Celebrities at Home

Edmund Hodgson Yates (1831-1894), journalist and novelist, was a long-standing friend of Collins. After editing Temple Bar in 1875 he founded his own weekly The World in 1874 and began a series called ‘Celebrities at Home’. It is not clear who wrote them - when republished in book form no authors were ascribed to them. However, it is unlikely Yates himself wrote this piece and it has been ascribed to Bernard Henry Becker (c1834-1900) who was writing some 'Celebrities at Home' at this time*. The writer visited Collins in 1877 and this piece first appeared in The World on 26 December that year as number 81 of the series. It was reprinted in Yates’s book Celebrities at Home 1879. It is a relatively friendly account of Wilkie’s thoughts, the genesis of The Woman in White, and his life at Gloucester Place. Yates said that 'Celebrities at Home' was "one of the most attractive features of The World" and that he intended to introduce the "greatest men" to the public.**

*see 'Wilkie Collins and Edmund Yates: a postscript' by Peter Edwards, Wilkie Collins Society Journal NS vol I 1998 pp 47n1 and Edmund Yates: His Recollections and Experiences 1884 II 227
**.Edmund Yates: His Recollections and Experiences 1884 II 330-331



A SHORT man, with stooping shoulders and tiny hands and feet, with bright pleasant face looking out of a forest of light-gray, almost white, hair, greets us as we enter the big double drawing-room in Gloucester-place. This apartment is admirably adapted to the peripatetic style of composition now in increasing vogue, and to authors who can only think on their feet would be invaluable. Mr. Wilkie Collins is not of this class, and when at work sits at a massive writing-table furnished with a small desk of the same design as that used by Charles Dickens. On the left is a japanned tin box containing what Mr. Collins calls his stock-in-trade—plots and schemes for stories and dramas. For a plot he is never at a loss, his great difficulty being in working it out to his satisfaction, and in imparting the necessary literary finish to his composition. Hence he is a rapid inventor and a slow producer, constantly revising his work until he has reached something approaching his ideal of a simple natural style. ‘I don’t,’ he admits, ‘attempt the style of Addison, because I hardly think it worth while. Addison was a neat but trivial writer, not in the least vigorous or dramatic; but the very reverse—analytical and painfully minute. His style bears about as much resemblance to good strong nervous English as silver filigree does to a bronze statue. Lord Byron’s letters are the best English I know of—perfectly simple and clear, bright and strong.’

We hint, as we light a cigar, that there is more than meets the careless eye in the advice of the author of Alice in Wonderland—to take care of the sound, and let the sense take care of itself—and moreover that we can find sundry passages in Mr. Collins’s writings in which the ‘creepy’ effect, as of pounded ice dropped down the back, is obviously produced by a nice attention to sound. ‘That is perfectly true, and it is also true that those passages cost me enormous labour. I do not grudge it, as I think no trouble too great to produce a work of art. But I think so much of sound that, when I do not like the look of a sentence, I read it aloud; and alter it till I can read it easier. I think this test infallible. A long involved interparenthetical sentence which may be comprehensible on paper requires a tremendous effort to read aloud, and should therefore be avoided. When writing for the stage, I act all the play over by myself in this large room, repeating the speeches aloud, and striving to judge of their effect. Hard work, you say, but still delightful enough in its way.’

A. little to the left of the writing-desk hangs a picture by Mr. Collins’s father, the Royal Academician. Born in the purple atmosphere of art, the future novelist yet served a rough apprenticeship to story-telling. At the school at Highbury, where he was placed after a residence of three years on the Continent, he was unpopular by reason of his superior knowledge of the French and Italian languages. It was in vain that he pointed out to his schoolfellows, who despised him as a French frog, that he was an excellent representative of the United Kingdom, as his father was English, his grandfather Irish, and his grandmother Scotch; for the boys could not forgive his proficiency in Voltaire’s epic Le Henriade, still inflicted upon youth as a penitential study of French verse composition. In this awkward position little Collins was lucky enough to secure the favour of a big boy by telling him stories, and the big fellow protected him on account of this amusing quality. If, however, the young story-teller fell short at any time, and could not produce a story to order, his protector and tyrant had an infallible method for stimulating invention, being of opinion that a sound thrashing has an excellent effect in quickening the action of the brain. This painfully-acquired knack of story-telling clung to Mr. Collins, who had already commenced Antonina, when the death of his father set him to work on his biography.

