The World

Olive Logan (1839-1909) was an American actress with Augustin Daly's Broadway theatre. She also wrote plays and later novels and in 1868 gave up the stage for a full time writing career which included journalism. No letters from Collins to Logan survive. This elaborate reminiscence of meeting Collins in 1879, 1887, and 1888 contains quotes from him which may or may not be accurately reported. Her account if Collins at the Society of Authors dinner is the only account of him at that event, possibly the last public outing of his life. Here he gives his views on Lytton, French writers, and Carlyle explains how he writes stories, gives some views on Dickens which may be exaggerated, talks of the ghosts that haunted him, and views on other writers, his view of Dickens, describes his appearance in 1887 - lacking top teeth - and in 1888, clearly very ill. The slightly confusing headline is as it originally appeared.

The Midland Grand is the hotel in front of St Pancras station in London which is currently (2007) being converted into apartments. It was designed between 1868-1876 by Sir George Gilbert Scott (1811-1878) and was - and is - the high point of the Victorian Gothic revival movement. He also designed the Albert Memorial to Queen Victoria's husband and consort Prince Albert.







 His High Regard for Dickens, but Trivial Estimate of the French Novelists—His Glassy-Eyed Ghostly Visitors—At the Society of Authors’ Dinner Last Year—A Pen-Portrait of the Venerable Author.

In the Winter of 1879 Wilkie Collins wrote to ask me what day would be convenient for me to receive a friendly little visit from him. I was then residing at the Midland Grand, the precursor of the now numerous hotels of size and splendor which have contributed so largely to the attractiveness of London for the American traveller. My reply to the distinguished novelist was as cordial as I knew how to make it, We agreed upon a day, an hour, and on that day and promptly at that hour Mr. Wilkie Collins came.

He had been ushered into the music room of the hotel before I descended from my apartment above stairs. I found him seated upon a sofa near a large window, from which one obtained a marvellous view of the densely populous parish of St. Pancras. Directly beneath was the entrance to the Midland Railway Station with its wide court-yard inclosed behind high iron railings, in itself a remarkable scene of busy life: hundreds of cabs arriving and departing every hour, bringing or carrying away uncountable travellers; scores of porters lifting trunks (carefully, as is the custom in England) or running about with small parcels, umbrellas and the various impediments of those who journey by rail.

The old church of St. Pancras was visible on the south, an interesting edifice, with a noble façade adorned with Corinthian columns, the pristine purity of whose Italian marble has been softened into a picturesque gray by innumerable fogs. Euston station was close at hand, teeming with throngs, composed in the majority of Americans bound from or towards home. But the crowds passing through the streets, the resident population of the neighborhood, were, after all, the most striking feature of the window view. They were the poor, the lowly, the tattered, the quaint, the unmatchable hordes which Dickens pressed into service as models for his characters. Wilkie Collins was thoughtfully looking down upon the varied scene when I approached him.

“A strange picture, is it not?”

“Yes,” returned he, “queer old parish, St. Pancras. Always considered one of the poorest London neighborhoods until the Midland Railway people built this fine hotel. This will attract well-to-do travellers, of course.”

The high-art idea in furniture and decoration was a novelty in England at that time, and the room in which we sat was an exaggerated expression of the “truly precious” fancy in adornment. Dull blues and brick-dust-reds in wall paper and hangings alternated their lowness of tone with that of wrought-iron sconces and diamond pane lights. Gilding and rainbow colorings shone by their absence.

I asked my visitor if he admired the new taste in domestic decoration. He replied emphatically that he did not.

“I was thinking before you came in,” he went on, “how Dickens would have detested this room. He was so fond of a large, square room. An irregular oblong apartment like this would have driven him mad if he’d been obliged to stay long in it.”


Frequently during our long conversation he spoke of Dickens, whose opinions on every subject—moral, social and intellectual—he evidently held to be of superlative value. For instance, referring to the realistic school of fiction as represented by contemporaneous French authors, he exclaimed.

“Zola! Faugh! Heaven preserve one from such realism as that! How Dickens would have recoiled from it—he was realistic, indeed, but so pure. Well, Daudet is not quite so bad as the rest; still they are all but poor echoes of Balzac, ‘Le Père Goriot’ is worth more than the whole lot of these modern Frenchmen’s novels put together. It will be a long day before M. Zola or M. Daudet produces anything that can approach that pathetic masterpiece.”

“You value pathos in fiction?”

“The power of touching the heart surpasses every other in its influence on the reader. Humor is delightful, accurate description is interesting, but pathos holds the reader spell-bound and leaves an unfading impression on his mind. “

We spoke of Bulwer and his once so popular novels.

“That sort of story would not be liked now—I mean that rambling way of writing fiction.”

