Dickens and Daughter
Kate Perugini drawn by Luke Fildes in 1880
Kate Perugini (1839-1929) was the second daughter of Charles Dickens and in 1860 she married Wilkie Collins’s brother Charles Allston Collins. Shortly after his death in 1873 she married the artist Carlo Perugini and Kate herself was an artist of some note. During her later life, in her second widowhood, she was befriended by Gladys Storey who took extensive notes of their long conversations which she used to produce Dickens and Daughter in 1939. It is an account of Kate’s life and the characters she knew concentrating on the 19th century, Dickens, and his friends and the events of that time. It was published ten years after Kate died – closer to our own time than the period to which much of it relates. The extracts here cover all the references to Wilkie Collins and his brother Charles.
THE family had been settled but a few weeks in Tavistock Square when Dickens commenced writing Bleak House—the title curiously cast its shadows on coming events in their new home. On March the 13th, 1852, Edward Bulwer Lytton—called Plorn—the tenth and last child of Catherine and Charles Dickens, was born.
They went to Dover for that summer. At the end of the holiday Dickens sent the children and the servants home, and took Mrs. Dickens and her sister Georgina to Boulogne, where, the following year, he rented the Villa des Molineaux and there finished Bleak House. At the conclusion of this vacation he and Augustus Egg, R.A.—who, incidentally, proposed marriage to Georgina Hogarth—and Wilkie Collins travelled about Switzerland and Italy together. But Dickens got tired of it and wrote to his wife: “I shall be happy to be home again . . . and to embrace you. . . . God bless you. . . . Take care of yourself,” (p86)
The following June he was busy converting the children’s schoolroom into a little theatre for the reception of a play by Wilkie Collins, called The Lighthouse, in which his two daughters, their aunt, himself and some friends performed for the entertainment of other friends and acquaintances.
The seaside holiday this year was spent at Folkestone; while there, Dickens and Miss Hogarth went over to Paris in quest of a furnished house for the family, and finally settled upon 49 Avenue des Champs Elysées. He was also in negotiation for Gad’s Hill, which he purchased on Friday the 14th of March, 1856—Friday being considered by the family to be his lucky day.
They stayed in Paris from the winter of 1855 to May 1856, during which period Mr. and Mrs. Hogarth occupied Tavistock House. While in Paris, Dickens sat to Ary Scheffer for his portrait, now in the National Portrait Gallery; Katie sometimes accompanied him to the studio. At that time, studying under Ary Scheffer, was a young artist, by name C. E. Perugini, later to become her husband, though they did not meet in France. During the month of January 1857, Dickens again got up private theatricals at Tavistock House. He was never happier than when rehearsing his company and attending to the details in connection with a production. The play on this occasion was The Frozen Deep, by Wilkie Collins; the scenery was painted by Clarkson Stanfield, R.A., and W. Telbin.
A few months later Dickens lost his great friend Douglas Jerrold. Ever ready to lend a helping hand to the needy, he organized a series of readings and theatrical performances of The Frozen Deep in memory of his friend and in aid of the family. The hall chosen for the occasion was The Gallery of Illustration in Regent Street.
Those taking part in the play were Dickens, his brother Alfred, Wilkie Collins, Charley Dickens—who appeared on the programme as Mr. Young Charles—Augustus Egg, Mark Lemon, Shirley Brooks, the Misses Mamie and Kate Dickens, Miss Georgina Hogarth, and others. Queen Victoria having expressed a desire to see the play, it was repeated at the same hall before Her Majesty, the Prince Consort and other members of the Royal Family. The evening proved such a success that Dickens made arrangements to take the play to the New Free Trade Hall, Manchester, for the evenings of Friday the 21st and Saturday the 22nd of August, 1857, in aid of the Memorial Fund. As he did not wish his daughters to appear in public before so large an audience—considering that in any case their voices would not carry in a hall of such dimension—he decided to fill their parts and that of his sister-in-law with professional actresses, the services of whom he obtained through the recommendation of Mr. Alfred Wigan, lessee and manager of the Olympic Theatre. (88-89)
Charles Allston Collins, a contributor to All the Year Round had, for some time, been paying his addresses to Katie*, who, although she respected him and considered him the kindest and most sweet-tempered of men, was not in the least in love with him. Dickens did not desire the marriage, but Katie saw in it an escape from “an unhappy home”, away from which, as a married woman, she considered she could more or less do as she liked, and for these reasons only she accepted Mr. Collins.
