WILKIE COLLINS AND CHARLES DICKENS



Wilkie Collins met Charles Dickens on 12 March 1851 (1) after accepting the part of Smart the valet in the amateur production of Bulwer Lytton's play Not So Bad as We Seem. Although Dickens was twelve years older and an established author and public figure, a lifelong friendship followed. They dined together, took holidays together, and visited the less reputable parts of London and Paris together. They also worked together. For more than five years Collins was employed on Household Words and then All The Year Round and collaborated with Dickens on several Christmas issues of both publications, including No Thoroughfare (2).

Collins's letters to Dickens do not survive and there are two main sources for what he thought of his friend - prefaces to his books and notes he wrote on his copy of John Forster's biography of Dickens (3).

Perhaps because of their friendship, Collins did not put Dickens in the pantheon of novelists. That honour he reserved for James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, and Honoré de Balzac (3a). His first recorded honour to Dickens was the dedication to his third published novel Hide and Seek in 1854. He wrote "To Charles Dickens this story is inscribed as a token of admiration and affection, by his friend, the author" (4). Dickens replied to Collins's letter seeking permission to dedicate the book to him "I shall be delighted to see my name in that good company" (5). Dickens loved Hide and Seek, writing to his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth "I think it is far and away the cleverest novel I have ever seen written by a new hand. It is much beyond Mrs Gaskell and is in some respects masterly..." (6). Seven years later in a new preface to a new edition Collins, by then as famous as Dickens, referred to "...the favourable opinions which many of my brother writers - and notably the great writer to whom 'Hide and Seek' is dedicated - expressed of these pages when I originally wrote them." (7)

A year earlier in 1860 Collins had referred to Dickens in the preface to the three volume edition of The Woman in White "[I] accepted the serious literary responsibility of appearing in the columns of 'All The Year Round' immediately after Mr. Charles Dickens had occupied them with the most perfect work of constructive art that has ever proceeded from his pen." (8) That was of course A Tale of Two Cities. (9)

In later years, shortly before Dickens's death, relationships between them were, for a while, strained. One possible reason is that Wilkie's brother Charles Allston Collins had married Dickens's daughter Kate (10). Charles was a sickly man to whom Dickens took a growing dislike as they both headed towards the grave (11). After Dickens's death our knowledge of Collins's feelings about him come from some marginal notes he made in Forster's The Life of Charles Dickens (3). They were discovered when Collins's library was sold after his death in 1889 (12). Here are his unvarnished views on Dickens's work.

Oliver Twist " - The one defect in that wonderful book is the helplessly bad construction of the story. The character of Nancy is the finest he ever did...That the same man who could create Nancy created the second Mrs Dombey is the most incomprehensible anomaly that I know of in literature."

Barnaby Rudge - "...the weakest book that Dickens ever wrote."

Martin Chuzzlewit - "Chuzzlewit (in some respects the finest novel he ever wrote) delighted his readers and so led to a large sale of the next book, Dombey."

Dombey and Son - "...the latter half of Dombey no intelligent person can have read without astonishment at the badness of it."

David Copperfield - "incomparably superior to Dombey"

Edwin Drood - "...cruel to compare Dickens in the radiant prime of his genius with Dickens's last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn out brain."

Finally, on the first page of the book, where Forster writes "Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of the century" Collins added "after Walter Scott".

References

(1) Although this is a well known incident the exact date is provided by Catherine Peters, The King of Inventors, Secker and Warburg, London 1991, p96

(2) 'No Thoroughfare', Christmas number of All The Year Round, 3 December 1867

(3) John Forster, The Life of Charles Dickens, London 1873

(3a) Peters, op.cit. p377

(4) Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek, 3vols, Bentley, London 1854

(5) to Wilkie Collins, 23 May 1854

(6) to Georgina Hogarth, 22 July 1854

(7) Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek, Sampson Low, Son & Co., 1861

(8) Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White, 3 vols, Sampson Low, 1860

(9) Charles Dickens,'A Tale of Two Cities' in All The Year Round, 30 April - 26 November 1859

(10) on 17 July 1860 at Gad's Hill Place

(11) Dickens died on 9 June 1870; Charles Collins died 9 April 1873. See Peters, op. cit. p311 for an account of Dickens dislike of Charles Collins

(12) The annotated volume was sold by Puttick and Simpson on 22 January 1890 but its location is now unknown. The notes were recorded in the Pall Mall Gazette, 50, 20 January 1890.

Paul Lewis
Collins on Dickens, version 1.01
5 November 1996

 


All material on these pages is Paul Lewis 1996