Harper's Weekly

Francis Whiting Halsey (1851-1919) was an editor and writer and it is unlikely that he met Collins. The account of Wilkie's life contains some errors and his analysis of his work is fairly derivative. This obituary appeared in Harper's Weekly on 5 October and was an opportunity to promote the Harper edition of his works and republish a fine engraving of him.


The death of Wilkie Collins in London on September 23d removes from the company of active novelists one of the oldest and most widely read. His career to a large extent was contemporary with the careers of Thackeray, Dickens, Charles Reade, and George Eliot. Born, as he was, in 1824, when Thackeray was only thirteen years old, Dickens only twelve, and Charles Reade only ten, he has survived Dickens by nineteen years, and Thackeray by twenty-five. Mr. Collins’s literary activity extended over a period of forty-one years, or from 1848, when he published a life of his father, William Collins, the artist, down almost to the month of his death, when he was seeing through the pages of the Illustrated London News his story of “Blind Love.” Wilkie Collins was one of the most industrious of modern novelists. The regrets awakened by his death must extend throughout many lands and peoples. He was not only read widely, in England, America and Australia, but he was well known in France, Italy, Russia, and Germany. So long ago as the date of his No Name (1862), his stories had been translated, read, and admired in the languages of those countries.

Mr. Collins was reared in the midst of artistic associations. Besides having an artist for his father, he was indebted to another for his Christian name, while a sister of his mother was Mrs. Carpenter, the painter of portraits. And yet it does not appear that the boy’s relatives ever had a purpose to devote him to one of the Muses, artistic or literary. They sent him for a time to a school at Highbury, and again to a school on the Continent. French and Italian he acquired in his youth, and was able to speak as well as write them. Among his school-mates in England he was a source of jealousy on this account, and they persecuted him as a foreigner. His only means of relief from this treatment is said to have been an alliance with the strongest boy in the school, who engaged to punish those who assailed him on condition Collins should tell him entertaining stories. Thus, in the school of early adversity, were first stimulated the talents of the future novelist.

Possibly it was a conviction on his parents’ part that neither art nor literature could afford their son a road to affluence that led them to select for him a commercial life. They articled him for four years, as soon as he had left school, to a London house engaged in the tea trade, and doubtless pictured to themselves the time when he should become a prosperous merchant. But in commercial life boy gave no promises of success; it was distinctly seen to be not his forte. He was then placed in a lawyer’s office, where he remained until his father’s death in 1847. Wilkie Collins was then twenty-three years old. A year later he produced his first work in literature—the biography of his father. This publication comprised two volumes, and contained selections from his father’s correspondence.

Whatever were the merits of the performance, Mr. Collins, after that first taste of the charm of literary labors, speedily fixed upon something for his vocation more congenial to his taste and talents than the drudgery of it clerk’s life in a London law office. Two years later he appeared before the public as a  novelist with his Antonina; or, The Fall of Rome. That success should have attended him at a time when Dickens was in the flood-tide of his fame, and when Thackeray had just published his Vanity Fair and Pendennis speaks more than anything else can for the powers that lay in him. Surely it was a fair inference that this man would be heard from again.

It was singular that the year in which Antonina appeared should be the year in which Dickens started his Household Words, for with Household Words and its successor, All the Year Round, the fame of Collins, like the fame of Dickens, will long be associated. It must always stand for a mark of Dickens’s judgment, no less than of his professional generosity, that he early saw and employed the talents of the younger writer. Basil and Hide and Seek followed Antonina. The latter of these two books found for the author a new admirer in Macaulay. Dickens was more than ever impressed, and he asked Mr. Collins to become his contributor. Accordingly The Dead Secret made its appearance in Dickens’s periodical, as did other stories of his back in the fifties, the most memorable of them all being The Woman in White, in 1859. After Dark and The Queen of Hearts belong also to this period. 

The reputation they made for him in England spread rapidly to America and the Continent, until his readers could be found in almost every civilized country. Following his No Name, of 1862, came, in 1866, his Armadale; in 1868, The Moonstone; in 1870, Man and Wife; in 1872, Poor Miss Finch; in 1873, The New Magdalen; in 1875, The Law and the Lady and, Alice Warlock; and in 1886, The Evil Genius and The Guilty River. These comprise the better known of Mr. Collins’s works. Most of them, along with a few shorter works, compose the Harper Illustrated Library edition in seventeen volumes, other works of his being issued in other form.

None of these novels is better known than The Woman in White, none made a more profound impression at the time, none is still so vividly remembered by all who read it. In the character of Count Fosco Mr. Collins made a distinct addition to the world’s stock of famous creations in fiction. Already it has lived for thirty years, and another generation of fame at least seems to be assured for it. Mr. Collins has said that he chose a foreigner for this character because the crime was “too ingenious for an English villain.” Mr. Collins’s villains were not of the coarse and stalwart type. He knew how to draw a villain who could seem a gentleman and often pass for one, who could appear well in a drawing-room, and seem at home astride a horse in Rotten Row. For readers who liked him best, he painted the life of a world which they had seen, which they understood and were parts of. But it was in his plots that he most excelled. For this part of the novelist’s endowments he had an astonishing faculty. The powerful interest of his novels always lay in the mystery that was continued to the end of them, and in the art by which the reader’s attention was held fixed and curious through the succeeding chapters. Some of the qualities in which the greatest novelists have excelled, and which Wilkie Collins distinctly lacked, need not be enumerated here; it is enough that he possessed a genius for plots and ingenious mysteries in which few writers of any age have surpassed, if, indeed, they have equalled him.

Mr. Collins’s visit to this country in the winter of 1873-74 will be remembered by thousands who heard him read two of his shorter stories, The Frozen Deep and The Dream Woman. It was a visit that gratified him greatly. Personal letters to his publishers, which are still preserved by them, bear excellent and unmistakable witness to this. One dated from Buffalo, to which city he had proceeded from New England by way of Montreal and Toronto, contains the following: “Wherever I go I meet with the same kindness and the same enthusiasm. I really want words to express my grateful sense of my reception in America. It is not only more than I have deserved, it is more than any man could have deserved. I have never met with such a cordial and such a generous people as the people of the United States. Let me add that I thrive on this kindness. I keep wonderfully well.”

Mr. Collins was a man of small stature, stooping somewhat in the shoulders, but with large eyes and a round, genial face, framed in by heavy hair and beard, that ill late years were almost white. He leaves few relatives; neither wife nor child is among them. He died in the presence only of his physician and a house-keeper, who had been in his service for thirty years. His physician was Dr. Carr Beard, now an old man, and in his time an intimate friend of Dickens. He is one of Mr. Collins’s executors.

Mr. Collins’s career illustrates once more the truth that genius, once a man actually has it, will find its way. If genius for any one thing is in him, it must come out of him. Born to be a novelist,  he cannot be made a merchant, and there is in him no future lawyer. A novelist be will be. The singleness of purpose with which Wilkie Collins’s whole life was consecrated to novel-writing re-enforces the truth of this statement. No other objects claimed his devotions. He took to himself the warning of Lord Bacon: “He that hath wife and children hath given hostages to fortune.” He accepted as his supreme obligation duty to his art.


 From Harper’s Weekly 5 October 1889 XXXIII No.1711 p799

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