There was a great to-do at Gad’s Hill over the marriage. Dickens was elated and pleased at the interest shown in the wedding by the villagers, who turned out in great force to see Miss Katie, looking so pretty in her bridal gown, her auburn hair surmounted by orange blossom, as she drove with her father under triumphal arches to the little country church of St. Mary the Virgin, Higham, where the bridesmaids (Mamie was one of them—Holman Hunt acted as best man) awaited their arrival.
The marriage was performed by Joseph Hindle, “according to the Rights and Ceremonies of the Established Church”. The bridegroom aged thirty-two (described as “Literary Gentleman”), the bride twenty. The three witnesses to the marriage were Charles Dickens (who, as the bride’s father, described himself as “Literary Gentleman”), John Forster and Chauncey Hare Townshend.
As the bridal paid left the church the villagers vociferously cheered them, throwing flowers in their path and crowding round their carriage on their way back to Gad’s Hill, all on that summer’s morn of July the 17th, 1860, when, outwardly, everything appeared so joyous, festive and gay.
Yet, among the gathering assembled to do honour to them, someone was absent; and in her heart Katie missed the presence of her mother, who, with eyes on the clock, had, in imagination, followed the progress of the ceremony as she sat in the seclusion of her home.
Leaving the gaily decorated wedding breakfast the guests, which included Edmund Yates, Holman Hunt, Wilkie Collins, Percy Fitzgerald, Thomas Beard (Dickens’s oldest friend of reporting days), Mr. and Mrs. Frederick Lehmann, Mr. and Mrs. Wills, Charles Kent, Mr. Mallerson, Mr. H. Chorley, and as many more, made their way to the porch and down the gravel path to give Mr. and Mrs. Collins a hearty send-off as they left Gad’s Hill for their honeymoon in Wiesbaden and Nice.
After the last of the guests not staying in the house had departed, Mamie went up to her sister’s bedroom. Opening the door, she beheld her father upon his knees with his head buried in Katie’s wedding-gown, sobbing. She stood for some moments before he became aware of her presence; when at last. he got up and saw her, he said in a broken voice
“But for me, Katey would not have left home,” and walked out of the room.
*Dickens usually spelt Katie—Katey. (pp105-106)
PROPOSALS for a visit to the United States of America to give a series of readings from his books (first voiced in 1859) were again made to Dickens. His friends were against his going on account of the strain such a tour would entail, and realized that a long rest was what he sorely needed. But the monetary offer was a tempting one, and he had many calls upon his purse. Before accepting, he sent his manager, George Dolby, over to that country to test the feeling of the American public towards the project.
In consequence of the report he received from Dolby, that there was nothing but a genuine desire to hear him, he consented to undertake the readings. On November the 8th, 1867, accompanied by his two daughters, Miss Hogarth, Charles and Wilkie Collins and others, he left London for Liverpool, where the party put up for the night at an hotel prior to his sailing the following day. They took leave of him on board the Cuba, bound for Boston, whither he was accompanied by Kelly (a member of his reading staff) and Scott (his personal attendant). (p118)
Charles Collins was in failing health and his wife did all in her power to nurse and comfort him. They were far from being well-off, and life was becoming increasingly difficult for them. But Kate Collins went on with her painting, selling her work now and again, which helped the financial position. Owing to the state of his health at this period, he was obliged to abandon the idea of illustrating Edwin Drood, which task Dickens had proposed he should undertake. In consequence, Luke Fildes—recommended by Millais—became the illustrator. He often went to see Dickens at Hyde Park Place regarding the subject matter for the illustrations, and always found him kind and considerate, but particularly careful not to divulge more of the story than was necessary to the execution of the drawing in hand. (p130)
In his will dated 1869, Dickens had said: “I emphatically direct that I be buried in an inexpensive, unostentatious and strictly private manner; that no public announcement be made of the time and place of my burial; that at the utmost not more than three plain mourning coaches be employed; and that those who attend my funeral wear no scarf, cloak, black bow, long hat-band or other revolting absurdity.”
