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"We saw each other every day, and were as fond of each other as men could be. Nobody (my own dear mother excepted, of course) felt so positively sure of the future before me in literature, as Dickens did." — quoted from Collins's letters by John Bowen

Decorated initial 'I'n March 1851 Wilkie Collins, then a law student at Lincoln's Inn, first met Charles Dickens, with whom he is still so closely associated that he has been called "the Dickensian Ampersand." A close friend of Dickens from their meeting in March 1851 until Dickens' death in 1870, Collins was one of the best known, best loved, and, for a time, best paid of Victorian fiction writers. The two men met through a mutual acquaintance, the artist Augustus Egg. Dickens, having known the landscape artist and Royal Academician William Collins, Wilkie's father, invited the young man to participate in his amateur theatricals. In Dickens, Wilkie found an alternative to his strict patriarchal father. In Collins, Dickens found a relaxing companion with none of the dark, waistcoat conservatism of his other friends, and in April 1852, after Collins published "A Terribly Strange Bed" in Dickens's Household Words, the two became fast friends. By the time of Dickens's Guild performances in September, 1852, he regarded him with sufficient warmth to invite Collins to accompany him on holiday to Dover. The following year, Egg joined the pair on holiday across the Channel. Collins lectured Egg on art and hummed opera airs incorrectly and interminably. For his companions Collins narrated the tale of his twelve years of sexual experimentation. Ascending Chamonix, Dickens walked while the younger men were transported in "a rotten sedan chair." Collins was nevertheless delighted to have returned to Italy, the land of his childhood. From Genoa the trio took a steamer to Naples, from which point they prepared to ascend Mount Vesuvius. In Rome, Collins thoroughly enjoyed himself amidst the splendors of St. Peter's. By late November the trio were in Venice, where — to Dickens's chagrin — Collins dressed shabbily as they frequented the ballet and the city's numerous cafes.

In January 1855, as was his custom during the Christmas holidays, Dickens was eager to stage a "fairy play" for his children, this time his own adaptation of James Planché's Fortunio and His Seven Gifted Servants, starring "Mr. Wilkini Collini" as Gobbler. In the middle of June, 1855, in the children's schoolroom which doubled as a theatre at Tavistock House, Dickens and company performed Collins's The Lighthouse as an adult-oriented entertainment, and so Collins helped to set Dickens on the trajectory which would lead to the full-scale melodrama The Frozen Deep and a young actress named Ellen Lawless Ternan. By the end of August 1855, Collins finished almost five months' work on the play. In February 1856, Collins visited Dickens in Paris. That summer, Collins was Dickens's premier visitor at the pair collaborated on the writing of a new play for Dickens's amateur theatricals, The Frozen Deep, finished in draft by mid-September. Dickens then proposed a walking tour of Cumberland to furnish material for a travel article for Household Words When both became lost in the dark and the mists as they were descending a mountain, Collins sprained his leg and had to be carried down by Dickens.

The old crew — Mark Lemon, Frederick Evans, Augustus Egg, John Forster and Dickens's aide-de-camp from Household Words, Wills, were all involved; Wills' wife, Janet, played the Scottish nurse with second sight. After a dress rehearsal on January 5, 1856, attended by Dickens's servants and various tradespeople, the amateur company gave four performances in Tavistock House to audiences of about ninety each. The reporters of seven London papers, including The Times, lauded Dickens's performance as the morose, self-sacrificing hero Richard Wardour (who would become the basis for Sydney Carton in A Tale of Two Cities). On July 4th, Dickens and his company performed the play before Queen Victoria and her court, Hans Christian Andersen, and W. M. Thackeray. Arrangements were made to take the play to Manchester in August (21, 22, 24), but Dickens realized his female amateurs could not project sufficiently well to handle the vocal demands of the city's Free Trade Hall, so he enlisted three professional actresses: Mrs. Ternan played nurse Esther, Maria the romantic lead, and eighteen-year-old Ellen in the minor part originally taken by Dickens's sister-in- law, Georgina Hogarth. In October, Dickens finally mounted a professional production at the Olympic Theatre with Henry Neville enacting his role; Wilkie for this version began changes to the script that would ultimately lead to larger revisions in 1866.

Throughout the next few years, Collins and Dickens collaborated on short stories such as The Perils of Certain English Prisoners for Household Words (Christmas 1857). Meanwhile, Wilkie's brother, Charles, had become romantically involved with one of Dickens's daughters, Katie. Charles Collins was a pious facsimile of his father; Katie was the member of the Dickens brood who most resembled her father facially. On the morning of 17 July 1860, Katie Dickens married Charles Collins at St. Mary's Church in Higham, near Gad's Hill. Katie was just 20, high-spirited; the groom, 32, was an introspective, gloomy minor painter and travel-writer. From the first it was apparent that Charles Collins's health was poor and that Katie was destined for widowhood: he died of cancer of the stomach in 1873.

