William Winter

In Old Friends (New York 1909) William Winter offers some reminiscences of Wilkie Collins whom he describes as one of his "dear personal friends" along with Henry Longfellow and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Collins gets a chapter to himself, as well as a couple of other short references.

Winter (1836-1917) was the drama critic of the New York Tribune from 1865 to 1909. Winter visited Europe many times. He first met Wilkie in June 1877 when he visited him at home. After that they corresponded frequently and met on several occasions.

The book contains a reproduction of a photograph of Wilkie by Lock & Whitfield

Many years ago, in London, in conversation with the most expert, accomplished, and fascinating of story-tellers, Wilkie Collins, that excellent writer said to me: "America has produced one great novelist; I wonder whether you can tell me his name." "The name of him," I said, "is James Fenimore Cooper." "Right" exclaimed Collins, in obvious satisfaction; "the author of Leather-stocking was a man of wonderful genius." (p17)


The wish that every remunerative work to which women are equal should be reserved for them is, no doubt, general; but there is a ludicrous side to the subject, as noticed by that great novelist Wilkie Collins, who, in one of his delightful stories, refers to "…Maternal societies for confining poor women; Magdalen societies for rescuing poor women; Strong-Minded societies for putting poor women into poor men’s places and leaving the poor men to shift for themselves." (p72) [The quote is about Godfrey Ablewhite in The Moonstone]



THERE is no resemblance of organic structure and mental idiosyncrasy between the works of Charles Dickens and the works of Wilkie Collins, yet Collins, as a novelist, was a result of the prodigious influence of Dickens upon the literary movement of the time in which he lived, and the memory of the one irresistibly incites remembrance of the other. My acquaintance with Collins began long ago, and it speedily ripened into a friendship that was interrupted only by his death. He was a great writer: as a story-teller, specifically, he stands alone,—transcendent and incomparable: but his personality was even more interesting than his authorship. To be in his society was to be charmed, delighted, stimulated, and refreshed. His intellectual energy communicated itself to all around him, but his manner was so exquisitely refined and gentle that, while he prompted extreme mental activity, he also diffused a lovely influence of repose. The hours that I passed in the company of Collins are remembered as among the happiest of my life. His views were unconventional, the views of a man who had observed human nature and society widely and closely, and who thought for himself. His humor was playful. His perception of character was intuitive and unerring. He manifested, at all times, a delicate consideration for other persons, and his sense of kindness was instantaneous and acute. His learning was ample, but he made no parade of it. Sincerity and simplicity were the predominant attributes of his mind. He had seen much of the world, he possessed a copious store of anecdote, and his conversation was fluent, sprightly, and amusing, the more attractive because of personal peculiarities that deepened the impression of his winning originality. His temperament was mercurial, his moods alternating between exuberant glee and pensive gloom; but in society he was remarkable for the buoyancy of a youthful spirit, and at all times he dominated himself and his circumstances with a calm, resolute will. In listening to his talk and in reading his novels I derived the impression that he was a fatalist. However that may be, he looked upon the human race with boundless charity. His sensibility was great; his intuition was infallible, and, in particular, his mental attitude toward women was that of ardent chivalry. He understood woman —her heroism, her magnificent virtues, her enthralling charms; he knew her faults also, and he did not hesitate to declare and reprove them; but his works abound with touches of tender sympathy with her trials and sufferings, and with lovely compassion for her infirmities and grief s. That exquisite humanity, combined with fine intellect and delicate, spontaneous humor, made companionship with Wilkie Collins an inestimable privilege and blessing. I have had the fortune of knowing, intimately, many distinguished persons: I have not known any person, distinguished or otherwise, whose society,—because of mental breadth, catholic taste, generous feeling, quick appreciation, intrinsic goodness, and sweet courtesy,—was so entirely satisfying as that of Wilkie Collins.