On Tuesday morning June the 14th, 1870, long before most people were breakfasting, a plain hearse waited at the front-door of Gad’s Hill to receive the body, which was conveyed to Higham railway station, thence by special train to Charing Cross (arriving on the stroke of 9 o’clock), where awaited a hearse and three carriages, in which the mourners: (1) Mr. Charles Dickens, junior, Mr. Henry F. Dickens, Miss Dickens and Mrs. Charles Collins; (2) Mrs. Austin (sister of Charles Dickens), Mrs. Charles Dickens, junior, Miss Georgina Hogarth, Mr. Edmund Dickens (son of the late Alfred Lamert Dickens) and Mr. John Forster; (3) Mr. Charles Collins, Mr. Wilkie Collins and Mr. Frank Beard followed the coffin down Whitehall to Westminster Abbey, by way of Dean’s Yard, when it was carried through the Cloisters to the door of the Nave, and there met by Dean Stanley, two Canons in Residence and three Minor Canons.
The funeral obsequies were of the simplest. No choir was in attendance, no hymn, intoned response, or Amen sung; only the strains of the organ played at intervals, and the voices of the Dean (who read the service) and the Senior Canon (who gave the lesson) broke the stillness that prevailed in that sacred and ancient edifice. After the coffin (of plain oak), which bore the words: “Charles Dickens. Born February the Seventh, 1812. Died June the Ninth, 1870,” had been lowered some six feet below the surface of the stone floor in Poet’s Corner, and the Clerk to the Works had sprinkled earth upon the coffin, the mourners, casting one final look thereon, dropped wreaths of immortelles and bright flowers into the grave and left the Abbey. (pp139-140)
The everyday life of Kate Collins came to be divided between painting pictures and tending her invalid husband, who, having grown gradually worse, was now confined to his bed. He suffered great pain (from cancer in the stomach), which became intensified as time passed. On April the 8th, 1873, he mercifully lost consciousness. The end came with the dawn of the following day at 10 Thurloe Place, South Kensington.
Charles Allston Collins was an intimate friend and companion of the Pre-Raphaelites (himself a member of the Brotherhood). Some years before his marriage to Kate Dickens he, Millais and William Holman Hunt took lodgings together at Worcester Park Farm, in the vicinity of Kingston and Ewell, where, among the green fields, woodlands and grass-covered hills, they found inspiration for some of their most famous pictures. It was the discovery of a quiet pool, overhung with flowering shrubs and wild roses, that gave Millais the scene for his picture Ophelia, now in the National Gallery. While Holman Hunt found, close to the river at Ewell, the locked door, “overhung with tendrils of ivy, its step choaked with weeds”, which he so faithfully reproduced in his picture The Light o f the World (a replica by himself hangs in St. Paul’s Cathedral).
Collins commenced a picture at the same time—painting in only the landscape background leaving the subject, which he intended to be of legendary conception, to be executed at a later date. He exhibited at the Royal Academy before he was twenty, and continued to do so until the year 1856. Among his works shown on the walls of the galleries in Trafalgar Square were included: The Empty Purse, Convent Thoughts, A Portrait of William Bennett, Esq., May in Regent’s Park, The Devout Childhood of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, The Good Harvest, and an exquisite pencil drawing of Millais. This was prior to the removal of the institution to Burlington House, Piccadilly, in 1870.
Holman Hunt gave it as his opinion that Charles Collins, although possessed of original gifts in painting, “was doomed to be turned back on the threshold of success by his want of courageous confidence. He became perplexed, could not make up his mind, and lost heart.” So it was that he came to abandon the brush for the pen. A year before his marriage, Dickens invited him to become a contributor to All the Year Round, for which journal he wrote a series of articles on humorous travel, including A Sentimental journey, Mugby Junction and Compensation House. Subsequent to his marriage he wrote a number of books, among them A Cruise upon Wheels (illustrated by himself), much of the material for which he gathered during his honeymoon in France.
