The Train

This prescient piece on Collins and his work was by the writer Edmund Yates (1831-1894). Written two years before The Woman in White Yates puts Collins fourth among contemporary novel writers - after Dickens, Thackeray, and Brontë - but first when it comes the "talent with which the foundations of his story are laid, and the edifice afterwards raised to completion". He "possesses the art de conter above all living writers." He tells for the first time the story of the unpublished novel which was Iolani and gives some brief biographical information. Yates was the editor of The Train which was published for just three years.


No. II.—W. Wilkie Collins.

 Of all the novel writers of the present day, and their name is Legion, how many are there who have the slightest knowledge of their art? Three or four, perhaps, at the utmost. Those three-volume, romances of modern or mediæval life,—those thirty-shilling collections of bad grammar, bad taste, want of style, and doubtful punctuation,—those highly vaunted productions which the editor of the Weekly War-whoop finds “full of thrilling interest,” and which the critic of the Shoreham Looker-on thinks “well calculated to sustain the author’s reputation,” are, for the most part, written by fine ladies and gentlemen, whose sole ability, is the ability to pay for publication; and whose qualifications for authorship are confined to an imperfect knowledge of their own language, a smattering of phrase-book French and Italian, and such experience of life as is gained by those who travel from Dan to Beersheba, and find all barren. In such writers the poverty of construction is only equalled by the weakness of execution; their humour is the humour of the jest-book, their pathos the sentiment of the Minerva Press; their characters, instead of being drawn from nature, and successively developed during the progress of the work, are faithful copies of those old lay-figures which do duty as much in the library of the modern author, as in the painter’s studio: their dialogue is the twaddle of semi-fashionable drawing-rooms; their moralisings are weak elaborations of the marginal sentiments to Mr. Maunders’ Treasury of Knowledge, or slight modifications of “round hand” copy slips. Story? God bless you, they have none to tell, sir; that noble passion which rules the court, the camp, the grove, is quite enough stock-in-trade for them; away they start by making every body in love with every body else,—jealousies, doubts, disappointments—truth triumphant—all cleared up, St. George’s Hanover Square for the good, death by duels, suicides or accidents for the bad, and down the curtain comes amidst the warm applause of two-thirds of the subscribers to Mudie’s, who go to the book-box and commence a precisely similar tale with un-slaked longings. And yet it is hardly possible to imagine a form of composition more fit to display the varied powers of an author, than novel writing;—wit, pathos, the tragic and the comic descriptions, reflections, dialogue, narrative,—each take their turn in his work. But to be successful it is necessary, first, that he should have powers, and secondly, that he should devote time, patience, and reflection to their proper employment. On himself it entirely depends whether his work shall be a lying legend  of impossible people, or a broad and noble picture of real things and real men. Very few are there who have really seen or known anything which the world would be gratified or amused by hearing; fewer still who have the gift of composition and who can produce their matter in a form calculated to please not only the general public, but the select few whose opinion is really worth caring for.

Mr. Wilkie Collins, a short sketch of whose career I propose to write, is without doubt the most conscientious novelist of the present day. No barrister or physician ever worked harder at his profession, devoted more time, or thought, or trouble to it, was prouder of it, or pursued it with more zeal and earnestness than Mr. Collins has done with regard to literature. By Mr. Thackeray’s own confession in the preface to “Pendennis,” we learn that his plot was not clearly defined beforehand, but was liable to alteration and modification,—for does he not tell us, that until the very morning on which the “copy” was to be delivered to the printer, he was uncertain whether or not to kill Amory by a fall from the window? Writing on this present eighteenth day of May, I am in strong doubt whether the author of “Little Dorrit” has even yet made up his mind how to dispose of some of his dramatis personæ; but, after long and careful observation of Mr. Collins’s writings, I am perfectly certain that be never enters upon a story until the plot, in all its ramifications and bearings, has been thoroughly weighed and digested in his own mind; and also, that when once he has set to work, his original intention is never departed from. All his honesty of purpose, all this labour, this artistic preparation would, however, be useless had he not the power to carry out his intentions; but this power he has. Placing him in my own estimation as the fourth in rank among the British novelists of the present day (and among those prior to him I have classed that wondrous woman whose biography has so recently been given to us), I contend that as a story-teller he has no equal; that he possesses the art de conter above all living writers. Inferior to Dickens in pathos and humour, inferior to Thackeray in the knowledge of the secret workings of the human heart, and in the popular exposition of a cynical philosophy, inferior to Miss Bronté in his grasp of persons and places, his power of description, and in the quaint uttering of startling and original doctrines,—he yet possesses a considerable amount of the qualifications of all these authors; while in the talent with which the foundations of his story are laid, and the edifice afterwards raised to completion, be far surpasses them.