The unjustifiable use of private letters, as an element in the biography of deceased persons, has been severely, and rightly, condemned. A judicious and correct use of such documents, however, can neither do injustice to the dead nor give offence to the living. Some of the letters that Collins addressed to me are more expressive than any description could be of his blithe alacrity of mind and his genial spirit. Here is one that pleasantly indicates those attributes and also,—announcing his allegiance to certain splendid ideals now somewhat out of fashion,—declares his literary taste:

ONDON, August 5, 1878.

Your kind and friendly letter found me in a darkened room suffering again from one of my attacks of rheumatic gout in the eyes. I am only now well enough to use my eyes and my pen on o and I hasten to ask you to forgive me for a delay in writing to you which has been forced upon me, in the most literal sense of the word.

Let me get away from the disagreeable subject of myself and my illnesses, and beg you to accept my most sincere thanks for the gift of your last volume of poems. My first renewal of the pleasure of reading is associated with your pages. I ought to warn you that I am an incorrigible heretic in the matter of modern poetry, of the sort that is now popular. I positively decline to let the poet preach to me or puzzle me. He is to express passion and sentiment, in language which is essentially intelligible as well as essentially noble and musical,—or I will have nothing to do with him. You will now not be surprised to hear that I delight in Byron and Scott, and, more extraordinary still, that I am a frequent reader even of Crabbe!

Having made my confession, I am sure you will believe I speak sincerely when I thank you for some hours of real pleasure, derived from your volume. Both in feeling and expression I find your poetry (to use a phrase which I don’t much like, but which expresses exactly what I mean) "thoroughly sympathetic." "The Ideal," "A Dirge," and "Rosemary" are three among my chief favorites. I thank you again for them—and for all the rest.

I have been too completely out of the world to have any news to tell you. As to literature, we are in a sadly stagnant state in London. And as to the "British Theatre" the less (with one or two rare exceptions) said about it the better. Writing of the theatre, however, I am reminded that my "New Magdalen," Ada Cavendish, sails on the 24th, to try her fortune in the United States. She has, I think, more of the divine fire in her than any other living English actress of "Drama "—and she has the two excellent qualities of being always eager to improve and always ready to take advice in her art. I am really interested in her well-doing, and I am specially anxious to hear what you think of her. In the "Magdalen," and also in "Miss Gwilt" (a piece altered, from my "Armadale," by Régnier—of the Théâtre Français—and myself), she has done things which electrified our English audiences. If you should be sufficiently interested in her to give her a word of advice in the art she will be grateful, and I shall be grateful too.

I am "bestowing my tediousness" on you without mercy, and my paper warns me that the time has come to say, for the present, Good-by. Let me come to an end by expressing a hope that you will give me another opportunity of proving myself a better correspondent In the meantime, with all good wishes, believe me,

Ever yours,


When you see Mr. Jefferson pray remember me kindly to him.

Miss Ada Cavendish (Mrs. Frank A. Marshall) was an actress of exceptional beauty, talent, and charm. She first attracted attention on the London stage in 1863, as a performer in burlesque, and subsequently she gained distinction in comedy and tragedy,—acting in important dramas and winning fame by fine performances of Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Rosalind. In 1873 she first impersonated Mercy Merrick, in Collins’s play based on his novel "The New Magdalen"; and thereafter, until the end of her career, she remained identified with those heroines of his creation, Mercy Merrick and Miss Gwilt. Her first appearance on the American stage was made at Wallack’s Theatre, New York, on September 9, 1878, and to that incident Collins refers. He was fond of the stage, and his novels, from several of which he derived plays, are abundantly supplied with original dramatic incident. One of his effective dramas is based on "The Woman in White," with which Mr. Wybert Reeve, in the character of Count Fosco, traversed Great Britain, the United States, and Canada, acting Fosco more than fifteen hundred times. In the following letter Collins makes an instructive allusion to one of his plays, as viewed by one of the most interesting members of the stage of France, the brilliant, much lamented Aimée-Olympe Desclée (1836-’74):

ONDON, February 10, 1882.