I had been that morning to the British Museum, where in an old magazine I had found a paper by Bulwer Lytton on the art of writing fiction, in which he said that all that was necessary was to start with a connée [?] quelconque and then proceed, letting the incidents and the dénouement of your novel suggest themselves en route.

“I wonder he preserved his sanity under such a method. There is but one way to write a good novel.”

“That way must be very familiar to you, as you have written so many good ones. Will you impart it to me?”

“With pleasure,” he replied. “I am always glad to give hints to young writers. In the first place you must think out your plot in its main features before you put pen to paper. You must know how you are going to begin, to continue and to end your story. You must divide your novel into parts, which I myself call ‘books,’ and which correspond to the acts of a play. The most thrilling incident must come as a dénouement to the end of your fourth part: and number five is the éclairissement, like the satisfactory unravelling of everything in the fifth act of a play. Undoubtedly, many incidents and characters will suggest themselves as you are writing, and these may in some degree modify your original intention but in the main [, the] method should be what I have said, to know how you are going to end before you begin.”

“Characterization is such a wonderful aid to success! You must be a close student of human nature; we know that by your books.”


 “The secret of that is to get out of the beaten track of ideas,” he replied. “The popular impression, I believe, for ages has been that fat people are necessarily good-humored. Now, I never observed that fat people were any more good-humored or virtuous than thin people, and that is the reason why I made Count Fosco a fat man. A fat villain was an absolute novelty in fiction, though not so, I maintain, in fact.”

“You are so prolific a writer that it is evident you must work very hard.”

“I write all day long; yes, absolutely. I work like any other laborer. Immediately after breakfast I seat myself at my desk, work without intermission until luncheon time, and then again straight on till dinner.”

“Do you write at night?”

“I used to, but I was obliged to give that up. Really, there were too many ghosts about.”

“Those you had summoned for use in your fiction?”

“Yes—accompanied by their friends. They clustered together just beyond the smoke from my pipe and stared at me with glassy eyes. I was forced to jump up, seize my hat and go to the club.”

“Don’t you require more exercise than you get seated all day at your desk?”

“I can’t spare time for any more. I walk to the club every evening and back, and play a game of whist with one or other of my literary friends.”

“Will you not give me some more hints about writing, please?”

“Pay great attention to style. That is a point upon which I am most solicitous. Every line of my books is carefully worked over, sometimes rewritten two or three times in order that it may be perfect in the matter of style.”

“Your books are widely translated?”

“In every living tongue, I believe.”

“Do other publishers treat you as badly as those in America?”

“American publishers treat me very well. I don’t complain of American publishers. The Harpers are splendid people. Dutch publishers leave much to be desired. My last book had a great sale in the Dutch language and I did not receive a penny from it. I wrote the publisher about it—like a Dutch uncle.”

Naturally enough the conversation turned on Mr. Collins’s visit to America. He was charmed with our country, the cordiality of our people and with the succulence of our native viands.

“I liked your corn,” he said,” with gustatory enthusiasm, “and your tomatoes, and, yes,—I liked your tarrapin, too. (His pronunciation of the word should go far towards strengthening the philological soundness of Uncle Remus’s utterances.) Still, I must say your tarrapin stew is inferior to our turtle soup. Americans don’t agree with me, but it is.”

“Shall you visit America again?”

“I hope so. I enjoyed myself immensely there. I like Americans. They’re so hearty! So free from jealousy and spite!”


 In London with its hurried life, in which every day is too short to contain tits quota of engagements, and must carry forward till the morrow its uncompleted list of social indebtedness, it is not unusual for months to elapse without meeting friends and acquaintances whom, were one free, one would gladly seek out. The boulevards of Paris and Broadway in New York are the universal rendezvous in those cities, where sooner or later persons run against each other, and have at least the opportunity to exchange a friendly ‘how d’ye?’ but in London, one may pace Regent street and Bond street for months and never enjoy the pleasure of an unexpected encounter with such and such a person, whom one knows is alive, but has not seen “for ages,” as the saying goes.

A writer so devoted to his diurnal duty as Wilkie Collins, according to his own showing, was seldom if ever to be met in the public thoroughfares or at the houses of his friends. As we have seen, his life was spent between his study and his club. It therefore happened between the year of 1879 and the Summer of the Queen’s Jubilee I saw him only on a few occasions, and but or a minute or two at those times.

One lovely June day in the Jubilee year an opulent New York lady, who was staying at the Hotel Metropole, in London, invited a few of her literary friends to partake of luncheon, the chief guest being Wilkie Collins.