No part of Mr. Wilkie Collins’s career is fuller of interest than that of his intimate association with the late Mr. Dickens. Over the great majority of the contributors to Household Words and All the Year Round, the inventor of the modern art of picturesque description exercised an extraordinary influence. Albeit he never hinted that he wished his assistants to copy his method, the mantle of Dickens descended upon them after a fashion, not always in the peculiar folds which clothed the genius of the Master, but often sadly awry, and in a manner demanding laborious rearrangement at his hands. The effect of this mania for imitating the Chief was to infect the magazine with an air of sameness. It was against this sameness of style that Mr. Wilkie Collins’s work was a perpetual and complete protest; and it is a proof of the extreme keenness of Dickens’s literary insight that he received Mr. Collins with open arms. Up to that period, his success in literature had been only moderate. His first work had met with the meed of success awarded to filial biographies; and Antonina was ushered into the world with a considerable blare of trumpets. The late Mr. Bentley received the young novelist in the genial fashion variously interpreted by successful and unsuccessful authors; he paid him handsomely for his work, and produced Antonina, bound in virgin white and gold. But the public looked on Antonina with unfavourable eyes. Time and place were remote, and they would have none of it. His next work was Basil, in which are visible traces of that weird imagination. which afterwards became one of his most marked characteristics. But people would no more read Basil than they would Antonina. Then came Hide and Seek, a fair success with the million, and of vast importance to the author, as introducing him to the notice of Macaulay and Dickens. Macaulay wrote him a letter filled with warm and lavish praise. Dickens, with unsparing expressions of delight and enthusiasm, asked him to write for Household Words. When Dickens believed in a man and trusted him, he believed and trusted thoroughly; and on Mr. Collins asking him whether he had not better get his story half or one-third done before commencing publication, he was met with generous assurances of confidence, and with considerable misgiving began to write the Dead Secret from hand to mouth. This effort justified all the prognostications of Dickens by its brilliant success; and, together with the admirable short stories afterwards published in a collected form as After Dark, established the author as a favourite with the English public. Mr. Collins’s next work was that which is known to the entire world through the medium of translation into every civilised language—the Woman in White, a book that at once placed the author in the front rank of European novelists. It is in many respects a typical work, and the process of its construction was remarkable. Every author of mark has his own method of working. Mr. Collins’s method is peculiarly his own, and can best be described by following the gradual development of the Woman in White, almost in the words in which we have heard it described by Mr. Collins’s own lips.

The first step in the méthode Collins is to find a central idea, the second to find the characters, the third to let the incidents bring themselves about from the nature of the characters, the fourth to begin the story at the beginning—in direct opposition, be it observed, to the ancient system of plunging in medias res. It shall now be explained how these general principles were applied by Mr. Collins to his most remarkable work. Having to write a story for All the Year Round, he cast about for a central idea, novel and strong enough to carry three volumes on its back. It happened that at this time he received a letter asking him to take up some case of real or supposed wrongful incarceration in a lunatic asylum. His thoughts being directed into this groove, he next came upon an old French trial turning on a question of substitution of persons, and it at once struck him that a substitution effected by the help of a lunatic asylum would prove a strong central idea. This arrived at, the process of construction according to Mr. Collins is purely logical. The victim to be interesting must be a woman, to be very interesting she must be a lady, and as a foil to her, the person who is to represent her must be of inferior birth and station. Now as there is a person to be injured—innocent and beautiful of course—there must be a villain. It is not difficult to construct a villain; but a brand-new villain, a villain like the immortal Count Fosco, is not built up in a day. He is the quintessence of a hecatomb of villains, not English, foreign. ‘I thought the crime too ingenious for an English villain, so I pitched upon a foreigner. You know that I have lived a great deal abroad, and have had many opportunities of observing foreign people. It seems that I did so to some purpose; for after the Woman in White appeared, I received a large number of letters from abroad accusing me of gross personal caricature or rather too accurate portraiture. The writers were in a great rage at having their personal weaknesses applied to a scoundrel and held up to derision. I need not tell you that Fosco is not modelled on any one or any half-dozen persons. His character grew on me,—a great danger to a novelist, by the way. I knew a man who loved canaries, and I had known boys who loved white mice, and I thought the mice running about Fosco while he meditated on his schemes would have a fine effect. You ask me why I made him fat: his greatest beauty in the opinion of the majority of competent judges. You give me good reasons for making him fat: that fat men are malevolent and ruthless, and that the first Napoleon was a fat man, together with the chemical demonstration that fatty substances when heated above a certain temperature develop an acid known as butyric acid. I knew all this, but none of these considerations influenced me. I had begun to write my story, when it struck me that my villain would be commonplace, and I made him fat in opposition to the recognised type of villain. His theories concerning the vulgar clap-trap, that murder will out, are my own.’

Smoking persistently, Mr. Collins goes on to tell us that, having thought out his big villain, he felt that a minor villain was necessary—a weak shabby villain, the tool of Fosco. Sir Percival Glyde their steps on the scene. To stamp his character with contempt he must commit a mean crime,, therefore he is made a bastard, and must attempt to destroy a forged register. ‘You will not think me vain when I tell you, as a simple matter of fact, that people took extraordinary interest in my mean villain, and laic bets concerning the nature of the mysterious crime which put him in the power of Anne’s mother.’ Mr. Collins continues: ‘A man, too, wrote me a furious letter, complaining that I had drawn an exact picture of his dwelling as Blackwater Park. House, trees, lake, and boat-house all were there, and my correspondent was amazed and disgusted that I should have selected his house as the scene of a crime. I need not tell you that I had never heard of him or of his house in my life, and had never seen either. The Woman in White was exceptionally fortunate in exciting the interest of the public. No sooner was it finished than I received a number of letters from single gentlemen, stating their position and means, and their wish to marry the original of Marian Halcombe at once.’

