[from Hall Caine My Story]
" Now let me think of the next book that you will write," he said, " and let me own frankly where I see some room for improvement in what the painters call ' treatment of the subject.' When you next take up your pen, will you consider a little whether your tendency to dwell on what is grotesque and violent in human character does not require some discipline ? Look again at 'The Deemster' and at some of the qualities and modes of thought attributed to his nephew ' Dan.'
"Again, your power as a writer sometimes misleads you, as I think, into forgetting the value of contrast. The picture which your story presents of terror and grief wants relief. Individually and collectively, there is variety in the human lot. We are no more continuously wretched than we are continuously happy. Next time I want more of the humour which breaks out so delightfully in old ' Quilleash.' . . . Those breaks of sunshine in your splendid cloudy sky will be truer pictures of nature-and will certainly enlarge the number of your admiring readers. Look at two of the greatest of tragic stories, ' Hamlet' and ' The Bride of Lammermoor,' and see how Shakespeare and Scott take every opportunity of presenting contrasts, and brightening the picture at the right place.
" I believe you have not even yet written your best book, and here you have the proof of my sincerity."
I did not know Wilkie Collins long, but I knew him well. He had written saying that I should be welcome to call upon him, but must be prepared to find him suffering the domestic agonies of moving from one place of abode to another.
" If you don't object to a room without a carpet or a curtain, I can declare myself still possessed of a table and two chairs, pen and ink, cigars, and brandy-and-water, and I should be delighted to see you."
I found him in the heart of London, for he was then living in Gloucester Place. The house was large and rather dingy. The walls were panelled, the stairs were of stone, the hall was cold, and the whole house cheerless. The door had been answered by a man-servant, whose nervousness and diffidence told a long story in advance of the habits of close retirement observed by the master I had come to see. On the walls of the room that I was shown into hung pictures of the greatest interest. There was an etching of Dickens, that I had never seen anywhere else, showing a healthier and handsomer face than the one familiar to the public, without any signs either of the days of " Hungerford Market" or of the death's hand that lay heavy on it at the last. Then there was a portrait of Collins himself in the earliest years of his manhood, boyish, even girlish, almost childlike in its simple expression, and with the forehead that belonged to Collins alone-round, protrusive, and overhanging heavily. There was another portrait of the author by Millais, and a photograph by Sarony of New York, representing Collins when the boyish face was half-hidden by an abundant beard, and the youthful head had ' grown leonine.
I had first seen Wilkie some years before, when he was pointed out to me by Rossetti. It was on one of our melancholy drives for fresh air and exercise, through the streets and parks of London, usually with the windows of the carriage up, and the poet thrust back into the corner of the carriage, behind the folds of his Inverness cape and under the shadow of his broad - brimmed hat, pulled low over his face. The hidden eyes that missed nothing saw a figure that they recognised walking past us on the footpath.
" That must be Wilkie Collins," said Rossetti ; and I looked and saw a small, elderly man, greyhaired and grey-bearded, large-eyed and lionheaded, round-shouldered and stooping heavily. That was my first glimpse of Collins, and swift as it was it left its vivid impression, so that when he came into the room to welcome me I remembered in a moment that I had seen him before.
But he had grown feebler in the interval, paler in the face, and more flabby. His eyes at that time were large and protuberant, and they had the vague and dreamy look that is sometimes seen in the eyes of the blind. Perhaps I should come near to giving the right impression if I were to add that the expression of Collins's eyes at this period of his life was that of a man to whom chloroform had just been administered. They fixed my attention instantly, and Collins saw that it was so. Perhaps he suspected that I read their strange look by the light of my experience with Rossetti ; perhaps he was loath to trust me then as he trusted me later ; but before we had been talking long, he interrupted the conversation, and said
"I see that you can't keep your eyes off my eyes, and I ought to say that I've got gout in them, and that it is doing its best to blind me."
I found him a good and animated talker, never spontaneous but always vigorous and right. His voice was full and of even quality ; a good voice, not at all a great one. In manner he was quiet, a little nervous, and not prone to much gesture. He sat, while he talked, with his head half down, and his eyes usually on the table ; but he looked into one's face from time to time, and then his gaze was steady and encouraging, and one never felt for a moment that his eye was upon one. .
Indeed, without being the most " magnetic " of men, Collins was a man to set one at one's ease, to get the best out of one, to send one away with a comfortable feeling towards oneself ; and yet a man with a proper sense of personal dignity. You never knew it for dignity, and that was exactly where its strength lay. The same large grasp of fact and command of detail which one found in the novels one found in the novelist. If his conversation was not luminous and large, if his outlook on life was not wide, if his horizon was not far away, neither were they little and narrow and near. His insight was sure, his memory unfailing, and his invention strong.
At that first meeting we talked on many subjects. I remember that I wanted information on the copyright law, for the plot of one of my novels had been taken by some dramatic thief, and I had a mind to fight him. Collins was very full, very precise, and very emphatic on that subject, having paid bitterly for special knowledge over two of his own stories, " The Woman in White" and " The New Magdalen." He was quite sure that I had not a leg to stand on, though of course he joined his wail with mine over the iniquitous law that recognised a copyright in words and none in ideas.