The novelist was in a delightful mood, full of reminiscences, of anecdotes—especially those relating to the painter Wilkie after whom he was named and whose talent he esteemed highly. The conversation was sustained with vigor by another celebrity who was present, Mr. Francis Bennoch, the poet-merchant, as he is called, or—to refer to him by a name in which he naturally takes great pride—“the friend of Hawthorne.” Readers of “The Old Home” cannot fail to observe the frequent references to “B.” “Our dear friend B.” “B’s face fell, but instantly resumed its brightness—and it is the brightest face I ever saw.”

Between the genial B., whose face in old age retains much of the brightness immortalized by Hawthorne, and the equally genial Wilkie Collins, the table-talk was rarely interesting. Eulogy of Dickens, not as a writer—that was supererogatory—but as a man, was exchanged in free confidences. Mr. Bennoch has lived for long years in Tavistock Square, and when Dickens was at Tavistock House he used frequently of an evening to climb “over the garden wall” and come in to Mr. Bennoch’s by the back door to have a neighborly dish of chat. Wilkie Collins, if I remember rightly, never knew Hawthorne, but greatly admired “The Scarlet Letter,” a masterpiece which Dickens had little appreciation of, as he has left the strange opinion on record that “The Scarlet Letter,” is a building which is “all antechamber and no house”—a reference to the long preface, in which Hawthorne writes so interestingly of his life at Salem. Carlyle’s works, Wilkie Collins thought, would be better liked by Englishmen, including himself, if they were written “in English, instead of German.”

He took leave of our hostess in the richly decorated hall of the Metropole, and as the tall chasseur in gold-laced uniform who keeps watch and ward over the entrance of the hotel brushed past him and hurried out to call a cab, I was struck with the disparity in size between the head and the body of Wilkie Collins. His brow was wide and thoughtful, strongly magnifying spectacles afforded their aid to large and humorous eyes: a patriarchal beard swept upon his breast, and a long mustache partly covered a firm mouth, from which all the upper teeth were lacking.

The size of his head was magnified by the wide-brimmed, soft black felt hat which he wore; and perhaps the relative smallness of the body was increased by this negligé head gear. Our hostess politely urged him to let her call for him and take him driving in her carriage during the lovely weather then prevailing; but he excused himself, saying his literary duties were so imperative that it was with difficulty he could spare an hour for social enjoyment, as he had done today.


 On the 25th of July, 1888, the Incorporated Society of Authors (Lord Tennyson, President) gave a dinner to American Men and Women of Letters at the Criterion Restaurant, in Piccadilly Circus. As Mr. Walter Besant was taking me to dinner I saw Wilkie Collins coming upstairs. Never shall I forget the spiritual light which was radiant upon his intellectual face! The simile is well worn of a lamp burning in an alabaster vase; yet I can call to my aid no other which so aptly describes the translucence of the mask of his features, through which the sacred fire of Soul cast its supernal rays. Illness and unswerving devotion to the cult of letters had rendered his physiognomy so much more delicate than when I first saw it that I found difficulty in associating this valetudinarian with the robust gastronomist who had discoursed so earnestly upon the relative merits of terrapin and turtle. His form, too, had undergone a change. He was bent so that his head was scarcely higher than the hand which held the stick by whose assistance he walked. In reply to my inquiry he said that he had been very poorly, very poorly indeed, but was better now, and, as usual, exceedingly busy. At this repast I fancy he made but a pretext of eating, and, if I remember rightly, drank nothing but mineral waters—Apollinaris or the Malvern spring. His face was grave during all the merriment of the banquet. I gazed upon his features with more interest than ever previously; upon each lineament there dwelt a strange, pathetic beauty, with whose peculiarities all are familiar who have seen a face with “Death’s pale flag advanced there.” As he idly toyed with a fork during the change of courses I called to mind the many noble works he had given to enrich English fiction, and I felt a deep sense of gratitude to him for the enjoyment he had furnished us by his powerful contributions to our literature. The special advice he had imparted to me regarding the best method of writing fiction I appreciated highly, but I knew then and know now that such directions are of no small avail to the writer who is not otherwise endowed with power.

That Nathaniel Hawthorne made a technical error when in “The Scarlet Letter” he built his antechamber larger than his house is evident from Dickens’s criticism; but in spite of this mistake, and Dickens to the contrary notwithstanding, “The Scarlet Letter” is a masterpiece of fiction. So, also, one cannot believe that “The Woman in White,” “No Name,” “The Moonstone,” and many others of Wilkie Collins’s absorbing tales would have enthralled the reader whether or not they had been divided into books and reached their dénouement and their éclairissement according to a certain fixed rule. Rule and regularity may prove potent factors in the production of such novels as those of Anthony Trollope, but the thrilling romances of Wilkie Collins were written with the collaboration of those ghosts with the glassy eyes, who stared at him at night behind his pipe-smoke; the phantoms evoked by his imaginative genius working in the fairy field of fiction.

From The World Sunday 29 September 1889 p16.

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