The book-keeping secrets of Wilkie

The Letters of Wilkie Collins
November 19, 1999

Writing to his old friend Frederick Lehmann in 1882, Wilkie Collins excused the brevity and recent infrequency of his letters: "I am too weary of myself to write about myself."

The origin of such fatigue was partly physical, for the so-called "rheumatic gout" that tortured Collins for 30 years was wearing him down. But self-dismissal also had a reciprocal relationship to Collins's creativity. When he penned the letter he was working incessantly on his latest novel, Heart and Science . "I have nothing else to say," he tells Lehmann, "my life is in my new book."

Collins's assertion encapsulates a central oddity, indeed a problem, in the two volumes of his letters collected by William Baker and William Clarke. For the letters, apart from graphically detailing the miseries inflicted by "the Gout-Fiend" who "bored holes in his eye with a red-hot needle", tell us remarkably little about Collins himself.

What there was to reveal is now well known, thanks to Clarke's own The Secret Life of Wilkie Collins (1988) and Catherine Peters's biography, The King of Inventors (1991). Put briefly, Collins had two long-term partners - "mistresses" seems the wrong word - without ever being married. Caroline Graves, with whom he lived for over 40 years, bar a brief period when she actually married somebody else; and Martha Rudd, who bore him three children and was installed in a house a few streets away from where he lived with Caroline. No letters to either of the women have survived, and though those collected here make references to Caroline, and a few to Martha and what Collins called his "morganatic family", there is nothing that gives us further insight into the happy unorthodoxy of their domestic arrangements. Nor is there much to support the speculations advanced by Peters about Collins's supposed sexual adventures beyond his two firesides.Doubtless there were omissions, but jokey phrases about "dissipating fearfully" in Paris - from a letter of 1844 - or enjoying "Paris pleasures" with Dickens in the 1850s seem more about playing the flâneur than the libertine.

What such an absence of autobiographical disclosure reveals is Collins's attitude to letters themselves. For him they were never the vehicles of self-examination, let alone confession.

Whatever the emotional extremes visited in his fiction, the very few letters that mention his personal feelings towards people are bound by a reticence that is almost absolute. Letters written at the time of his mother's death, or to an intimate friend like Dickens, or when his brother,the Pre-Raphaelite Charles Collins, died register little more than the fact of loss - whatever the emotional repercussions, they are consigned to silence in his correspondence. To an extent, Collins's accounts of the world around, particularly in letters to his mother, whom he wished to entertain, replace interior discourse. His travels occasioned passages of descriptive and imaginative vigour: Belgium is "a great flat damp grim meadow speckled with church spires like pepper-boxes and dwellings like over-coloured baby-houses"; in Folkestone, "troops of hideous women stagger about in the fresh breezes under hats as wide as umbrellas and as ugly as inverted washhand basins".

There are some engaging anecdotes, too, from an unexpected meeting with the pope's carriage in a Roman back street, to a demonstration of the mysteries of omelette making to an admiring Penzance landlady. Most of the liveliness occurs in the earlier letters, however, and even then there is much that could have come from the pen of any Victorian tourist.

Of the great Victorian social debates there is scarcely a vestige. But Collins's response to the world's great events is telling, because they are registered principally for the degree to which they impinged on the fortunes of his books. Thus he laments the "specially disastrous influence" of the Crimean War because, "but for Sebastopol", The Times's review of Hide and Seek "would have appeared some months ago". This particular narrowness of Collins's perspective is decisive for the cumulative character of the letters as a whole.

What calls forth the greatest intensity in his correspondence is the business of being a professional writer. And the business aspect should be stressed, for he has little to say about the author's craft: the only substantial exception is a letter of 1887 "To a Friend", and as this was written for publication, duly appearing in The Globe as "How I Write My Books", it must be considered part of his professional output. But if the letters are unforthcoming on the inner processes of writing, they are voluble on the practicalities of Victorian authorship.

Money, of course, was the core concern. As early as 1849 and Collins's first novel, Antonina , the letters show him a shrewd negotiator of his market value. By 1861, after the storming success of The Woman in White , he could crow to his mother that Smith and Elder had offered for his next novel "Five Thousand Pounds!!!!!! Ha! ha! ha! I shall have got to the top of the tree before forty." Ensuring he stayed there occupied much of the rest of his life, involving not only an incessant output of fiction but a constant vigilance over every aspect of the literary production process. In letters to friends, publishers and lawyers, Collins frets about advertising, over notices before publication and reviews after, about catching the Christmas market; he discusses cover designs and debates the advantages of a uniform edition; he wrangles over the price of his novels on Smith's railway bookstalls, moans about how much more money Mrs Henry Wood has got from East Lynne . And throughout, Collins inveighs against the inadequacies of copyright, unauthorised translations and pirate versions of the fictions on the English stage.

All this hardly constructs the author as hero but it is fascinating material and will be valuable to historians and students alike. Which makes it particularly regrettable that this collection comprises only a third of the total, and the editors' list of the missing two-thirds indicates that many of those omitted relate directly to Collins the author.It is this figure who emerges from the correspondence more distinctly than any other. As for the larger life, the emotional drive and imaginative intensity, that is elsewhere. The letter to Lehmann quoted earlier gets it right: Wilkie Collins's life is in his novels.

Chris Brooks is reader in Victorian culture, University of Exeter.

The Letters of Wilkie Collins: Volume One: 1838-1865 / Volume Two: 1866-1889

Editor - William Baker and William M. Clarke
ISBN - 0312 22343 9 and 22344 7
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £50.00 each volume
Pages - 616

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