In the sensitive fastidiousness of his nature he found himself never satisfied with his work; indeed, he was in a sense almost too modest and self-deprecating to battle with life. Ill-health, combined with a highly strung nervous temperament, may be said to have contributed towards his non-success, and though he was undoubtedly very gifted, he was never really appreciated.
As he lay dead at the age of forty-five, the unfinished canvas of the picture begun in the Worcester Park Farm days placed by his widow on the bed beside him, his friend Holman Hunt came to the house and made a beautiful drawing of him, which he gave to his brother Wilkie. Holman Hunt also left to posterity a written sketch of Charles Collins’s personal appearance in life. He described him as: “Slight, with slender limbs, but erect in the head and neck, square in the shoulders, beautifully cut features, large chin, a crop of orange-coloured hair (latterly a beard), blue eyes that looked at a challenger without a sign of quailing.” The rains of many summers have all but washed away the letters of his name, the date of his birth and death, recorded on the flat granite stone which covers his grave in Brompton Cemetery. (pp151-153)
The year of 1879 had not long dawned before Mrs. Perugini and her sister became concerned at the failing health of their mother, who at times suffered great pain. It came on after a fall, sustained on her way home from church one Sunday morning. The passer-by who assisted her to rise was struck by her so grateful appreciation of this slight service, and modestly said
“I am only a working man, madam.”
“You could not be anything better,” returned Mrs. Dickens.
Later in the year it was revealed that she was suffering from that dreaded disease—cancer. Mrs. Dickens bore her suffering as bravely and uncomplainingly as her physical strength enabled her to do. Over a year previously Mrs. Perugini had brought Georgina Hogarth to Gloucester Crescent, where a moving interview took place between her mother and her aunt; Mrs. Dickens forgave her sister for those things which had happened in the past. In her will she left Miss Hogarth the blue enamel snake-ring given to her by Count D’Orsay.
Wilkie Collins—ever a dear friend of the family—was frequently seen at the door of 70 Gloucester Crescent to learn of the invalid’s progress. In October he wrote to Georgina Hogarth : “ I am afraid—seeing how slowly the frost came in—that poor dear Mrs. Dickens may be in a critical state. I have been away from London again and have therefore not been able to call and inquire. Can you send me only one line and tell me (I hope) there is no special cause for anxiety.”
One afternoon, when Mrs. Perugini was sitting by the bedside of her mother (who knew she was dying), she requested her to go to a drawer and bring her a bundle of letters (there was also a locket containing a likeness of her husband and a lock of his hair) which her daughter placed upon the bed. Tenderly laying her hand upon the treasured missives, Mrs. Dickens said with great earnestness
“Give these to the British Museum—that the world may know that he loved me once.”
Mrs. Perugini promised her mother to do this. (The letters, together with the locket, were subsequently delivered to the Museum in 1899 by her doctor; with the proviso that they should not be shown for thirty years. Mrs. Perugini later approached the Trustees of the British Museum with the request that the period be extended to after her death, and finally until after the deaths of her brother, Sir Henry F. Dickens, and herself, being the last surviving children of Charles Dickens.) The end came on November 22nd, 1879, in the presence of her daughter Kitty, who, whilst brushing her hair in the little dressing-room, was beckoned by the nurse to come. With the brush still in her hand she moved to the bed, when her mother looked at her and smiled.
So passed from this world a noble woman. (pp163-165)
After dinner Mrs. Perugini was full of memories of the past. She said how she longed to go down on the Embankment and see the lights, as she used to do long ago when she was young. She fell into talking about Wilkie Collins who, she recollected, had a mistress called Caroline, a young woman of gentle birth, and the original of the woman in white, in his thrilling novel of that name. A curious story is attached to their dramatic meeting: one moonlight night in the ’fifties, Collins and his brother, accompanied by Millais, were walking leisurely along a road in the vicinity of Regent’s Park, when suddenly they heard a piercing scream, which issued from a villa close by, followed by the appearance of a woman garbed in a flowing white dress, who seemed to float, rather than run, towards the three young men, before whom—with an expression of terror written upon her face—she momentarily paused, then quickly disappeared into the shadows of the dimly-lit road.
