Memories of Charles Dickens

Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald (1834-1925) was a regular contributor to Dickens’s periodicals and knew Collins well through that work. The very negative views of Collins and his talents – and his friendship with Dickens – are unusual among those who knew Collins and are stronger than in his 1895 Memoirs. He seems to be adapting to a strand of thinking which was popular as Dickens’s reputation was developed in the early 20th century. As with many reminiscences, the real star is the writer. He shows a marked lack of attention to detail – in the titles of books for example.

On November 26th, 1859, "The Tale of Two Cities," begun in April, 1859, came to its conclusion, and after the words "The End" we read these words:

"We purpose always to reserve the first place in these pages for a continuous original work on fiction, engaging about the same amount of time on its serial publications as that which is now completed. The second story of our series we now beg to introduce to the attention of our readers. It will pass next week into the station hitherto occupied by the ‘Tale of Two Cities,’ and it is our hope and aim, while we work hard at every other department of our journal, to produce in this one some sustained works of imagination that may become a part of English literature."

Here was an announcement of the new policy, and showed the growing and encroaching influence of fiction. It does seem, indeed, as though the taste for slight sketches and didactic lessons set forth humorously, like Mr. Stiggins’s moral "Pocket-handkerchiefs," had somewhat weakened.

And here was the modest introduction of what was to prove to be one of his greatest coups—though he did not forecast it-namely, the powerful, if melodramatic, story of "The Woman in White," by Wilkie Collins, which accordingly set forth on its triumphal progress on November 26th, 1859.

The new journal and its story was received with extraordinary favour. He could presently report to his friends that in a single month no less than 35,000 "back numbers" had been sold. The circulation far exceeded that of its predecessor. When the first quarterly account was made out it was found that it had repaid its proprietor all his outlay with five per cent. interest, and there was a balance of £500. Here was a fitting reward for his bold and spirited enterprise!...

As I said before, a single serial was a handsome compliment; yet in course of time I came to write no less than five or six, my last beginning on the very eve of Dickens’s death. It may be that there is no other writer who has thus written what may be termed a series of serials, and for the same editor and paper. I may indeed add, and I hope it will not be thought vainglorious, but I really believe that I was a sort of resource, and kept in reserve; for I find Dickens, when he was in a difficulty as to a suitable story, writing to his assistant, "Perhaps Fitzgerald has something ready by him."

It was in the same speculative way that Wilkie Collins was found and brought forward. He had produced a short novel, "The Dead Secret," which showed much of his mystical power, and attracted, and so was called in to renew the flagging interest with his once famous "Woman in White." This happy coup did wonders for the magazine, and the weekly portions were read—"devoured" almost—with an absorbing interest. It was, of course, followed up by others, "No Name," "Armadale," etc.

Now I think I may rather plume myself on the fact that I and this popular novelist were the only two writers who during that long span of twenty years furnish stories, and were repeatedly called upon to furnish stories, and that I really supplied as many serials as did my gifted coadjutor.

We next turn to a character that contrasts strangely with this erratic being, as sober, restrained, and business-like as the other was the reverse. William Wilkie Collins, to give his correct name was perhaps of all his followers the most useful and valuable to Dickens—more useful a good deal than those greater "star performers," Sir E. Bulwer Lytton, Charles Reade, and others of such rank. He was gifted with the painstaking art of working out any fancy that he devised, and getting out of it all that it was worth. He had, moreover, much ingenuity and craft, and could devise an elaborate plot or story, though of a mechanical sort. He really had no genius and but little inspiration or romance.*

* He and his brother Charles were named by their father in quaint fashion after two painters, Alston and Wilkie. Boz himself favoured this system, calling his sons after literary personages, thus: Henry Fielding Dickens, Alfred Tennyson Dickens, etc.

He began modestly enough, and I remember a trifling little hand-book of his, "Rambles among Railways," which was somewhat of what is called the "Potboiler" sort. But his early novel, "Basil," always seemed to have more power and dramatic spirit than anything that came later. It was coarse enough, but had a certain fire and Zolaesque power, turning on a wild and hasty marriage made by a man who had become infatuated by a woman whom he had met in an omnibus.

Wilkie made his début in the journal with a very sensational little story called " The Terribly Strange Bedstead." A man found himself fastened down in his bed, and noted the roof gradually descending on him with the purpose of pressing him slowly to death. The horrors of such a situation were very graphically portrayed, and I well recollect going to hear him, from mere curiosity, recite his " Terribly Strange Bedstead" at the old Olympic Theatre. I arrived at the door just as a very stout, elderly gentleman, qui fait du ventre, was getting out of a cab. He came on in due course, but a most singularly inefficient performance it was. He had little or no voice, and scarcely attempted to raise it. He seemed to think that the word "bedstead" was full of tragic meaning, and we heard again this "bedstead" repeated till it became almost comic. It seemed like an elderly gentleman at his club "boring" his neighbour with a long story of something "he had seen in the papers." He was destitute of every qualification for his task. I remember reporting the scene to my friend Forster, who was amused and laughed his rhinoceros laugh. As might be anticipated, the enterprise was not a success. But all the same, people went to see him.

In the first week in January, 1857, he made a serious step in his career, and came forth with a long story—the "Dead Secret"—an interesting, cleverly written thing, simply told and without the elaborateness of his longer later works. When Dickens, a few years later, was starting his new venture, All the Year Round, he boldly determined to commission a serial by Wilkie Collins. And the well-known, most successful "Woman in White " was introduced to the town under the most favourable conditions. The first chapter appeared on November 26th, 1859.

