Wybert Reeve (1830-1906) was an actor and theatrical manager who became friendly with Collins in 1871 when he played Hartright and later Fosco in the dramatic version of The Woman in White at the Olympic Theatre. He then took the production on a provincial tour and later to the USA and Canada. He also dramatised No Name with Collins’s permission, but it was never staged in England.
These recollections were published a few months before Reeve’s death in Chamber’s Journal IX June 16 1906 pp 458-461. Note that if he met Collins in 1871, as he says, he could not have met Dickens during their friendship, as he also says, as Dickens died in 1870.
The recollections are amended and shortened from an earlier version published by Reeve in Australia in 1891.
RECOLLECTIONS OF WILKIE COLLINS
By Wybert Reeve
R WILKIE COLLINS attended the second rehearsal of the play of The Woman in White at the Olympic Theatre, produced on the 9th of October 1871. A short, moderately thick-set man, with a beard, moustache, and whiskers slightly tinged with white; a bent figure, caused a great deal by his suffering from gout and neuralgia; a full, massive, very clever head and forehead; and bright, intellectual eyes, looking out of strong glasses mounted in gold.
The rehearsals of the play were tiresome and very annoying—from ten o’clock in the morning until five o’clock in the afternoon, sometimes from six or seven o’clock in the evening to one and two o’clock in the morning. Endless arguments arose about crossing the stage, the position of the several characters, of a chair, a sofa, or a table, chiefly attributed to the indecision of Mr George Vining, who was playing ‘Fosco’ and arranging the production of the play. Wilkie Collins attended often, and looked through it all ‘perplexed in the extreme;’ but he was gentlemanly, patient, and good-tempered, always ready with a smile if a chance offered itself, or a peaceful word kindly suggesting when a point was to be gained. I marvelled at him, for authors as a rule are naturally the reverse of patient when attending the rehearsals of a piece they have written. They form their own conception of characters they have created, and object to have their ideas differently interpreted by an actor or actress.
The drama was a decided success. On its production the newspapers pronounced it the best drama and the most interesting written of late years, and likely to be the forerunner of a new and better school. It continued to be played until the 24th of February 1872. I then started with a company to produce it in the provinces, and continued doing so for some years, under the most liberal and friendly terms with the author.
When in London we invariably arranged to dine together at his house in Gloucester Place, and during these pleasant evenings we chatted over many men and things.
Of Charles Dickens he spoke in terms of the strongest affection; they had been friends for years. He described to me the meetings when the idea of Dickens reading his own works was first proposed. Collins was greatly in favour of his doing so. Other friends thought it infra dig., and strongly objected. As all the world knows, the good advice at length prevailed, and thousands of people rejoiced in listening to his marvellous power of individualising his own characters at the reading-desk. That the continued exertion shortened his life Wilkie Collins felt certain. Before any new reading he invited a few friends to dinner, and in the evening rehearsed it for their opinion and advice; and Collins told me he could never forget the Nancy and Bill Sikes scenes. The effect upon Dickens was remarkable and painful in the extreme, both at the first and ever afterwards; every nerve in his sensitive temperament was wound up to such a pitch of excited energy. At the first rehearsal he fainted, and always afterwards when he read these scenes in public he suffered from exhaustion. Friends strongly advised him not to continue; but, seeing the effect they had upon the public, he persevered. ‘This reading,’ said Collins, ‘I am quite sure, did more to kill him than all his other work put together.’
To John Forster’s Life of Dickens he took great exception. He and other friends of the dead author were most desirous of suppressing many things Forster had written in the book which might have been omitted with no loss to the public. As Collins said, we all have our weaknesses; and however great a man may be, he is not exempt from them. Why parade them ? Why tell of family matters with which the public had really nothing to do? Forster was not to be advised or controlled. His own identity with all Dickens’s works and actions is so persistently put before the reader that John Forster is as prominent as Charles Dickens throughout. More particularly did Collins condemn Mr Forster’s references to the trouble between Dickens and his wife; entering into so much detail was unwise, unnecessary, and a mistake. As usual in such misunderstandings, there were faults on both sides. That Mrs Dickens unfortunately was a very unsuitable lady to be the wife of a man of his nature was known to all his friends; and every one who knew the circumstances deeply regretted them.
During my friendship with Wilkie Collins I only met Charles Dickens twice. From his strongly marked, expressive face, so full of character, his eyes beaming with good-nature and kindness, and his persuasive voice and manner of speaking, so graphic in description, so direct and to the point in the exposition of his thoughts and arguments, I could very well understand all the appreciation and love existing between the two friends.
