Life of Charles Dickens

John Forster's biography of Charles Dickens is as much about Forster as Dickens. A lot of it consists of lengthy quotes from Dickens's letters. There are a few mentions of Collins and it does contain the famous assessment that he "became, for all the rest of the life of Dickens, one of his dearest and most valued friends." Considering Forster is widely thought to have been very jealous of Dickens's closeness to Collins it is a surprisingly generous remark. The context of this comment is given together with the other mentions of Collins.

Lytton’s comedy, Not so Bad as We Seem, was played for the first time at Devonshire-house on 16 May, 1851, before the Queen and Prince and as large an audience as places could be found for; the farce of Mr. Nightingale’s Diary being reserved for the second performance. The success abundantly realised expectation; and, after many representations at the Hanover-square Rooms in London, strolling began in the country, and was continued at intervals for considerable portions of this and the following year. From much of it, I was myself disabled by illness and occupation, and substitutes had to be found; but to this I owe a lively and characteristic picture of Dickens amid the incidents and accidents to which his theatrical career exposed him, which may be taken from the closing performances. The company carried with them, it should be said, the theatre constructed for Devonshire-house, as well as the admirable scenes which Stanfield, David Roberts, Thomas Grieve, Telbin, Absolon, and Louis Haghe had painted as their generous free-offerings to the comedy; of which the representations were thus rendered irrespective of theatres or their managers, and took place in the large halls or concert-rooms of the various towns and cities. A design for the card of membership, taken from an incident in the life of De Foe, expressed the interest felt in the undertaking by another distinguished artist, Mr. E. M. Ward.

Manchester and Liverpool closed the trip with enormous success at both places; and Sir Edward Lytton was present at a public dinner which was given in the former city, Dickens’s brief word about it being written as he was setting foot in the train that was to bring him to London. “Bulwer spoke brilliantly at the Manchester dinner, and his earnestness and determination about the Guild was most impressive. It carried everything before it. They are now getting up annual subscriptions, and will give us a revenue to begin with. I swear I believe that people to be the greatest in the world. At Liverpool I had a Round Robin on the stage after the play was over, a place being left for your signature, and as I am going to have it framed, I’ll tell Green to send it to Lincoln’s-inn-fields. You have no idea how good Tenniel, Topham, and Collins have been in what they had to do.”

These names, distinguished in art and letters, represent additions to the company who had joined the enterprise; and the last of them, Mr. Wilkie Collins, became, for all the rest of the life of Dickens, one of his dearest and most valued friends.


He completed Bleak House by the third week of August, and it was resolved to celebrate the event by a two months’ trip to Italy, in company with Mr. Wilkie Collins and Mr. Augustus Egg. The start was to be made from Boulogne in the middle of October, when he would send his family home; and he described the intervening weeks as a fearful “reaction and prostration of laziness” only broken by the Child’s History.


The home incidents of the summer and autumn of 1855 may be mentioned briefly. It was a year of much unsettled discontent with him, and upon return from a short trip to Paris with Mr. Wilkie Collins, he flung himself rather hotly into agitation with the administrative reformers, and spoke at one of the great meetings in Drury-lane Theatre. “Generally I quite agree with you that they hardly know what to be at; but it is an immensely difficult subject to start, and they must have every allowance. At any rate, it is not by leaving them alone and giving them no help, that they can be urged on to success.” In the following month (April) he took occasion, even from the chair of the General Theatrical Fund, to give renewed expression to political dissatisfactions. “The Government hit took immensely; but I’m afraid to look at the report, these things are so ill done.” In the summer he threw open to many friends his Tavistock House Theatre, having secured for its “lessee and manager Mr. Crummles;” for its poet Mr. Wilkie Collins, in “an entirely new and original domestic melodrama;” and for its scene-painter “Mr. Stanfield, R.A.” The Lighthouse, by Mr. Wilkie Collins, was then produced, its actors being Mr. Crummles the manager (Dickens in other words), the Author of the play, Mr. Lemon, and Mr. Egg, and the manager’s sister-in-law and eldest daughter. It was followed by the Guild farce of Mr. Nightingale’s Diary, in which, besides the performers named, and Dickens in his old personation part, the manager’s youngest daughter and Mr. Frank Stone assisted. The success was wonderful; and in the three delighted audiences who crowded to what the bills described as “the smallest theatre in the world,” were not a few of the notabilities of London. Mr. Carlyle compared Dickens’s wild picturesqueness in the old lighthouse keeper to the famous figure in Nicholas Poussin’s bacchanalian dance in the National Gallery; and at one of the joyous suppers that followed on each night of the play, Lord Campbell told the company that he had much rather have written Pickwick than be Chief Justice of England and a peer of Parliament.


