Harper's Weekly

This 1000 word essay was published in Harper's Weekly on 8 March 1873 together with the engraving shown here. It filled a gap between the end of Poor Miss Finch which ended in February the previous year and The Frozen Deep which began in 1874. At the time The New Magdalen was being serialised in Harper's New Monthly Magazine. It is not known who wrote it


AMONG living English novelists none enjoys a wider popularity, in his own country and America, than the author of The Woman in White, whose portrait is given on this page. He was the eldest son of WILLIAM COLLINS, an English painter of celebrity, and was born in London, January, 1824. After receiving a fine education at a private school, and spending some years with his parents in Italy, he was articled for four years to a firm in the tea trade. Finding his tastes and inclinations at variance with a commercial life, he studied law at Lincoln's Inn, where he was an inmate at the time of his father's death, in 1847, and his first literary performance was an admirable biography of his father, with selections from his journals and correspondence. This was published in 1818. From that time WILKIE COLLINS devoted himself entirely to literary pursuits. Between 1830 anti 1831 he published successively Antonina; or, the Fall of Rome, his first novel; Rambles beyond Railways; or, Notes in Cornwall; Basil; Mr. Wray's Cash-Box; and Hide and Seek. He soon afterward became a frequent contributor to Household Words, and his After Dark, printed in 1856, and his Dead Secret, printed in the following year, were collections of short and most admirable tales published originally in that journal. Antonina revealed the possession of remarkable genius, and gave promise of future greatness; but the subject was ill-chosen, and the book met with only limited success. It was, however, translated into German, and was received with marked approval by German readers and critics.

In each of his succeeding novels WILKIE COLLINS More than realized the promise of his first effort in the literature of romantic fiction. The Woman in White, No Name, The Moonstone, Man and Wife, and Poor Miss Finch, enjoyed a popularity as Serials scarcely second to those of DICKENS; and the constant demand for them shows the permanent hold they have taken on the reading public. In all these works he exhibits remarkable dramatic power. His plots, though always intricate, are never obscure or perplexing; a constant succession of dramatic situations keeps the reader's interest ever on the alert, while the dénouement, though suggested, is concealed with such consummate art as to come at last as a startling surprise. Thus in Man and Wife the happy marriage of the heroine to the true friend who had learned first to respect and afterward to admire and love her, took all by surprise who read the story in serial form; yet the way to this conclusion of her sufferings and wrongs was so skillfully prepared as to be accepted by every one as the natural dénouement of the story.

We have alluded to the dramatic power exhibited by Mr. COLLINS in his novels. No writer is more alive to the value of effective situations in keeping up the reader's interest, or displays greater skill in the effective development of character and story through a succession of dramatic scenes and contrasts. He has dramatized several of his own novels with marked success, besides producing several original plays, which attained great popularity. Of. these. The Lighthouse and The Frozen Deep were first brought out at the private theatricals of Tavistock House, Mr. CHARLES DICKENS being one of the performers. The latter was also played with the same cast at the Gallery of Illustration for the benefit of the "Jerrold Fund;" the former was produced at the Olympic Theatre, in London, and was received with marked approval.

Mr. COLLINS has long cherished the intention of visiting. this country, partly for the purpose of making an extended lecturing tour, and partly for the purpose of collecting materials for a new story, illustrative of life on the Western frontier. Ill health has prevented the accomplishment of this plan; but our readers will be glad to learn that rest and travel have so far restored his strength that he hopes to make the journey during the present year.

Judged from a purely intellectual standard, WILKIE COLLINS must unquestionably be ranked among the greatest of living novelists. He excels most of his contemporaries in subtlety and keen analysis, at the same time surpassing them in the novelty and startling interest of his dramatic situations. His new story, entitled The New Magdalen, now appearing in the pages of Harper's Magazine, is, without question, the greatest of his works The opening scene is laid on the Rhine frontier during the late Franco-German war The story turns upon the assumption by one woman of the name and social position of another. The heroine who takes this bold step was formerly a Magdalen of London, whose past character, despite her noblest exertions, has persistently followed her, and prevented her from regaining that social position which she now seeks to retrieve by deception. The story abounds in those dramatic scenes and situations which constitute one of the great attractions of his fictions. The heroine, who, as we have said, has tried in vain to raise herself above the level to which she has fallen, becomes a nurse in a military field hospital during the German-French war, and while there makes the acquaintance of a young lady, the orphan of a colonel in the British army, who is on her way to friends in England, in whom she becomes interested, and whose story she learns. While waiting overnight at a French ambulance during an engagement this young lady is apparently killed by the explosion of a shell; and the heroine of the story conceives the plan of changing clothes with her and assuming her name. Circumstances favor the accomplishment of the plan. The young woman who was supposed to be dead comes to life, however, and endeavors to assert her personality and rights. That the career growing out of such a complication is one of thrilling interest no need be told who has read WILKIE COLLINS’S former tales.

From Harper’s Weekly 8 March 1873 vol XVII No.845 p185

go back to biographies list

go back to Wilkie Collins front page

visit the Paul Lewis front page

All material on these pages is © Paul Lewis 1997-2006