I well remember how this elaborate work, which really made his reputation, was talked about, and what interest it excited, among ladies particularly. The author was a scrupulous, painstaking person, and laboured hard each week to produce his effects. How excellent too was the name! True, the critics laughed at the solemn tricks—the insistence on the perpetual "Statements" of Hartright and others, and the long-worded extracts from "the Housekeeper’s Diary." Everybody in this strange book seemed to be keeping diaries and making statements, or writing papers of some sort. But "it served." He was particularly proud of his Count Fosco, who was a mere "twopence coloured" figure, talking a strange lingo devised by the author, unlike anything known abroad. However, as I say, "it served." It was followed by other works, equally elaborate. "No Name," "The Moonstone," etc., were mostly replicas of the first, and did not attract nearly so much.

As Wilkie Collins grew older he waxed fat and portly, and became a large-headed, benevolent-looking sort of being. But he was too much of the bon-vivant, and paid in bodily infirmities accordingly. What agonies of gout he suffered! This enemy seized on his eyes, and the pains were excruciating. I once met Charles Kent just come from visiting him. "His eyes," he said, "were literally enormous bags of blood!" When Miss Hogarth and her niece were collecting Dickens’s letters for publication, Collins was disinclined to lend his, as he thought them of sufficient interest to be published separately. They were issued in America after his death; but I was struck with their formality, which suggests that there was never a substantial bond of friendship between the two. I have my own theory—that Wilkie came at last to think he was a very great writer, almost on a level with his chief. However, this may be doing him an injustice, but it is not at all unlikely. It was hard to relish their collaboration in the Christmas Numbers and "The Lazy Tour," where the contrast of styles became really an injury to Dickens, Collins’s being so forced and pretentious, while Boz had to fit himself as best he could to his friend’s transpontine manner. The meaning of it all was, I think, that the wearied Dickens was glad to find someone of good reputation who could take some of the heavy work off his hands and so relieve him. But there can be no doubt that the combination was most injurious.

Dickens, ever good natured, did not see how damaging was this intimate co-operation, how uninteresting a spectacle it was to the reader. We would have some columns of Boz’s light-hearted sketches of roadside travel succeeded abruptly by some of his partner’s gloomy stories in the usual ponderous, self-important manner. This "Lazy Tour" seemed to be pieced together in a clumsy fashion, the slices of material being alternated. It is not difficult to see that Collins was allowed to regulate matters, owing to his own and Dickens’s faith in his "powers of construction."

Wilkie’s humour was of a rather laboured kind, and contrasted oddly with Boz’s gaiety. The latter, however, fully believed in his companion and heartily admired him. But "Wilkie" had a sort of priggish solemnity that often brought a smile. Collins fancied that he was "a great Frenchman," and knew the foreigner’s mind thoroughly. Hence that corrupt jargon of Fosco’s broken talk which was evolved out of his imagination, and never heard in real life. Dickens could not help imitating his devices, as in the case of Blandois.

I always think that Dickens’s noble, unselfish, generous nature expended itself somewhat vainly on such a character, certainly not endowed with anything likely to respond to such affection. Not that I knew him sufficiently to judge him, but he had not the warm and rather romantic tone of feeling that Boz looked for; and I fancy one can detect in the latter’s closing letters a somewhat colder and more business vein. We may note, too, how Collins seemed to encroach, as it were, and offer direction instead of accepting it.

Their expedition described in "The Lazy Tour" was to Cumberland and its fells, and in the course of it the ordinary accident of a sprained foot befell Collins, the horrors of which were worked up and magnified in a rather ludicrous way. They stayed at a little country inn, and it shows the unvarying, never-failing influence of Boz that his sparkling sketch of it should have been reprinted in the place for the benefit of tourists. On the whole, it cannot be said that "The Lazy Tour" was a success, or that it added to Boz’s reputation, owing, as I said, to the fact that there was "too much Collins" in it.

Later it was sad to see how Collins’s popularity fell off. His own special style, that of "The Woman in White," was quite exhausted, and he was issuing feeble replicas which brought him, I suspect, but little. He took to the stage; but his pieces were all too "talky," and showed little dramatic feeling. Such was "Man and Wife." How well I remember a night at the old Adelphi when his "Black and White" was produced, and when the whole Dickens family, full of affectionate partisanship, attended. I see them in the lower omnibus-box, close to the stage, applauding—trying to believe that it was a success—Boz’s eyeglasses glistening in the light. I went round to them between acts. It was a fair piece, but not a success. Another of his efforts was an original and striking one, "The New Magdalen," given at the Olympic, somewhat restoring the fortunes of that house, which that interesting actress, Miss Ada Cavendish, was then directing. It was preceded by a short piece of my own.

Alas! in due time Dickens’s eyes opened to the true nature and gifts of his friend. "I quite agree with you," he wrote, in the year before his death, " about `The Moonstone.’ The construction is wearisome beyond endurance, and there is a vein of obstinate conceit in it that makes enemies of readers."*

* In some marginalia on Forster’s Life Collins speaks rather coldly, and perhaps with too much severity, of his great friend.

A most original and interesting company they were, all eager to serve and give their best service to the great captain, with light article or criticism or story; yet out of the long list only a very few furnished the novel of " long breath " (à longue haleine), and then only a single story, or at most, I think, four, as in the case of Wilkie Collins. But as I have already mentioned, I was privileged to supply no less than five or six long novels to the journal. I ought, indeed, to be grateful to my old friend, patron, and master.

From Memories of Charles Dickens by Percy Fitzgerald F.S.A., Bristol 1913.

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