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‘A Plea for Sunday Reform’ is the first contribution to The Leader definitely identified as by Wilkie Collins. The Leader was a radical, left-wing, weekly newspaper founded in 1850 by George Henry Lewes and Thornton Hunt. Within a year it needed financial help and Wilkie’s friend Edward Pigott bought a controlling share. The two had been friends since boyhood and sailed together throughout their lives.
Collins’s work for The Leader was originally identified by Kirk Beetz (1) who concluded that 29 pieces in it were by Collins and a further 50 might well be. Of the 29, only 8 (including this one) are actually signed W.W.C. and a further five are signed W. Evidence for the other 16 – and for many of the signed 13 – comes from information contained in Collins’s letters to Pigott. The remaining 50 pieces are identified on style, title, or content. There may well be more.
‘A Plea for Sunday Reform’ is his most polemical early work – both the style and the substance sound as much like a well reasoned sermon as a piece in a weekly publication. Certainly it lends itself to speaking aloud – as much of his fiction later did. The views expressed in it were radical. The National Gallery had occupied its present site in Trafalgar Square since 1837 (the Royal Academy occupied some rooms in the eastern end, nearest to St Martin’s in the Fields). The British Museum was also open to the public and several collections owned by aristocrats and other wealthy patrons could also be seen – but not on Sunday. It was 1896 before the law was changed to allow Sunday opening of museums and art galleries and the campaign had been running since the early years of the 19th century - a Bill to reform the law was first put to Parliament in 1829. Many other laws in Britain for keeping all manner of things closed on Sundays lasted until nearly the end of the 20th century – a few still remain.
The poverty and long hours of working class people was not lost on thoughtful middle-class men and women. At this time a male worker in a cotton factory in Leeds earned less than £1 a week for working 56½ hours – 10 hours a day Monday to Friday and 6½ hours on Saturday (2). Drinking heavily – sotting as Wilkie calls it – was a familiar relief. By comparison, Wilkie sets up Dives (3), the wealthy bigot condemned to Hell, who by implication is anyone who disagrees with his argument. He even suggests that "good Churchmen and good Churchwomen" who themselves listen to church music on their own pianos on Sunday but deny music to others may be as bad as Dives.
Of Collins’s known work in periodicals, this piece is the eighth in order of publication, preceded by six items in Bentley’s Miscellany – all in 1851 – and his much earlier first piece in The Illuminated Magazine in August 1843. By September 1851, Wilkie had already published three books – the biography of his father Memoirs of the Life of William Collins Esq. R.A. in November 1848; his Roman historical novel Antonina in February1850; and the Cornwall travel book Rambles Beyond Railways in January 1851. Mr Wray’s Cash-Box came out in December.
Wilkie’s best known work in The Leader followed this piece – six essays early in 1852 setting out his eye-witness accounts of clairvoyance, telepathy, and spiritualism under the title ‘Magnetic Evenings at Home’. After that his contributions were mostly book reviews, including a well-known critique of Trollope’s The Warden which is still reprinted without attribution to Wilkie.
Wilkie’s letters to Pigott about editorial policy on The Leader bring out his rejection of atheism, his own strong religious views, and his antagonism towards the established church. He wrote to Pigott in February 1852
"Why not let Mr Holyoake write a series of articles on the advantages of Atheism as a creed? – his convictions have been honestly arrived at, miserable and melancholy as they are to think of….In regard to your mixing up of the name of Jesus Christ with the current politics of the day, I am against you - against you with all my heart and soul, I will expose and condemn as heartily as any of you the corruptions and abuses of Church Politics, as the inventions of man – but if one of the things you understand by "freedom of religious thought" be the freedom of mingling the Saviour's name with the politics of the day – I protest against that "freedom" as something irredeemably bad in itself; and utterly useless for any good purpose whatever." (4)
After this row he refused to allow his name to appear on his contributions to the periodical although he wrote for it until 1855 or 1856. But his writing was becoming more drawn to fiction and to humour rather than polemic. His first piece for Dickens’s Household Words ‘A Terribly Strange Bed’ appeared in April 1852 and he joined the staff in October 1856. The Leader was behind him.
This text is taken directly from a copy of The Leader 27 September 1851 vol II, no.79 pp925-926. It retains all the original spelling, punctuation and paragraphing.
1 Victorian Periodicals Review vol.XV no.1 Spring 1982 pp20-29
2 Levi Wages and Earnings of the Working Classes London 1885 p.128
3 Latin for ‘rich man’, used in the parable of the beggar Lazarus who went to heaven and the anonymous rich man (Dives) who went to hell and begged Lazarus for a drop of water – a request refused by Abraham. See Luke 16: 20-26
4 The Letters of Wilkie Collins William Baker and William Clarke, Cambridge 1999 I pp83-86
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