The new digital edition of the collected correspondence of Wilkie Collins incorporates and updates two earlier series by the same editors: the just under 3,000 letters included in the four volumes of The Public Face of Wilkie Collins: The Collected Letters (Pickering & Chatto, 2005); and the over 350 letters gradually added between 2005 and 2017 in the eleven numbers of The Collected Letters of Wilkie Collins: Addenda and Corrigenda issued by the Wilkie Collins Society. The process of updating includes a large number of corrections and revisions to both the letter transcripts and the accompanying editorial material, including in not a few cases changes involving the recipient and/or the dating. This is particularly so with the selection of nearly 600 letters initially published almost twenty years ago in The Letters of Wilkie Collins (2 vols; Macmillan, 1999), edited by William Baker and William M. Clarke. With few exceptions, these appeared in The Public Face only in summary form, but here all appear complete within the sequence, while the transcriptions and annotations alike have now been thoroughly revised.
Wilkie Collins’s career as an author spans more than four decades, covering all but the opening and closing stages of the reign of Queen Victoria. During that lengthy period his writings offer a crucial witness – second in importance perhaps only to those of his mentor, collaborator, friend and rival Charles Dickens – to the gradual and uneven emergence in Britain of a mass literary culture.
As a collection, Collins’s surviving correspondence ranges from the seven-year old child’s letter to his mother away at Brighton in the autumn of 1831 to the dying man’s desperate appeal to his old doctor friend in the autumn of 1889. His correspondents are active in an extraordinary range of cultural and social activities, and represent a wide variety of backgrounds and outlooks. There is a sustained dialogue with family members and relatives, with the companions made in youth (and often later with their partners and children), with new friends acquired on trips to Continental Europe or North America, with novelists, poets and painters, with playwrights, actors and theatre managers, with doctors, solicitors, and wine merchants, with publishers, editors, printers, copyists, and literary agents. Predictably, surviving correspondence with this last group is especially prominent. In addition there are hundreds of cases where there are only one or two letters to a single correspondent. Occasionally – as with Dickens – these are merely the fragments of a substantial relationship. More typically they bear witness to the growing fame of a writer who struggles to respond to an army of society hostesses, critical cranks, devoted readers and autograph hunters. Together these documents steadily chart the developments in a specific Victorian social and literary milieu.
Last modified 11 April 2010