Dickens was in Boulogne, in 1853, from the middle of June to the end of September, and for the next three months, as we have seen, was in Switzerland and Italy. In the following year he went again to Boulogne in June, and stayed, after finishing Hard Times, until far into October. In February of 1855 he was for a fortnight in Paris with Mr. Wilkie Collins; not taking up his more prolonged residence there until the winter. From November 1855 to the end of April 1856 he made the French capital his home, working at Little Dorrit during all those months. Then, after a month’s interval in Dover and London, he took up his third summer residence in Boulogne, whither his younger children had gone direct from Paris; and stayed until September, finishing Little Dorrit in London in the spring of 1857.

Besides the graver work which Mr. Wilkie Collins and himself were busy with, in these months, and by which Household Words mainly was to profit, some lighter matters occupied the leisure of both. There were to be, at Christmas, theatricals again at Tavistock House; in which the children, with the help of their father and other friends, were to follow up the success of the Lighthouse by again acquitting themselves as grown-up actors; and Mr. Collins was busy preparing for them a new drama to be called The Frozen Deep, while Dickens was sketching a farce for Mr. Lemon to fill in. But this pleasant employment had sudden and sad interruption.

An epidemic broke out in the town, affecting the children of several families known to Dickens, among them that of his friend Mr. Gilbert A’Beckett; who, upon arriving from Paris, and finding a favourite little son stricken dangerously, sank himself under an illness from which he had been suffering, and died two days after the boy. “He had for three days shown symptoms of rallying, and we had some hope of his recovery; but he sank and died, and never even knew that the child had gone before him. A sad, sad story.” Dickens meanwhile had sent his own children home with his wife, and the rest soon followed. Poor M. Beaucourt was inconsolable. “The desolation of the place is wretched. When Mamey and Katey went, Beaucourt came in and wept. He really is almost broken-hearted about it. He had planted all manner of flowers for next month, and had thrown down the spade and left off weeding the garden, so that it looks something like a dreary bird-cage with all manner of grasses and chickweeds sticking through the bars and lying in the sand. ‘Such a loss too,’ he says, ‘for Monsieur Dickens!’ Then he looks in at the kitchen window (which seems to be his only relief), and sighs himself up the hill home.”

That was at the close of February. In October, Dickens’s longer residence began. He betook himself with his family, after two unsuccessful attempts in the new region of the Rue Balzac and Rue Lord Byron, to an apartment in the Avenue des Champs Elysees. …Nor may I omit to state the enjoyment afforded him, not only by the presence in Paris during the winter of Mr. Wilkie Collins and of Mr. and Mrs. White of Bonchurch, but by the many friends from England whom the Art Exposition brought over.


“I was better pleased with Gadshill Place last Saturday,” he wrote to me from Paris on the 13th of February 1856, “on going down there, even than I had prepared myself to be. The country, against every disadvantage of season, is beautiful; and the house is so old-fashioned, cheerful, and comfortable, that it is really pleasant to look at. The good old Rector now there, has lived in it six and twenty years, so I have not the heart to turn him out. He is to remain till Lady-Day next year, when I shall go in, please God; make my alterations; furnish the house; and keep it for myself that summer.” Returning to England through the Kentish country with Mr. Wilkie Collins in July, other advantages occurred to him. “A railroad opened from Rochester to Maidstone, which connects Gadshill at once with the whole sea coast, is certainly an addition to the place, and an enhancement of its value. Bye and bye we shall have the London, Chatham and Dover, too; and that will bring it within an hour of Canterbury and an hour and a half of Dover. I am glad to hear of your having been in the neighbourhood. There is no healthier (marshes avoided), and none in my eyes more beautiful. One of these days I shall show you some places up the Medway with which you will be charmed.”


Writing previously of the papers in Household Words called “The Lazy Tour of Two Idle Apprentices,” after saying that he and Mr. Wilkie Collins had written together a story in the second part, “in which I think you would find it very difficult to say where I leave off and he comes in,” he had said of the preceding descriptions: “Some of my own tickle me very much; but that may be in great part because I know the originals, and delight in their fantastic fidelity.”


Dickens’s next story to Little Dorrit was A Tale of Two Cities, of which the first notion occurred to him while acting with his friends and his children in the summer of 1857 in Mr. Wilkie Collins’s drama of The Frozen Deep. But it was only a vague fancy, and the sadness and trouble of the winter of that year were not favourable to it.


There were two more Christmas pieces before he made his last visit to America: Barbox Brothers with The Boy at Mugby Station, and No Thoroughfare: the last a joint piece of work with Mr. Wilkie Collins, who during Dickens’s absence in the States transformed it into a play for Mr. Fechter, with a view to which it had been planned originally.

From John Forster Life of Charles Dickens London 1872

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