Then we talked of French writers, and he said something that I cannot remember of how he met with Victor Hugo, whose plays, no less than his novels, he admired. But the older Dumas among French novelists was clearly the god of his idolatry, and "The Three Musketeers" was his ideal of a great story. He had been many times in the way of meeting Dumas, but had never done so. Then he talked of Scott, whom he valued beyond words of appraisement, thinking "The Bride of Lammermoor" the greatest of all prose tragedies. Something he said, too, of Dickens, but only in the character of a near and dear friend, with a perceptible sinking of the soft voice and a noticeable melting of the gentle eyes. Charles Reade was also mentioned in relation to a memoir that had then been lately published, and the impression left with me was that the rougher side of Reade's character had never been seen by Collins except as the whole world saw it in the squabbles of the newspapers.
I seem to have dwelt too long on this first interview, but, indeed, it was the type of many interviews that followed it. I consulted him on schemes for novels, and discussed with him the structure of several of my stories. He was always kindly, always alert, always enthusiastic, always capable of entering into the hopes and aims of a younger literary colleague.
His letters were as full of pith as his conversation. Nothing appeared in them more frequently than his boyish delight in his work. It was not done easily, but with great and often grievous labour-labour of conception, of construction, and of repeated writing and re-writing-and yet he held to it, clung to it, and when torn from it by sickness, he returned to it in health with the fiercest eagerness of the literary aspirant. Never was authorship less of a trade to any author, though he was a competent business man, and knew how to make the most of his market. To write stories was a passion to him, and he was as much a slave to it when he was beginning the story which he left unfinished at his death as he had been five-and-twenty years earlier, before fame had come to him or fortune was within his grasp.
Wilkie had many good stories, and he told them well. His style was quiet but emphatic, precise and perhaps slow, the points cumulative in their effect, most carefully led up to, and ending always in complete success. The pistol never missed fire when Wilkie pulled the trigger. His memory was strong, and his store of good things was plentiful.
Some of his stories concerned his own novels and their readers, and I recall one of them that relates to "The Woman in White." Immediately after the production of that book, when all England was admiring the arch-villainy of the " Fosco," the author received a letter from a lady who has since figured very largely in the public view. She congratulated him upon his success with somewhat icy cheer, and then said, "But, Mr. Collins, the great failure of your book is your villain. Excuse me if I say, you really do not know a villain. Your Count Fosco is a very poor one, and when next you want a character of that description I trust that you will not disdain to come to me. I know a villain, and have one in my eye at this moment that would far eclipse anything that I have ever read of in books. Don't think that I am drawing upon my imagination. The man is alive and constantly under my gaze. In fact he is my own husband." The lady was the wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton.
Mention of "The Woman in White" reminds me of a story which I may, or may not, have heard from Wilkie's own lips. After the story had been written and the time had come to begin its serial publication, a title had not yet been found. A story could not be published without a title, but neither the author nor his friends could hit on one that seemed suitable. Dickens had been appealed to and had failed. So had Forster, who was prolific in good titles. Wilkie was in despair. The day was approaching when the story must begin in All the Year Round. So one day the novelist took himself off to Broadstairs, determined not to return until a title had been found. He walked for hours along the cliff between Kingsgate and what is called Bleak House ; he smoked a case of cigars, but all to no purpose ; then, vexed and much worn by the racking of his brains, he threw himself on the grass as the sun went down. He was facing the North Foreland Lighthouse, and half in bitter jest, half unconsciously, he began to apostrophise it thus
"You are ugly and stiff and awkward; you know you are as stiff and as weird as my white woman-white woman-woman in white-the title, by Jove ! "
It was done ; a title had been hit upon, and the author went back to London delighted.
The idea of the white woman was suggested by a letter from some unknown correspondent, asking him to interest himself in some real or supposed wrongful incarceration in a lunatic asylum. About the same time he came upon an old French trial (he had many French " Newgate Calendars ") turning upon a question of substitution of persons, and so it struck him that a substitution effected by help of a lunatic asylum would afford a good central idea. He wrote the book and was quite exhausted at the end of it. So he made arrangements for its publication in library form, and went away for a long holiday in a place at some distance where letters could not reach him.
When he returned home he found his desk piled mountain-high with letters from correspondents, and newspapers containing reviews. Also he found his mother (he was still living under the parental roof) in great distress over the severity with which the book had been handled in the press. "Well," he said, "let us see." So he read the reviews first. They were nearly all as bad as it was possible for the good critics to make them. Then he read the letters, and they brimmed over with eulogy.
"Now," thought Wilkie, " this teaches me a lesson. These letters are nearly all from total strangers, and may be said to represent in some measure the opinion of the general public. These reviews are by professional writers, some of them my intimate friends. Either the public is right and the press wrong, or the press is right and the public is wrong. Time will tell. If the public turns out to be right, I will never trust the press again."