You were indeed happily inspired when you sent me that generous and sympathetic article in "The Tribune." Still tormented by the gout, I forgot my troubles when I opened the newspaper, and felt the encouragement that I most highly value—I mean the encouragement that is offered to me by a brother-writer.

If what I hear of this last larcenous appropriation of my poor "Magdalen" be true, what an effort it must have been to you to give your attention, even for a few hours only, to dramatic work so immeasurably beneath your notice! How did you compensate your intelligence for this outrage offered to it by this latest "adapter" of ideas that do not belong to him? Did you disinfect your mind by reading, or writing,—or did you go to bed, and secure the sweet oblivion of sleep.

I wonder whether I ever told you of an entirely new view taken of "Magdalen" by the last of the great French actresses— Aimée Desclée. After seeing the piece in London she was eager to play, on her return to Paris—Grace Roseberry! "Develop the character a little more, in the last act," she said to me; "I will see that the play is thoroughly well translated into French—and I will make Grace, and not Mercy Merrick, the chief woman in the piece. Grace’s dramatic position is magnificent: I feel it, to my fingers’ ends. Wait and see 1 "She died, poor soul, a few months afterward, and Grace Roseberry will, I fear, never be properly acted now. Don’t forget me, my dear Winter—and let me hear from you sometimes. I set no common value on your friendship and your good opinion.

Ever yours,


P.S. I address you as Mr. on this envelope. Our curiously common mock-title of Esquire is declared by Fenimore Cooper to be a species of insult, and even a violation of the Constitution of the United States, when attached to the name of an American citizen. Is that great Master (shamefully undervalued by Americans of the present day!) right or wrong about Esq.? N.B. I have just been reading "The Deerslayer" for the fifth time.

On the occasion of my last meeting with Collins, which occurred at his house, No. 82 Wimpole St., near Cavendish Square, London, not long before his death (on September 23, 1889), we sat together from noon till after midnight, talking of many subjects,—men, women, books, opinions, feelings, and events,—and then, as often before, I had occasion to appreciate his copious knowledge, fine discernment, and vigorous, novel thought. At that time, and indeed throughout his later years, he was obliged, occasionally, to consume laudanum. He had originally been compelled to use that drug because of excruciating pain, caused by rheumatic gout in the eyes, and it had become to him, more or less, an indispensable anodyne. In the course of the evening that medicine was brought to him, and, naturally, he adverted to its properties and effects.

"My suffering was so great," he said, "when I was writing ‘The Moonstone,’ that I could not control myself and keep quiet. My cries and groans so deeply distressed my amanuensis, to whom I was dictating, that he could not continue his work, and had to leave me. After that I employed several other men, with the same result: no one of them could endure the strain. At last I engaged a young woman, stipulating that she must utterly disregard my sufferings and attend solely to my words. This she declared that she could and would do, and this, to my amazement (because the most afflicting of my attacks came upon me after her arrival), she indubitably and exactly did. I was blind with pain, and I lay on the couch writhing and groaning. In that condition and under those circumstances I dictated the greater part of ‘The Moonstone.’"

Collins mentioned, I remember, that the accession of pain began at the point where Miss Clack is introduced into the narrative, so that the essentially humorous part of that fascinating story was composed by its indomitable author when he was almost frenzied with physical torture. The art of the fabric, nevertheless, is perfect: the invention never flags; the playful, satirical humor, with its vein of veiled scorn for canting hypocrisy, meanness, and spite, flows on in a smooth, silver ripple of felicitous words, and the style is crystal clear. "Opium sometimes hurts," he said, that day, "but also, sometimes, it helps. In general, people know nothing about it." He then referred to the experience of Sir Walter Scott, in the enforced use of laudanum, when writing "The Bride of Lammermoor,"—an experience that is related in Lockhart’s noble life of that great author.

