The 200th anniversary of the birth of Wilkie Collins (1824 -1889), author and great friend of Charles Dickens, fell on 8 January 2024.
In 1855, in a letter to Louis Hachette, a French publisher of novels translated from English, Elizabeth Gaskell writes;
‘there is a young writer, a friend of Mr Dickens’ who is likely to work himself into a good place as a writer of fiction. He takes great pains, and devotes himself to novel-writing, as to a profession. His style is considered very good. I do not much admire his books myself, but many good judges do’.
The young writer is Wilkie Collins Esq. and she puts forward his first three novels Antonina; Or the fall of Rome, Basil (‘detestable‘) and Hide and Seek (‘reckoned very good’).
Elizabeth must have read these three, to enable her to have an opinion about them. Certainly Antonina and Hide and Seek are listed in the borrowings (by William) from the Portico Library, Antonina was borrowed in May 1850, Hide and Seek in both Aug 1854 and in Nov 1861. He also borrowed After Dark (a volume of 6 short stories) in July 1858 and My Miscellanies in May 1864. This was a collection of essays and short stories, which had previously appeared in Household Words and All The Year Round. Perhaps Elizabeth read Basil in Household Words, as it isn’t listed separately.
Wilkie Collins the Writer
Wilkie Collins’ first contribution to Household Words was in 1852, A Terribly Strange Bed is still published in modern anthologies of terror and the supernatural.
Wilkie Collins became best known for his later sensation novels, especially The Woman in White and The Moonstone. He wrote more than twenty other novels and around 100 short stories, as well as a dozen plays and numerous essays and pieces of journalism. It is said that he established many of the ground rules of detective fiction.
He became a close friend and collaborator with Charles Dickens. In May 1851 he acted with Dickens in Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s play Not So Bad As We Seem. In the audience were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Later, in 1856, they collaborated on the play The Frozen Deep, which was performed over three nights in Manchester’s Free Trade Hall as well as London, starring actress Ellen Ternan who became Dickens’ mistress.
For many years Wilkie Collins accompanied Dickens on travels. In 1860 they became related when Collin’s brother Charles married Dickens’ daughter Kate. As far as we know Collins did not visit the Gaskells at Plymouth Grove.
In 1858 the Christmas edition of Household Words published A House to Let, which was a set of short stories written by Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Proctor. Collins wrote the introduction and collaborated with Dickens on the second story, while Elizabeth Gaskell and Adelaide Proctor wrote the remainder. Elizabeth’s chapter in this collection is The Manchester Marriage. The same four writers wrote together again in 1859 The Haunted House which appeared in the Christmas number of All The Year Round.
Wilkie Collins had an unconventional private life, which Elizabeth Gaskell would not have condoned. He disapproved of the institution of marriage and lived for many years with a widow, Caroline Graves. He treated her daughter Harriet as his own and helped provide for her education. He considered Caroline and Harriet as his family, though he also had 3 illegitimate children with a younger woman called Martha Rudd. When he was with Martha, Collins assumed the name William Dawson and she and their children used the surname Dawson themselves. For the last 20 years of his life Collins divided his time between Caroline who lived with him at Gloucester Place and Martha who was nearby.
In 1865 Elizabeth was severely aggravated by Wilkie Collins. She had accepted £2,000 (now over £200,000) for the copyright of Wives and Daughters from the publisher George Smith for his Cornhill magazine. Later she discovered that Collins had been paid £5,000 for Armadale for the same magazine, more than twice as much and harboured a grudge for some time.
In September that year, while shopping for furnishings for the house she was buying in Alton, she availed herself of discounts available through Mr Smith saying ‘I am the less scrupulous since I heard of Wilkie Collins’ £5,000.’
When Dickens died in 1870, Wilkie Collins said of their early years together ‘We saw each other every day and were as fond of each other as men could be’.
During the 1880s, Wilkie’s always delicate health continued to decline. He had a long addiction to opium to ease the symptoms of gout. Breathing difficulties due to heart problems became more common. In January 1889 he was involved in an accident and thrown from a cab by the force of the collision. There followed a severe of attack of bronchitis. He suffered a stroke on 30 June and with further complications died on 23 September 1889.
Wilkie Collins at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House
We are looking for donations of pre-1913 editions of Antonina, Hide and Seek, Basil and After Dark by Wilkie Collins to add to our collection in the Study. If you would like to donate a copy please email the team.
Blog written by Jane Mathieson, Volunteer at Elizabeth Gaskell’s House