William Wilkie Collins, the eldest son of William Collins, R.A., one of the most eminent of English landscape painters, was born in London, in January, 1824, and had for his Godfather that great master of art whose name he bears. After passing his preliminary education at a private school, when fourteen years of age he accompanied his father and mother to Italy, where he spent two years, and where (more especially at Rome) he probably picked up some notions of the picturesque, and of historical localities, which were of use to him afterwards, when he wrote his first novel. On returning to England, and finishing his education at school, he was originally intended for the Church, but his father properly allowed him his free choice of a profession. After some reflection the young man finally decided not to go to college, and eventually entered the office of a tea-merchant, there to learn trade. While in this office, and frequently during the time when his mind should have been occupied with invoices, bills of lading, and the state of the Chinese markets, he wrote a great deal for periodical publications, having previously tried his hand on tragedies, comedies, epic poems, and the usual literary rubbish invariably accumulated about themselves by “young beginners.” For three or four years he remained in the tea-merchant’s office, and during the whole time he practised the art of writing incessantly, and doubtless gained some facility which proved useful to him in his future career. At last, finding that commerce and he had no affinity of any kind, he quitted the ledger and the desk, and was entered by his father as a student at Lincoln’s Inn. Here he ate the necessary number of dinners, and was subsequently called to the bar, without the slightest study of law, which he found drier and even more distasteful to him than commerce. While on the books of Lincoln’s Inn as a student, he wrote a novel of the most wildly impracticable kind, on the subject of savage life in Polynesia, before the discovery of the group of islands composing that country by civilized men. This curious work was offered to all the publishers in London, and, it is needless to say, declined. Glimpses of promise having, however, been discerned in it by some of the publishers’ “readers,” Mr. Collins was encouraged to set to work again with spirit, and this time with a good historical subject—the siege and subjugation of Rome by the Goths. The first volume was scarcely finished, when he was called upon to sustain the first calamity of his life in the loss of his father. Novel-writing, in affliction, is not the most congenial task; the romance was, therefore, thrown aside, and the young author determined upon devoting all his energies to produce a worthy biography of that parent whose memory he so deeply respected, and whose death he so deeply mourned. “Memoirs of the Life of William Collins, R.A.,” was published by Longmans, in 1848. The life of a clever father by a clever son,—the history of the struggles, experiences, and triumphs of an artist, narrated by one deeply imbued with a love and reverence for art, must needs be interesting. The book was very successful, and after receiving letters from many of the most eminent members of the literary world, hitherto strangers to him, congratulating him on his performance, Mr. Wilkie Collins resumed his romance with good hope, after a first success in an undertaking which he had more at heart than any other literary venture in which he has since been engaged. In due course the novel was finished, and published, in 1850, by Bentley, under the title of “Antonina, or the Fall of Rome.” An historical novel is a bold venture as a first essay, and the period of history selected for illustration by the débutant was an ambitious choice; all the classical allusion and antiquarian detail must be scrupulously correct for the satisfaction of the critics—interest and excitement must be worked in for the general novel-reader—the least hint at the lax manners of the period must be sedulously avoided. All these requirements, however, Mr. Collins appears to have successfully fulfilled. “Antonina” was welcomed with great unanimity of praise by all the reviewers, from the magnates of the Times and the Edinburgh Review downwards,—was translated into German, and attained the honours of a second edition in England. The success of “Antonina” determined whatever lingering doubts our author may have felt; henceforth, literature was his adopted vocation.

His next work, “Rambles beyond Railways,” being notes of a walking tour in Cornwall, written with much freshness, and showing great appreciation for the picturesque,—was published in 1851; and the next year saw the production of “Basil,” the most original, striking and thoughtful of his novels. Many and various as have been the opinions about this book, I have yet found no critic able to deny that it carries out the intention so well described in the author’s prefatory letter, viz., that it shows the careful preliminary training to which the writer had subjected himself, and—what is not described in the prefatory letter—that it is the work of a master of his art. The policy of fixing the reader’s interest, exciting his suspense, occupying his feelings, and stirring his thoughts by appealing to sources beyond the general experience, may be questioned; but the manner in which all this has been done can but call for admiration. The main incident of the story may appear objectionable to many, on grounds particularly English, and not particularly defensible. The concluding portion may be condemned as too highly coloured, too melodramatic and unnatural; but so admirably is the plot worked out, so forcible is the language, and so powerful the delineation of character (I speak more especially, perhaps, of the characters of the hero’s father and brother), that I defy the reader to withhold his interest, or not to follow the author page by page.

Founded on a true story, “Basil,” although received with great outcry at the time of its publication, by virtue of its truth, fought its way, and is still fighting it, having recently been published in a cheap edition. Mr. Collins’s third novel, “Hide and Seek,” published in 1854, scarcely advanced his reputation: it was generally liked, well received, and had a good circulation; but it did not excite the interest nor obtain the popularity of his previous romances. It contains many pleasant glimpses of artist life, which he has had good opportunities of studying; and two or three of his characters,—the kind-hearted painter, Valentine Blyth, for instance, and his sick wife—are drawn with much natural force; but the book, while giving many good bits of Dutch painting, wanted backbone, and therefore popularity.

About this time Mr. Collins entered upon a connexion with the proprietors of “Household Words,” and in this excellent periodical he has written many capital stories, which have since been strung together on a new thread of interest, and re-published under the title of “After Dark.”

In the same publication, too, he has written, and is just about concluding, a serial tale called “The Dead Secret,” in the artistic development of which his power of story-telling appears to me to be more vigorous and more perfect than ever.

Besides the works here mentioned, Mr. Wilkie Collins is the author of two dramas, “The Lighthouse,” and “The Frozen Deep,” which, though played at Tavistock House, by Mr. Charles Dickens and his amateur company, before the most refined and critical audiences in the land, have never been publicly represented.

Both are full of powerful interest, both were received with enthusiasm by those who had the good fortune to see them; but as yet, no manager has ventured to bring them on the stage. This may be accounted for by the fact, that, throughout the theatrical profession there is no actor to fill the principal part, which in both these pieces was so admirably sustained by Mr. Charles Dickens.

In a necessarily limited space I have endeavoured to give a brief biographical and critical notice of Mr. Wilkie Collins and his works. I must refer those wishing for further information on the subject to a most admirable article, by M. E. D. Forgues, in the number of the “Revue des deux Mondes,” for November, 1855; an article which contains a longer and abler dissertation on his talents, but which could not express greater admiration of them than is felt by the writer of this slight sketch.

Edmund Yates.


From The Train June 1857 pp 352-357

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