Thus he waited for the verdict of time, and it seemed to come confidently enough. The end of it was that Collins lost all faith in review articles, and went the length of grievously undervaluing their effect on public opinion.
His life was almost that of a hermit. During the last two or three years he went out very little-rarely or never to the theatre, and only once or twice to a dinner. With all the surroundings of an invalid, he had quite a morbid terror of being written about as a dying man. "My heart is not affected," he would say, " and there is nothing amiss with me but what they call stomachic nervousness."
One day, towards the beginning of 1888, I called upon him in great excitement about a difference I had just had with a friend with whom I was trying to collaborate. I wished him to adjudicate in the dispute, and he cordially undertook to do so. " State the clifficulty," he said ; and I stated it with much fulness. He stopped me again and again-repeated, questioned, and commented. Two hours went by like ten minutes. We were sitting in Wilkie's workshop, with proofs of his current work everywhere about us. The point was a knotty one, and a serious issue seemed involved in it. Wilkie was much worried.
" My brain is not very clear," he said once or twice, taking a turn across the room. Presently, and as if by a sudden impulse, he opened a cabinet, and took out a wine-glass and what seemed to be a bottle of medicine. " I'm going to show you one of the secrets of my prisonhouse," he said with a smile, and then he poured from the bottle a full wine-glass of a liquid resembling port wine. " Do you see that ?" he asked. " It's laudanum." And straightway he drank it off.
" Good heavens, Wilkie Collins! " I said, "how long have you taken that drug ? "
"Twenty years," he answered. " More than once a day ? "
" Oh yes, much more. Don't be alarmed. Remember that De Quincey used to drink laudanum out of a jug."
Then he told me a story, too long to repeat, of how a man-servant of his had killed himself by taking less than half of one of his doses.
" Why do you take it ? " I asked.
"To stimulate the brain and steady the nerves." " And you think it does that ? "
" Undoubtedly," and laughing a little at my consternation, he turned back to the difficult subject I had come to discuss. "I'll see it clearer now. Let us begin again," he said.
"Wait," I said. "You say, my dear Wilkie, that the habit of taking laudanum stimulates your brain and steadies your nerves. Has it the same effect on other people?"
" It had on Bulwer Lytton," answered Collins. "He told me so himself."
" Well, then, Wilkie Collins," I said, "you know how much I suffer from nervous exhaustion. Do you advise me to use this drug?"
He paused, changed colour slightly, and then said quietly, "No."
The last time I saw Collins he was in great spirits and full of the "Reminiscences" that he intended to write. He talked of all his old friends with animation, the friends of his youth, all gone, the old familiar faces" ; and there was less than usual of the dull undertone of sadness that had so often before conveyed the idea of a man who felt that he had strutted too long on his little stage. He enjoyed his wine and some old brandy that came after it, and a couple of delicious little cigars of a new brand which he loudly recommended. The more serious questions of literature and morality were all banished, and yarn followed yarn. I can only remember a single sad note in his conversation, and it was ominous. He was talking of Dickens, and I think he said he had been engaged to visit at Gad's Hill on the very day that Dickens died.
A few days later, Wilkie Collins wrote inviting me to lunch, but naming no particular day. I was to go what day I liked, only remembering to send a telegram two or three hours in advance. So one Sunday morning I wrote a letter telling him that I meant to visit him the following day, and asking him for a telegram to say if the time would do. Instead of Wilkie's telegram there came a message from his affectionate adopted daughter, saying that on the previous morning he had been struck down with paralysis.
He may have had his weaknesses-I know of very few. He may have had his sins-I never heard tell of any. He was loyal and brave, and sweet and unselfish. He had none of the vices of the literary character, none at least that ever revealed themselves to me. In the cruel struggle for livelihood that depends on fame he injured no man. He lived his own life, and was beloved by his own people.
I have quoted from Wilkie Collins's letters several passages which show that he could be a severe if wholesome critic ; and now, in conclusion, I will not allow myself to be restrained by any fear of a charge of immodesty from quoting one passage which shows how splendidly generous he could also be
"You have written a remarkable work of fiction - a powerful and pathetic story-the characters vividly conceived and set in motion with a master-hand. Within the limits of a letter I cannot quote a tenth part of the passages which have seized on my interest and admiration. As one example among many others I should like to quote, let me mention the chapters that describe the fishermen taking the dead body out to sea in the hope of concealing the murder. The motives ascribed to the men and the manner in which they express themselves show a knowledge of human nature which places you among the masters of our craft, and a superiority to temptations to conventional treatment which no words can praise too highly. For a long time past I have read nothing in contemporary fiction that approaches what you have done here. I have read the chapters twice, and if I know anything about our art, I am sure of what I say."
It would be difficult to say how much good this letter did me when I read it first. Wilkie Collins was then at the height of his fame and prosperity ; and his correspondent was a beginner, living in two small rooms in the roof on the fourth floor of New Court, Lincoln's Inn.