There was another friend of both authors I knew: kind-hearted, eccentric Charles Reade. I remember going with Collins and a lady friend to call upon him. It was my first visit. As we entered the room. I. saw a big, burly, carelessly dressed man, with a fine head, good features, rather long, straggling, and uncut hair. He was cutting the pictures out of various periodicals and sticking them in a large book open before him. The study was exactly as described in A Terrible Temptation. As we entered he looked up with a genial smile, shook hands, then thrust both hands deep down in his pockets, and, walking to the fire, turned his back to it. His language was strong, but his heart was as tender as a child’s, with almost a child’s vanity.
‘You will see,’ said the lady to me, ‘how I will please him.—Oh, Mr Reade, pardon me, do forgive me,’ she said, laughing and fixing her eyes upon him. ‘I like looking at you; there is something in your face so good and so manly.’
‘My dear Mrs ——,’ replied Reade, ‘you flatter me. Upon my life, I should be angry if I did not know you were a woman of judgment;’ and the next minute he turned to the glass, brushing up his hair with his hands, evidently as pleased as possible.
His great ambition was to be a theatrical manager, and he was never happier than when rehearsing one of his pieces. He was a great stickler for reality. On producing a play at the Princess’s, the first act of which was a farmyard scene, he insisted on having a real stone wall built, the stones all the same size. It was an immense amount of trouble, and did not look half so effective as a painted one.. Amongst other things, he insisted on having a live pig on the stage. The property-master raised an objection, and Reade lost his temper, drove to the market, and bought one. He brought it back in triumph to the stage-door, when an officious super, seeing who it was, quickly opened the door of the cab, which Reade was unprepared for; out jumped the pig, and away it scampered down the street, Reade after it, calling out, ‘Stop my pig!’ to the amusement and surprise of all the young ruffianism of the neighbourhood. Collins delighted in telling this story and in imitating Reade and his pig-hunt.
To return to my recollections of Wilkie Collins, we were one day talking of the plots of celebrated novels, and the characteristics of some of the people as drawn by certain authors. He spoke of the singular faculty Dickens had of seizing hold at once of any peculiarity in persons he met—the way in which he made notes of it for after use; the same with scenery, places, and streets, names of people on shop-fronts or on tombstones—and how they often compared notes together when walking or travelling. Nothing escaped him. In speaking of his own works, he said nearly all his plots were founded on facts, on some incidents he had heard of or read, or on his desire to expose or correct in the shape of a novel some abuse, as in Man and Wife, in which he protests against the abuse of over-training, the evil of athletics when carried beyond the dictates of common-sense. When speaking of the charge brought against him, that in some of his books, as in The Woman in White, he was too sensational and exceeded the bounds of all probability, he said, ‘It has angered me, and shows how much some of the critics know about it. I wish, before people make such assertions, they would think what they are talking or writing about. I know of very few instances in which fiction exceeds the probability of reality. I’ll tell you where I got many of my plots from. I was in Paris, wandering about the streets with Charles Dickens, amusing ourselves by looking into the shops. We came to an old book stall—half-shop and half-store—and I found some dilapidated volumes of records of French crime, a sort of French Newgate Calendar. I said to Dickens; "Here is a prize!" So it turned out to be. In them I found some of my best plots. The Woman in White was one. The plot of that has been called outrageous: the substitution and burial of the mad girl for Lady Glyde, and the incarceration of Lady Glyde as the mad girl. It was true, and it was from the trial of the villain of the plot—Count Fosco of the novel—I got my story.’
In August 1882 he wrote a letter to me about a new story he was at work on, in which he says
‘I am getting on with it. I am striking a blow in this new story at the wretches who are called vivisectors.’
On the production of Man and Wife as a play by the Bancrofts at the Prince of Wales Theatre, dramatised by himself, he wrote me the following interesting account:
‘It was certainly an extraordinary success. The pit got on its legs and cheered with all its might the moment I showed myself in front of the curtain. The acting was really superb—the Bancrofts, Miss Foote, Hare, Coglan, surpassed themselves; not a mistake made by anybody. The play was over at a quarter past eleven sharp. It remains to be seen whether I can fill the theatre with a new audience, Thus far, the results have been extraordinary.’
He quotes the receipts as over one hundred pounds a night, and in a letter on another occasion he writes: ‘They actually accommodated over one hundred and thirty-one pounds in that little place. Does not that surprise you?’ I was up in London during the run, and he arranged for a box, that we might go together. On arriving at his house to dinner, I found him in extremely low spirits: His brother was very. ill, probably dying, and he was unable to go to the theatre, but a friend staying in the house accompanied me. I promised to return to supper, and tell him what I thought of the play and the performance. When I got back his brother was dead, and he had just returned, terribly broken down. The death seemed to have made a strong impression on him, and led him to speak of a future state of existence, in which he had little belief. He was a Materialist, and urged that death meant a sleep of eternity; it was the natural end of all living things.
