Wilkie at Christmas
The evidence from his letters shows that Wilkie Collins didn't like Christmas. But he recognised its value to him as a writer. His second published novel Mr Wray's Cash-Box; or, the Mask and the Mystery was aimed at a Christmas audience. Dated on the title page 1852 it was in fact published on 13 December 1851 in time for the Christmas market. He wrote to his publisher Richard Bentley on 28 November
"an idea for a Christmas Story made a morning call in my brain the other day. The sort of book I propose would be a 5/- affair, running to about 130 pages - a sort of tragi-comedy in the form of a Story" (I 52; B&C 105-106).
[References are to The Public Face of Wilkie Collins - the Collected Letters 2005 or to B&C - The Letters of Wilkie Collins, Baker & Clarke 1999]
Collins met Dickens on 13 March 1851 and formed a close friendship with him. Dickens already had published several books aimed at a Christmas audience and continued to do so for many years. But even before they met, Collins was aghast at what Dickens earned from Christmas. On 12 January 1849 he wrote to R H Dana in America
"This is indeed a great age for great authors. Dickens told a friend of mine, that he had made four thousand guineas by his last year's Christmas book - (The Battle of Life) - a five shilling publication,(!) which everybody abused, and which, nevertheless, everybody read. Eighteen thousand copies of his present Christmas book (The Haunted Man) were "subscribed for" by the booksellers, before publication." (I 31; B&C I 53-55).
After Mr Wray's Cash-Box his next novel, Basil - though hardly Christmas fare- came out conveniently in November. He then began contributing regularly to Dickens's Household Words and from 1854 to 1861 he contributed every year to the Christmas number of that periodical and its successor All The Year Round. He then shared authorship with Dickens of 'No Thoroughfare' at Christmas 1867, a great success which was converted into a play which was a theatrical hit both in Britain and the USA.
From 1876 to 1887 he wrote a story each year for the Christmas issue of Spirit of the Times, a New York sporting weekly. 'The Captain's Last Love' (1876), 'The Duel in Herne Wood' (1877), 'The Mystery of Marmaduke' (1878), 'The Devil's Spectacles' (1879), 'Who Killed Zebedee?' (1880), How I married Him' (1881), 'Fie! Fie! or The Fair Physician' (1882), 'She loves and Lies' (1883, 'The Girl at the Gate' (1884), 'The Poetry Did It!' (1885), 'An Old Maid's Husband' (1886), and 'The First Officer's Confession' (1887).
Fewer stories appeared at Christmas in English periodicals - sometimes the New York stories appeared here too, though usually in January rather than at Christmas. In 1878 'A Shocking Story' was the Christmas issue of Belgravia magazine followed in 1881 by 'Your Money or Your Life'. The next year, 1882, 'Fie! Fie!, or the Fair Physician' was in the Christmas issue of Pictorial World. And in 1884 'Royal Love' was in the Christmas issue of Longman's Magazine.
His later books also came out timed for the Christmas market. In 1871 Miss or Mrs.? made its début as the Christmas number of The Graphic and was published over the Christmas period as 'A Christmas Story' in New York in Harper's Weekly and in Paris as Baisers Furtifs - Conte de Noël in the Revue des deux Mondes.
My Lady's Money was published in the Christmas issue of The Illustrated London News in 1877. In 1886 The Guilty River was published by Arrowsmith's in Bristol as their Christmas Annual, Wilkie's last Christmas book.
So for many Christmasses throughout his life, Wilkie had a story or a book aimed specifically at that market and on other occasions his books were published conveniently in time for it. But he didn't like it. In eleven surviving letters he expresses his dislike of the festive season.
Despite these feelings Wilkie did keep Christmas. On 18 December 1854 he invited his friend Edward Pigott to his home in Hanover Terrace.
"Don't talk about having no home to go to - you know you are at home here. Come and eat your Christmas dinner with us - you will find your knife, fork, plate and chair all ready for you. Time six o'clock...Mind you come on Christmas Day." (I 110; B&C I 129).
Wilkie on Christmas
19 January 2009