Mention was made of Coleridge and of De Quincey, and of the elder Lord Lytton (Bulwer), all of whom had recourse to opium. "I very well remember the poet Coleridge," Collins said: "he often came to my father’s house, and my father and mother were close friends of his. One day he came there and was in great distress, saying that it was wrong for him to take opium, but that he could not resist the craving for it, although he made every possible effort to do so. His grief was excessive. He even shed tears. At last my mother addressed him, saying: ‘Mr. Coleridge, do not cry; if the opium really does you any good, and you must have it, why do you not go and get it?’ At this the poet ceased to weep, recovered his composure, and, turning to my father, said, with an air of much relief and deep conviction: ‘Collins, your wife is an exceedingly sensible woman!’ I suppose that he did not long delay to act upon my mother’s suggestion. I was a boy at the time, but the incident made a strong impression on my mind, and I could not forget it. Coleridge had brilliant eyes and a very sweet voice."

The reader must not infer, from what is here said, that Wilkie Collins was a man of weak character, self-indulgent, and subservient to the "opium habit" Such an inference would be unjust to the memory of a great writer and a noble person. The works of Collins, which fill more than twenty-one volumes, bear decisive testimony to the poise of his intellect, the opulence of his genius, the incessancy of his labor, the copious wealth of his invention, the breadth of his knowledge of life, the ardency of his sympathetic emotion, and, above all, the sturdy independence and adamantine solidity of his character. He possessed an extraordinary mind, and in adding a body of original, vital, imaginative fiction to the literature of his country he accomplished an extraordinary work. But during the greater part of his life he was an invalid, and, remembering the circumstances under which he wrote, it is amazing that he accomplished so much. One denotement of his potent individuality is the uniform texture of his style,—a style that is unique. He portrayed many characters, and it is notable that those characters, with little exception, express themselves in one and the same verbal form: the faculty, possessed in such a marvellous degree by Shakespeare and by Sir Walter Scott, of making each person speak in exact accordance with his or her personality, he did not employ: yet every character that he drew is distinctly individual, and, by a certain subtle magic of artistic skill, it is made to seem to be talking in a perfectly individual manner. Consummate art, thus exemplified, is not achieved with a disordered intellect, Personal observation of Collins, furthermore, found him exceptionally self-possessed, firm in mind, clear in thought, dignified yet gentle in manner, the embodiment of the sweet gravity and involuntary grace that fancy associates with the ideal of such men as Cowley and Addison. His aspect was singular and interesting. When seated he appeared to be a portly man, but when he stood that impression was dispelled. His head was large and leonine. His eyes were hazel. He wore an ample beard. His body was small, his shoulders were slightly stooped, and his limbs were, seemingly, attenuated. His walk was slow and feeble,—that of a person who had been weakened by great pain. His voice, though low, was clear, kindly, and winning, and his demeanor was marked by the formal courtesy that is commonly ascribed to persons designated as survivors of "the old school." That formal bearing, which, in fact, was involuntary distinction, did not lessen his geniality of companionship. He freely participated in social enjoyments, but it was in the communion of intellectual taste that he especially rejoiced, and it was through the medium of such communion, as his writings prove, that he imparted the most of pleasure and benefit. As a writer he taught,—not by didacticism but by suggestion,—purity of living and charity of feeling, and as a man he was the inspiration of nobility to every person who came within the scope of his influence, and especially to those who were blessed with his friendship.

In matters of taste Collins was epicurean. The perfection of enjoyment, he assured me, is only to be obtained when you are at sea, in a luxurious, well-appointed steam yacht, in lovely summer weather. One of his eccentricities resulted from his inordinate liking for black pepper: "It is seldom provided at dinner tables to which I repair," he said, "and therefore I take care to provide it myself." He did; and pleasurable it was to see the droll gravity with which he produced that condiment. His ways were ever ingenuous and characteristic. His reminiscent talk was charming, the word-pictures that he made of authors whom he had seen and known, such as Thomas Hood, Douglas Jerrold, and Thackeray, being, in effect, like perfect cameos. Here is a characteristic letter, affording a glimpse of his boyhood:

September 3rd, 1881.