I received a letter on the production of his dramatised version of The New Magdalen, in which be says
‘The reception of my New Magdalen was prodigious. I was forced to appear half-way through the piece, as well as at the end. The acting took every one by surprise, and the second night’s enthusiasm quite equalled the first.’ ‘We have really hit the mark,’ later on he writes. ‘Ferrari translates it for Italy, Regnier has two theatres ready for me in Paris, and Lambe of Vienna has accepted it for his theatre. Here the enthusiasm continues.’
On 10th March 1873 he says in a letter
‘I have had a great offer to go to America this autumn and " read." It would be very pleasant, and I should like it if we could go together. I am really thinking of the trip.’
The trip was decided on, and it was arranged that we should go together as he desired; but later on circumstances prevented my leaving England. Before starting, an event occurred at Scarborough perhaps worth notice as showing how small a world it is with some people. A friend of mine, a doctor, was one evening visiting a patient, a large cottonspinner from one of the Lancashire towns, and asked me to go with him. Two Manchester merchants who had just returned from the Exhibition at Vienna, friends of the patient, were there. It was the first time the Manchester men had been on the Continent, and they were comparing the places they had seen to Manchester, deciding with full conviction that there was not a place to compare with it. Tall chimneys, manufactories, and huge warehouses formed in their eyes the acme of all that was necessary to beautify the world.
‘So, Mr Reeve,’ said the patient, ‘the doctor tells me you are off to America?’
Yes, in a few weeks’ time,’ I replied. Going by yourself?’
‘No, with a friend.’
‘Mr Reeve is going with Mr Wilkie Collins,’ said the doctor.
‘Oh, indeed,’ replied the patient, and the name was passed round the three merchants.
‘Collins,’ said one, thinking. ‘Wilkie Collins,’ said the other, evidently trying to recall the name.
‘Never heard of him,’ said the patient. ‘Nor I,’ ‘Nor I,’ the others replied.
‘Mr Reeve,’ asked one of the gentlemen, ‘Wilkie Collins—what Manchester house does he represent?’
I afterwards joined Collins at the Westminster Hotel in New York, and found him comfortably settled in the same sitting-room and bedroom that his friend Charles Dickens had lived in. Every one knows the extent to which interviewing is carried on in America, and of course Collins was interviewed. It was the pest of his life for the first two or three weeks. One thing greatly amused us. Before leaving England he found himself in want of a rough travelling suit of clothes, and driving through the City, he turned into Moses’ great emporium and bought a cheap shoddy suit. The New York Herald, in describing Collins, gave an elaborate account of his person. He was wearing at the time the slop suit, and the description wound up with the statement that Mr Collins was evidently a connoisseur in dress. He had on one of those stylish West End tailor’s suits of a fashionable cut by which an Englishman of taste is known.
A circumstance occurred in New York which is a very good illustration of what American housekeepers had then to put up with. One Sunday we were invited out to dinner at a large house in Fifth Avenue. Arriving there, we were received by the host and hostess. They both seemed very uncomfortable, and I had noticed that a young lady opened the front door to us. At length the hostess asked us to excuse the want of servants and the dinner, which consisted of a piece of cold meat, some fruit, and cheese. She explained that the servants objected to guests in the house on Sunday, as they wished to have that day to themselves. They had been humbly asked by their mistress to permit it on this occasion, and they graciously acknowledged they might have done so if they had had a week’s notice to make their arrangements; but as it was the thing was quite out of the question, and accordingly they had walked out of the house.
A dinner and reception was given at the Lotus Club, at which Mr Whitelaw Reid, the American Ambassador to London, presided; and in welcoming Wilkie Collins to America he spoke of him in the most gracious and flattering terms as a writer. It was a delightful evening, ending, indeed, when morning was breaking. As we walked back to the hotel, I remember discussing a singular story we had both been told. At a reception given by the club to Stanley on his return after the finding of Livingstone, he gave an account of his journey and the famous meeting; but hardly a member of the club believed him. The story was laughed at as Stanley’s ‘bunkum.’
An amusing circumstance occurred to Collins at an up-country town. He arrived in the afternoon to give a reading in the evening, and was washing himself, after a long railway journey, when a nigger servant in the hotel opened the door of his bedroom without knocking, and asked:
‘Are you the Britisher as is come down ‘ere to do a bit o’ reading ?’
Yes, I suppose I am the man.’
‘Well, ‘ere’s some o’ the big bugs and bosses o’ this ‘ere town come jist to see you.’
Some of the chief men in the town had come to pay their respects and welcome him.