“What a lovely woman!” exclaimed Millais, while Wilkie Collins, deciding to find out the cause of her anguish, pursued her.
The truth was she had fallen into the clutches of a man, who for months had virtually kept her prisoner, partially under mesmeric influence, accompanied by such threats of violence should she leave him that she feared to make her escape until that night, when her captor, armed with a poker, had threatened to beat her brains out, and so caused her to utter that piercing scream as she fled in terror from his presence.
After living with Wilkie Collins for some years, Caroline married another man: Wilkie Collins attended the wedding. After the ceremony he went to see Mrs. Perugini and told her all about it; and ended up by saying
“I suppose you could not marry a man who had—” “No, I couldn’t,” she broke in decisively. “Poor Wilkie,” Mrs. Perugini continued, “I liked him, and my father was very fond of him and enjoyed his company more than that of any other of his friends—Forster was very jealous of their friendship. He had very high spirits and was a splendid companion, but he was as bad as he could be, yet the gentlest and most kind-hearted of men. He took large quantities of opium a day, and consumed sufficient laudanum at night to kill six men.” He formed the habit during a chronic illness to deaden the pain. His father (William Collins, R.A.) was a very religious man, while his mother, who had a great influence over his life, was “a woman of great wit and humour—but a devil!” said Mrs. Perugini. He felt her death keenly, for she had been an unselfish mother to her two sons, of whom she was very proud.
Wilkie Collins died in 1889 at 82 Wimpole Street.
Oscar Wilde, Holman Hunt, Hall Caine, Arthur Pinero, Edmund Yates, Squire Bancroft, Edmund Gosse, and Miss Blanche Roosevelt were among those who attended his funeral, which took place at Kensal Green Cemetery, on September the 27th, 1889. Some of his novels are still widely read, especially The Woman in White and The Moonstone. (pp213-215)
“My poor mother was afraid of my father. She was never allowed to express an opinion—never allowed to say what she felt.” Following another considerable silence, she said: “ Ah ! We were all very wicked not to take her part; Harry does not take this view, but he was only a boy at the time, and does not realize the grief it was to our mother, after having all her children, to go away and leave us. My mother never rebuked me. I never saw her in a temper. We like to think of our geniuses as great characters—but we can’t.”
Mrs. Perugini became more and more conscious of lost opportunities when both she and Mamie might have gone to see their mother. Their father had not forbidden them to do so, though they were fully aware that he did not like them going. The knowledge that Katie went sometimes to see her acted upon him as a reproach difficult of endurance; for he knew his Catherine, and was deeply conscious that she must be suffering. His writing “My dear Catherine” in his last letter (where formerly—after the separation—he had commenced “Dear Catherine”) must have brought a small measure of consolation to her.
Mrs. Perugini realized that there had been “no excuse” for her not going more frequently to see her mother, and sadly recollected that Charles Collins had often insisted upon her doing so. Both she and Mamie used to take music lessons from a master who lived in the house opposite to Mrs. Dickens’s in Gloucester Crescent. They would drive up and drive away, but never call to see their mother, who had either seen them arrive or depart, or had been told that they had done so by one or other of her maidservants. Often had she waited in expectation of them coming—who could condemn the tears she shed in the desolation of her home—when time after time they did not cross the road and ring her doorbell.
Recollection of other lost opportunities to be kind to her mother dwelt in Mrs. Perugini’s mind; remorse tortured her as she sat in the solitude of her armchair (never moved from the one position) by the fireside, and asked God to help her. It was in this armchair, with her feet upon a hassock, that she wrote her letters and verses, the note-paper poised on the cover of any book at hand.
“I wish I had never been born,” she said on more than one occasion. “I am glad now that my little boy did not live, for he would probably have inherited all my faults.” (pp219-220)
From Dickens and Daughter by Gladys Storey, London 1939.
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