Editor's Easy Chair

The ‘Editor’s Easy Chair’ was the comment column in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine where journalist George William Curtis (1824-1892), its author from 1859, could write what he pleased about current events and literature. This month he chose to write about Wilkie Collins’s work the month after No Name finished in Harper’s Weekly on 24 January 1863. The Harper brothers were consistent publisher’s of Wilkie’s work and he met them later on his visit to the United States in 1873..

Editor’s Easy Chair

Wilkie Collins has finished “No Name,” a story of which the Easy Chair has had more than one word to say. Of its intense interest, the first necessity of a novel, there can be no question. Of the masterly management of the plot so that the future of the story is always impenetrable, there is never any doubt. Of the sure success of a tale written with the closest knowledge of the requirements of modern readers, there may be absolute certainty. In fact, Collins seems to begin his work with the question, “What does the reader want in a novel?” and then to write it from the reader’s wishes. It is somewhat the same kind of skill which Edgar A. Poe possessed in a smaller degree, and it is the principle, or rather the theory, upon which he wrote “The Raven.” The public mind at any particular time has certain tastes and desires which a truly skillful literary artist will be able to detect and gratify. That seems to me to explain the peculiar success of Victor Hugo’s “Miserables.” It is certainly not a very great novel if “The Antiquary,” and “Joseph Andrews,” and “The Newcomes” are great novels. The “ Miserables” is a condescension and adaptation to the popular taste exactly as the high-flown rhetoric of a slump speaker or the ranting of Mr. Forrest is. The whole chapter upon Cambronne and his dirty word is the greatest phenomenon in literary history. The language has no word to express the kind of extravagance which it illustrates.

In another way from that of Victor Hugo, without the least moralizing or direct moral tendency, Wilkie Collins addresses a popular taste not less marked. It is, to speak plainly, a prurient, but not an indecent, taste. It is the morbid interest in crimes and trials and executions to which he appeals. It is the old strain of mystery and horror to which he tunes his pipe. No two writers would seem to be more entirely unlike than Wilkie Collins and Mrs. Radcliffe, and yet the key-note is substantially the same. In both it is horror: but in the one it is what we call supernatural, and in the other most literally natural. The “Woman in White” and “No Name” are stories of criminals and crime — not in the general way of sin and sinners, of people of weak and cowardly lives and actions, but of men and women who do criminal deeds. And the interest of the works really lies in the skill with which the details of the deeds are described, and the profound obscurity in which the results are hidden until the catastrophe is reached.

It might almost seem as if Wilkie Collins were a shrewd Englishman who had asked himself the questions, what is the secret of the perennial interest in the “Newgate Calendar?” why does the public devour with such ardor the details of the trial of every great and mysterious criminal? and why may not a sagacious litterateur turn it all to account?

Of course he does not do his work coarsely. His criminals are not men who knock each other down with clubs, or who scalp their enemies and smear their faces with the blood. They are criminals of a state of high civilization, who move smoothly in parlors, and drive in carriages, and are part of the world and life we know. But, after all, what people they are! How profoundly interesting, and even exciting, are the daily performances, plots, deceptions, failures, and successes of persons whom we despise! Surely it shows the power of the author who can so move us.

The “Woman in White” and “No Name” are not less remarkably illustrative of the time and the public taste than “Miserables.”

From Harper’s New Monthly Magazine Vol. XXVI, Issue 153, February, 1863 pp. 423-424

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