If you have long since dismissed me from memory, you have only treated an inexcusably bad correspondent as he deserves. When I was at school,—perpetually getting punished as "a bad boy,"—the master used to turn me to good moral account, as a means of making his model scholars ashamed of their occasional lapses into misconduct "If it bad been Collins I should not have felt shocked and surprised. Nobody expects anything of him. But You!!"—etc., etc.

In the hope that you, by this time "expect nothing of Collins" I venture to appeal to your indulgence. In the intervals of rheumatic gout I still write stories—and I send to you, by registered book-post, my latest effort, called "The Black Robe," in the belief that you will "give me another chance," and honor me by accepting the work. It is thought, on the European side of the Atlantic, in Roman Catholic countries to well as in Protestant England, to be the best thing I have written for some time And it is memorable to me as having produced a freely offered gift of forty pounds from one of the pirates who have seized it on the American side! ! !

I write with your new editions,—so kindly sent to me,—in the nearest book-case. In the Poems I rejoice to see my special favorites included in the new publication—"The Ideal," "Rosemary" and the exquisitely tender verses which enshrine the memory of "Ada Clare."

I have heard of you from Miss Cavendish May I hope to bear of you next—from yourself?

Always truly yours,


His place is with the great masters of English fiction. He did not copy the surfaces of common life, calling the product "nature," and vaunting it as truth. He knew how to select and how to combine, and he possessed the great art of delicate exaggeration. In the telling of his stories he created characters, and he made them live. His employment of accessories,—meaning scenery, whether civic or rural; climate; atmosphere; cloud; sunshine; rain; the sound of the sea, or the ripple of leaves in the wind; morning or evening, or midnight, is exact in its fitness and unerring in its effect. In that respect, as in his devotion to romance, he followed in the footsteps of the chieftain of the whole inspired band, Sir Walter Scott,—whom he designated, in writing to me, "the Prince, the King, the Emperor, the God Almighty of novelists." He was deeply interested in his own time, in the advancement of civilization and the consequent promotion of the public welfare. He spoke and wrote with satirical contempt of the obstructive worship of old things,—especially in Literature and Painting; merely because they are old. He cordially recognized and welcomed meritorious achievement in any and every line of contemporary endeavor, and quite as cordially he condemned contemporary pretence. He was the soul of honesty. He lived a good life: and he is remembered not only with honor but with love. It happened that I was travelling from London to Paris when the death of Collins occurred, and I was unable to attend his funeral. A little later, aboard the steamship Aurania, in mid-ocean, October 10, 1889, I wrote the commemorative lines which follow.

Often and often, when the days were dark
And, whether to remember or behold,
Life was a burden, and my heart, grown old
With sorrow, scarce was conscious, did I mark
How from thy distant place across the sea,
Vibrant with hope and with emotion free,
Thy voice of cheer rose like the morning lark
And that was comfort if not joy to me l
For in the weakness of our human grief
The mind that does not break and will not bend
Teaches endurance as the one true friend,
The steadfast anchor and the sure relief.
That was thy word, and what thy precept taught
Thy life made regnant in one living thought.

Thy vision saw the halo of romance
Round every common thing that men behold.
Thy lucid art could turn to precious gold;
Like roseate motes that in the sunbeams dance,
Whatever object met thy kindling glance,
And in that mirror life was never cold.
A gracious warmth suffused thy sparkling page,
And woman’s passionate heart by thee was drawn,
With all the glorious colors of the dawn,
Against the background of this pagan age
Her need of love, her sacrifice, her trance
Of patient pain, her weary pilgrimage!
Thou knewest all of grief that can be known,
And didst portray all sorrows but thine own.