When Wilkie first collaborated with and wrote for Dickens at the offices of Household Words, although only twelve years’ Wilkie's senior, Dickens had already amassed a lifetime's experience as a journalist, short story writer, and romantic novelist: he knew precisely what could be depicted in print, and what could not. Collins, in contrast, was a radical in psychological portraiture and realism: he was determined to explore (in Henry James's phrase) "the mysteries at our own front door." After breaking with the publishers of Household Words, Dickens founded a similar weekly journal accessible to all classes of readers, All the Year Round, in 1859. The first weekly serial instalment of Wilkie Collins's The Woman in White appeared in the same edition of All the Year Round as the last instalment of A Tale of Two Cities : 26 November 1859. By the time that Collins had finished writing the sensation novel in July, 1860, despite a mixed critical reception, it had considerably boosted the journal's sales. In volume form, the novel from its initial publication as a triple-decker brought out by London's Sampson Low, Son, and Company, in mid-August, 1860, broke all previous sales records for novels.

Collins's spare, lean prose lacked the resonance, the poetry, and the allusions of Dickens's. Despite the stylistic differences, throughout the 1860s Collins enjoyed a literary celebrity and an affluence almost equal to Dickens's because the Victorian reading public appreciated his subtlety of characterization, his realistic psychological portraiture, and his ingeniously involved plotting. For the elder novelist, plot arose from the interaction of deeply felt characters; for the younger novelist, an apparently random chance (in fact, Providence) outside individual characters’ control seems to animate and direct the plot. Together, Dickens and Collins wrote such Christmas stories for the annual seasonal issue of All the Year Round as A Message from the Sea (1860), Tom Tiddler's Ground (1861), Somebody's Luggage (1862), Mrs. Lirriper's Lodgings (1863), and Mrs. Lirriper's Legacy (1864). In March, 1862, he fulfilled his last contractual obligation to All the Year Round with the serial publication of No Name, which Dickens thought extremely clever. Wilkie's sale of the novel's copyright earned him the enormous sum of £ 4,600. At this triumphant point in his career, Wilkie was compelled by a painful combination of gout, rheumatism, and laudanum addiction to visit continental spas in order to recover his health.

In April 1861, despite the fact that the publication of No Name in All the Year Round would run into 1862, Collins signed with Smith and Elder. However, periodically, Dickens lured Collins back, most notably for the serial publication of The Moonstone (1867). Although Dickens was a champion of social causes, he was less overt in his crusading in his novels than in his journalism, and part of his dissatisfaction with Wilkie's novels were that each had "a purpose." The poet Swinburne later summed up this propensity in the witty elegiac couplet that appeared in the November 1889 Fortnightly Review

What brought good Wilkie's genius nigh perdition?
Some demon whispered — 'Wilkie! have a mission'.

Consequently, after initial enthusiasm, Dickens was less sure of The Moonstone, even though its serial publication pumped up the circulation of All the Year Round more than any novel so far, including his own A Tale of Two Cities (1859) and Great Expectations (1861). However, Dickens's exasperation with both the best-seller and its author may stem from his growing dissatisfaction with his sickly and neurotic son-in-law, Charles Collins. Dickens confided in the actor Charles Fechter that, looking at his son-in-law across the dining table at Gad's Hill, Dickens thought to himself at this time, "Astonishing you should be here today, but tomorrow you will be in your chamber never to come out again." However, Dickens admired Wilkie's subsequent work, including the play that Wilkie wrote based on one of Fechter's ideas, Black and White (1869).

In the late 1860s, Collins began to decline in health, and his growing opium addiction and his peculiar relationships with Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd led to his estrangement from Dickens, who knew all the details of Wilkie's private life, just as he knew all about Dickens's extra- marital affair with the young actress Ellen Ternan. Not surprisingly, in print as in life secrets and double identities held a fascination for both novelists. Wilkie Collins and his mentor remained estranged in the last years of Dickens's life. After Dickens's death in 1870, Collins remained a prolific writer, despite continued ill health.

Bibliography for Works on the Life of Wilkie Collins

Ashley, Robert. Wilkie Collins . London: 1952.

Baker, William, et al. Eds. The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters. 4 vols. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2005 [added by GPL].

Bowen, John. "Champagne Moments" [review of Collins's letters above]. Times Literary Supplement. (February 3, 2006): 4-5.

Clarke,William M. The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins . London: W. H. Allen & Co., 1989.

Davis, Noel Pharr. The Life of Wilkie Collins . Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1956.

[For Collins and Dickens: See Fred Kaplan's Dickens: A Biography (New York: William Morrow, 1988)].

Gasson, Andrew. Wilkie Collins — An Illustrated Guide . Oxford: Oxford University,1998.

Peters, Catherine. The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins . London: Minerva (Martin Secker & Warburg), 1992.

Robinson, Kenneth. Wilkie Collins . London: 1951.

For a more complete list of biographical works, see "Books" (p. 230-231) and "Articles" (p. 232) in the Clarke biography.

Related Web Resources


Victorian  Web Wilkie Collins Works

Last modified 9 October 2013