Having formed the central idea of the Woman in White—the substitution of one woman for another in a madhouse, and the destruction of her identity—invented the two women and two villains, and determined to bring Fosco at last to the Morgue, Mr. Collins thought it was almost time to begin his still nameless story. ‘That is my difficulty,’ he admits, as he lights another cigar; ‘and I imagine is the difficulty of everybody else. With me, however, it is especially difficult; for my system of story-telling admits of no harking back, and compels me to carry my characters through. with me. I always work with one set of characters, as I think .the introduction of a second set weakens the interest of the story.’

With considerable trouble he hit upon the drawing-master and Marian Halcombe, and having made a beginning leapt . at once to the third volume, and wrote the greater part of it. Probably no writer is, as it were, so hard upon himself in pruning away redundant incidents as Mr. Collins. A writer full of inventive power. finds incidents, especially of the kind which does not bear upon the action of the story, spring up at every page and intrude themselves upon his notice, and it requires strong self-denial to throw them aside. Titles, however, are not so plentiful as incidents, and quite one-third of the Woman in White was written before a title could be found for it. Dickens. was anxious to commence publication; but a novel requires a name of some kind, and he, like Mr. Collins, was for once at a loss. Perhaps this was the only occasion on which the author of Pickwick; was fairly brought to a standstill, for probably no other writer ever possessed such an extraordinary power of inventing titles. Still Mr. Collins’s story remained nameless, and the unhappy author cudgelled his brains in vain. To those clever people who are preternaturally wise after the fact, it will appear strange that he had already fully described Anne Catherick’s strange fancy for dressing herself in white, and the effect of her sudden appearance in that garb upon Walter Hartright; but no title could be found for the book. Mr. Collins betook him, in despair, to Broadstairs. He walked for several hours on the cliffs between Kingsgate and Bleak House, and smoked an entire case of cigars, striving for a title, but with a, barren result. As the sun went down the novelist threw himself on the grass, contemplating the North Foreland lighthouse, and, being hipped and weary, looked by no means lovingly on that hideous edifice. Savagely biting the end of his last cigar he apostrophised the building, standing coldly and stiffly in the evening light, ‘You are ugly and stiff and awkward; you know you are: as stiff and as weird as my white woman. White woman!—woman in white! The title, by Jove!’

The author was content, but not so all his friends. The late Mr. John Forster, who had found for Bulwer the admirable title of Night and Morning for one of his most successful novels, and had been appealed to by Mr. Collins, but had failed to name his bantling, was loud in protest. The Woman in White was too long, too irrelevant, was based upon a slight peculiarity, and so forth; and the opinion of Mr. Forster was indorsed by everybody but Charles Dickens himself. The Master was delighted with the title and the idea of the story, which at once seized upon the public. Still the band of depreciators continued to prophesy evil things of the Woman in White. It was successful as a serial, that could not be denied; but in the three-volume form it would fail completely. The system of dividing the story into several personal narratives, since so outrageously confused and abused by Mr. Collins’s imitators, would, it was said, prove fatal to the story when published en bloc. Dickens entertained an entirely opposite opinion, and the justness of his literary instinct was again demonstrated by the extraordinary success of the Woman in White. The story, as it appeared in All the Year Round and in the first edition of the three-volume form, was marked by an extraordinary error, detected by the critic of the Times, who pointed out that, in a story turning upon exactness in a date, an obvious blunder had been committed. It was on landing at Dover after a yachting cruise that the author read in the Times the evidence of his mistake-corrected, it is hardly necessary to say, in all subsequent editions.

Mr. Collins has a strong belief in dramatic power and poetic insight in securing immortality for a writer of prose. ‘Look at Fielding and Smollett, admirable painters of manners, but now only read by scholars. The reason is that neither had the slightest poetic insight; while Goldsmith, who had, has left an imperishable work in the Vicar of Wakefield. It is the same on the great stage of the world. You tell me that the first Napoleon was, in the opinion of his contemporaries, a mean scoundrel and a shameless liar. Lanfrey’s book has been written to bring that opinion home to men of our own day blinded, as you think, by the Napoleonic legend. It is good to tell the truth about Napoleon, of course; but you cannot break the idol, for his deeds strike the imagination. He was a dramatic man.’

With the view thus given us of the victor of Austerlitz, we may leave Mr. Collins to work at the dramas he now has in process of construction.

From Celebrities at Home – reprinted from ‘The World’ Third Series, London 1879 pp145-156

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