‘That’s awkward,’ replied Collins; ‘I am just dressing.’
‘I guess they’ll wait till you’ve scrubbed your skin and put on your pants. Jist say when you’re ready.’
With that he coolly walked to the window, opened it—it was a very cold day—and, leaning out, commenced leisurely spitting into the yard below. He was chewing tobacco.
‘My friend,’ said Collins, ‘when you have done spitting, would you mind closing that window?’ ‘Well, I don’t see the harm it’s a-doing you.’
‘Perhaps not; but if you will shut it, and tell the gentlemen below I will be with them directly, it will do me more good.’
‘You’d better tell ‘em yerself, I guess. If you objects to my spitting out o’ this winder, I objects to yer trying to boss this establishment. So jist you tell ‘em yerself;’ and, putting his hands in his pockets, he leisurely lounged out of the room.
One afternoon, during our sojourn in New York, to our surprise the famous reader and preacher the Rev J. C. M Bellew arrived to say good-bye on his return to England; it was at the end of his second tour. We were shocked to see the man so changed. He was in very low spirits, his second tour not having proved a success. He looked ill and broken. It will be remembered he had left Bedford Chapel, Bloomsbury, in 1868, and joined the Roman Catholic Church, devoting himself to reading and lecturing, in which he had few rivals. He seemed to think he was returning home to die; and it was so. He lingered only a short time, and Collins was home and able to attend his funeral, with Edmund Yates, Mr Frith the artist, and other old friends. They had raised the money to pay the expenses of his last days and funeral.
Wilkie Collins’s readings were not so successful as he anticipated. I was not surprised at this. I never had an opportunity of hearing him; but I am quite sure he lacked the necessary dramatic power to make them acceptable to general audiences. Charles Dickens was an actor, and a very good one.
The following printer’s error amused us very much. The Boston Advertiser, in speaking of his readings, said his ‘London pronunciation was apparent in the flattening of his vowels.’ This was copied into a Western paper—I forget the name of it; but it said: ‘Our contemporary in Boston says Mr Collins is decidedly a Londoner, which is apparent in the flattening of his bowels.’
In America he willingly gave me permission to rewrite and alter some part of the drama of The Woman in White—alterations which certainly appeared to greatly increase its effect on the public and its strength as a drama.
He had dramatised No Name, and, wishing to provide me with another character than ‘Fosco,’ suggested ‘Captain Wragge;’ but he was most dissatisfied with his work, and asked me if I would write another play, and then we would compare the two. I did so. The only fault he found was that I had in the last act kept too closely to his novel, which I had done purposely, so as not to hurt his pride in his work. To my surprise, he gave me carte blanche to do as I liked with the characters in the last act. The result so pleased him that he did not allow his own version to be played. I know no other author who would have been so unselfish.
His health was continually bad; his letters always refer to it. ‘I am only just recovering from a severe attack of gout in the eyes.’ ‘I am away in France, so as to get the completest possible change of air and scene. God knows, I want it!’ Another time he is in Venice, trying to shake off this continuous suffering; or, ‘I am cruising in the Channel, and getting back my strength after a long attack.’
From my first knowledge of him in 1871 he had been in the habit of taking opium in considerable doses, and had frequent injections of morphia to relieve the neuralgic pains he suffered from, besides gout. His diet was singular. At dinner he would sometimes take bread soaked in meat gravy only. In the night he was fond of cold soup and champagne. For exercise he often walked up and down stairs so many times by the aid of the balusters. Frequent suffering made his habits a little eccentric, perhaps; and I am quite certain the frequent use of opium had its effect upon his writing in later years.
At Christmas 1883 I received a card from him in Australia: a picture of English oaks, on which was written
‘A little bit of English landscape, my dear Reeve, to remind you of the old country and the old friend.’
In 1886 he writes me
‘My, new novel, now shortly to be published in book form, has appeared previously in various newspapers, and the speculator purchasing all serial rights in England and the colonies has given me the largest sum I have ever received for any of my books before.’
I cannot better close these random memories of one whose friendship I valued than by quoting the last words of this letter
‘As for my health, considering that I was sixty-two years old last birthday, that I have worked hard as a writer (perhaps few literary men harder), and that gout has tried to blind me first and kill me afterwards on more than one occasion, I must not complain. Neuralgia and nervous exhaustion generally have sent me to the sea to be patched up, and the sea is justifying my confidence in it. I must try, old friend, and live long enough to welcome you back when you return to be with us once more.—Always truly yours,
He died not very long after this letter, and when I returned to England I missed his friendly hand and welcome.
From Chamber’s Journal IX June 16 1906 pp 458-461
go back to biographies list