Where shall I turn, now that thy lips are dumb
And night is on the eyes that loved me well?
What other voice, across thy dying knell,
With like triumphant notes of power will come!
Alas! my ravaged heart is still and numb
With thinking of the blank that must remain!
Yet be it mine, amid these wastes of pain,
Where all must falter and where many sink,
To stay the foot of misery on the brink
Of dark despair, to bid blind sorrow see
Teaching that human will breaks every chain
When once endurance sets the spirit free;
And, living thus thy perfect faith, to think
I am to others what thou wert to me.


Towards the end of the book Winter writes four pages about the actress Ada Cavendish, who played in dramatic versions of Wilkie’s stories.


Reference to the plays of Wilkie Collins and to the actress by whom chiefly they were made known in America affords an opportunity here for a word commemorative of another cherished friend passed away, the English actress Ada Cavendish. There was, in the personality and in the art of that remarkable woman, a potent element of intellectual character. She did not conquer by beauty or authority, although she possessed both: she conquered by a winning intellectual personality, evinced in a charming, if sometimes irregular, method of art. The two parts in which, especially, she succeeded were Mercy Merrick, in "The New Magdalen," and Miss Gwilt, in "Armadale." In acting Mercy Merrick she had to impersonate a woman intrinsically good, but passionate and wayward, who, by sin and cruel circumstance, becomes enmeshed in a hopeless tangle of temptation and affliction; and she had to show her as passing through a succession of trials, harrowing to the fine sensibility of womanhood, till, redeemed and purified, she found refuge if not peace in a saint-like abnegation of self. Her manifestation of that suffering woman’s nature and experience was inspired with intense feeling, and it possessed the artistic merit of gradual development under the pressure of circumstance and of conscience.

There is so much immaturity and shapeless effort in the acting that is obtruded upon public observation that a performance instinct with clear purpose, invested with simplicity, and finished with even a little good taste, leaps at once into the favor of those persons who, capable of thought, are diligent in the service of the arts, making them indulgent of defects, because of sympathy with the right spirit. Ada Cavendish was well equipped thus to beguile judgment, for her face was luminous with hope and joy; her brilliant blue eyes were very gentle in expression; she had the sweet English voice; and her lithe, graceful, alert demeanor was a decisive allurement. As an actress she had not acquired that complete repose which only comes after long and varied experience, and sometimes the stress of her emotion made her action precipitate and her speech vehement. But she expressed perfectly well the operation of remorse beneath an aspect of artificial mirth, the anguish resultant from conflict of good and evil impulses, and the submissive meekness of repentance; and therein she proved herself an actress of authority and skill.

She was exceptionally peculiar. She acted parts that are strongly contrasted,—Mercy Merrick and Rosalind, Lady Teazle and Juliet, for example,—but analysis of her acting, while it found beauties in each performance that she gave, discerned that her supreme fidelity of impersonation was elicited by a character strongly tinctured with eccentricity, that, namely, of Miss Gwilt, in Wilkie Collins’s "Armadale." To that part she was exactly suited by physical constitution and by sensibility and eccentricity of temperament. The. lithe figure, the ruddy golden hair, the eagerly expressive countenance, the rich, sympathetic voice, the quick, sinuous movements, the capability of rapid transition from wild excitement to icy calm, the energy of mind, and the depth of feeling,—all those attributes of the woman harmonized with the author’s conception of the character and reinforced the player’s expression of it. That personation disclosed and typified a nature essentially dramatic. There was a lack of symmetry in the method of it, but the spirit of it was perfect. The best actors, inevitably, are sometimes uneven in their art, but they are, in every fibre, suffused with magnetic fire. To see Ada Cavendish as Miss Gwilt was to feel the spell of intense emotion and potent intellectual force. The foaming cataract, the flying cloud, the swirl of angry waves and the rush of the tempest are symbols of the spirit that shone through her acting,—a spirit audacious with abounding vitality, tremulous with eager impulse, and pathetically suggestive of predestined sorrow. Toward the close of her life Ada Cavendish suffered much, but she met her fate with gentle resignation and noble fortitude. Her grave is in Kensal Green. Her memory survives in faithful hearts. (pp377-380).


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