encouraged. With the leading writer of his day as father-in-law, he might hope for every advantage. But it must be owned that, with much enthusiasm, he was but imperfectly gifted in this way. He, however, wrote a most agreeable book of travels, a ‘Cruise upon Wheels,’ which was, in fact, an account of his wedding tour through France from Calais. A horse and cabriole were hired in this town, and the adventures were described with great minuteness. Imaginary names and characters and conversations were introduced, after the model set by Dickens himself, which in those clays were considered an essential element. This system would hardly be accepted now, as it leaves everything very indistinct, fact and fiction being thus confused. These abundant and very facetious conversations, it is felt, must have been written ‘at home at ease,’ and impart an artificiality to the tone.

His ‘Cruise upon Wheels’ is pleasant reading. There is a freshness and tone of enjoyment in the long journey across France, which is communicated to the reader; but too much importance, no doubt, is given to trifles; reduced in length by one third, it would make a very agreeable work. This, however, was the complexion of his mind, and there was much the same in his greater brother’s. I remember his expounding at great length and with great earnestness his recipe for seasickness, which consisted in holding a tumbler filled to the brim with water, the eyes fixed on it, so as to preserve the balance and spill not a drop. This he would attempt to enforce with much gravity and scientific detail, to the enjoyment of his hearers, who rallied him unmercifully on his new system.

He was, however, most eager to write a novel, and at last induced his father-in-law to give him an opening. I recall Dickens bringing me into his room to give an opinion on the orange poster whereon was inscribed the name of the new story. He wished, he said, to try the effect. It was called ‘At the Bar.’ At one time there was an idea that he should illustrate one of Dickens’s serials, but this would have been quite beyond his strength, as the author soon saw, but he was allowed to furnish the cover for his numbers. He had a pleasing vein of humour, and lie was much loved by his friends.*

* He was at one time appointed by the authorities at a South Kensington Exhibition to collect specimens of all the newspapers published in the kingdom. In this odd pursuit his pleasant humour was much tickled by many surprisingly-named journals which he came across. He gave the palm for state and bathos to The Skibbereen Eagle, which he could never name without genuine laughter. [pp85-96]

From Memoirs of an Author by Percy Fitzgerald, London, 1895 vol I

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