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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
William Wilkie Collins (1824–1889)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WILKIE COLLINS has proved that the charm of a story does not necessarily depend upon the depiction of character or an appeal to the sympathies. As he said:—“I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of a work of fiction should be to tell a story.” He also aspired to draw living men and women, in which he was less successful. Count Fosco, Miss Gwilt, Armadale, Laura Fairlie, and others, are indeed distinct; but the interest centers not on them but on the circumstances in which they are involved. This is the main reason why the critics, even in admiring his talent, speak of Collins with faint depreciation, as certainly not one of the greatest novelists of the century, although holding a place of his own which forces recognition. For novel-readers have delighted in his many volumes in spite of the critics, and there is a steady demand for the old favorites. Translated into French, Italian, Danish, and Russian, many of them continue to inspire the same interest in foreign lands.  1
  Wilkie Collins, born January 8th, 1824, did not show any special precocity in boyhood and youth. He probably learned much more from his self-guided reading than from his schooling at Highbury, especially after his acquisition of French and Italian during two years in Italy in his early teens. The influences about him were strongly artistic. His father, William Collins, was distinguished as a landscape painter. The well-known portrait painter Mrs. Carpenter was his aunt, and the distinguished Scotch artist David Wilkie his godfather. But human action and emotion interested him more than art. He was very young when he expressed a desire to write, and perpetrated blank verse which justified his father in vigorous opposition to his adoption of authorship as a profession. So, his school days ended, he presented the not unusual figure of a bright young Englishman who must earn his bread, yet had no particular aptitude for doing it. He tried business first, and became articled clerk with a City house in the tea trade. But the work was uncongenial; and after a few unsatisfactory years he fell in with his father’s views, and was entered at Lincoln’s Inn and in due time admitted to the bar, although he never practiced law.  2
  He continued writing for amusement, however, producing sketches and stories valuable as training. On his father’s death he prepared a biography of that artist in two volumes (1848), which was considered a just as well as a loving appreciation. His first novel, however, was rejected by every publisher to whom he submitted it. His second, ‘Antonina,’ a story of the fall of Rome, was mediocre. He was about twenty-six when he met Charles Dickens, then a man of forty, at the height of his fame, and with the kindliest feeling for younger writers still struggling for recognition. Dickens, whose own work was always prompted by sympathetic intuition, and to whom character development came more easily than ingenious plots, cordially admired Collins’s skill in devising and explaining the latter. He invited the younger man to become collaborator upon Household Words, and thus initiated a warm friendship which lasted until his own death. Encouraged by him, Collins essayed drama and wrote ‘The Light-House,’ played at Gadshill by distinguished amateurs, Dickens himself among them. At first thought, his would seem an essentially dramatic talent, and several of his novels have been successfully dramatized. But the very cleverness and intricacy of his situations make them unsuited to the stage. They are too difficult of comprehension to be taken in at a glance by an average audience, in the swift passage of stage action.  3
  It was also the influence of Dickens which inspired Collins to attempt social reform. In ‘Man and Wife’ he tries to show the injustice of Scotch marriage laws; in ‘The New Magdalen,’ the possible regeneration of fallen women; in ‘Heart and Science,’ the abuses of vivisection; and other stories are incumbered with didactic purpose. Mr. Swinburne comments upon this aspect of his career in a jocular couplet—
  “What brought good Wilkie’s genius nigh perdition?
Some demon whispered, ‘Wilkie! have a mission!’”
  4
  But in all “tendency” novels it is not the discussion of problems that makes them live; and Wilkie Collins, like others, survives by purely literary qualities. Soon after his death the critic of the Spectator gave the following capable summary of his peculiar method:—
          “He was a literary chess player of the first force, with power of carrying his plan right through the game and making every move tell. His method was to introduce a certain number of characters, set before them a well-defined object, such as the discovery of a secret, the re-vindication of a fortune, the tracking of a crime, or the establishment of a doubted marriage, and then bring in other characters to resist or counterplot their efforts. Each side makes moves, almost invariably well-considered and promising moves; the counter-moves are equally good; the interest goes on accumulating till the looker-on—the reader is always placed in that attitude—is rapt out of himself by strained attention; and then there is a sudden and totally unexpected mate. It is chess which is being played; and in the best of all his stories, the one which will live for years,—‘The Moonstone,’—the pretense that it is anything else is openly disregarded.”
  5
  This analysis however must not be too narrowly construed, as petty critics often do, to mean that the only interest in Mr. Collins’s novels is that of disentangling the plot. If this were so, no one would read them more than once; while in fact the best of them are eminently readable again and again. This shallow judgment evidently galled the novelist himself, and ‘The New Magdalen’ in one aspect was a throwing-down of the gauntlet to the critics; for in it he tells the plot page by page, almost paragraph by paragraph, as he goes along, and even far in advance of the story, yet it is one of the most fascinating of his novels. He proved that he could do admirably what they said he could not do at all—make people read his story with breathless absorption when they knew its end long before they came to it; and it was as interesting backward as forward. ‘No Name’ is in some sort a combination of the two methods,—a revelation of the end, with perpetual interest in the discovery of means.  6
  ‘The Moonstone’ and ‘The Woman in White’ are unquestionably his masterpieces. In both he throws light upon a complex plot by means of his favorite expedient of letters and diaries written by different characters, who thus take the reader into their confidence and bewilder him with conflicting considerations, until the author comes forward with an ingenious and lucid solution. ‘The Moonstone,’ however, is immensely superior in matter even to its fellow; its plot is better (in one place ‘The Woman in White’ comes to a dead wall which the author calmly ignores and goes on), and some passages are worth reading over and over for pure pathos or description. Mr. Collins was in fact, aside from his special gift, a literary artist of no mean power, even if not the highest: with an eye for salient effects, a skill in touching the more obvious chords of emotion, a knowledge of life and books, that enrich his stories with enough extraneous wealth to prolong their life for many years, and some of them perhaps for generations.  7
 
 
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