WILKIE COLLINS: THE ROMANTICIST OF SCIENCE, article in the American Review of Reviews 1912
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A HALF-CENTURY ago two of the most popular books in England were “The Woman in White” and “No Name.” The former was the book with which Wilkie Collins had leaped into sudden fame, which Thackeray admitted had kept him up all night, and which excited Edward Fitzgerald to the liveliest enthusiasm. Although “Wilkie Collins is not a name to conjure with today,” and “despite the general neglect and detraction of the novelist,” his writings “have won the admiration of such fine judges as Dickens, Thackeray, Charles Reade, Anthony Trollope, Walter Besant, George Meredith, Swinburne, Mr. Thomas Hardy, and Mr. Watts-Dunton.” In the June Bookman (London) Mr. Arthur Compton-Rickett presents what he terms an “apologia for Collins,” which is a well-written and impartial analysis of the works of “a writer of fiction greatly underrated at the present day.”
William Wilkie Collins (to give him his full name) was born in London in 1824, where his father, William Collins, R.A., was a painter of genre. From 1841 to 1846 Wilkie was clerk to a London firm of tea merchants. Later he studied law, and was called to the bar in 1851. While in the London warehouse he wrote a somewhat ponderous historical romance, “Antonina; or the Fall of Rome.” In 1855 he met Dickens, with whom he became intimately associated. It was in All the Year Round, conducted by Dickens that “The Woman in White” first appeared; and to Household Words, also edited by Dickens, Collins contributed many tales including the “After Dark” series. In 1873-74 the novelist visited the United States and gave public readings from his own works. He died in London in 1889.
Mr. Compton-Rickett considers that “until the advent of Wilkie Collins we had no writer of any marked ability who, eschewing the ordinary stage properties of romantic sensationalism, attempted to achieve these particular effects in a setting of contemporary life and manners.” He thus describes how Collins came to “romanticize science” in “The Woman in White”:
This was the era of Spencer, Darwin, and Buckle, and of the critical, analytical spirit which so profoundly influenced Mid-Victorian literature; when in 1858 Spencer's "Essays" rubbed shoulders with George Eliot's “Scenes of Clerical Life"; and when in 1861 there appeared the second volume of Buckle's “Civilization"——and “Evan Harrington." Meanwhile, in 1860, a story-teller in the other camp seems to have said to himself: "Science then is the magic password of the day: poetry is scientific; the character story is scientific; then I, standing for the story of incident, must make that scientific also—to keep up with the times. Very well, I will show them that you can get thrills, as well as analytical psychology, out of Science." And so Wilkie Collins gave us “The Woman in White," which a guileless public swallowed as a straightforward piece of sensational fiction but which was, from one point of view, a nice point in mental pathology placed in a brave romantic setting. Soon afterward he dressed up heredity in fantastic garb in “Armadale”; and, finally, put the finishing touch to his reputation by his famous mystery story, “The Moonstone," in which, after all, the entire tale hinges on the irregular action of a narcotic. It is Science, Science all the way.
Discussing the distinctive characteristics of Collins, Mr. Compton-Rickett notes as the first his technical dexterity as a story-teller.
Collins was as careful about the clarity of his stories as was Tennyson of his poems. He would have no scene, no character, that tended to blur the general effect. No novelist was more fastidious
about the logical presentment of his tales than he. Despite the intricacy of many of his plots; rarely indeed are there any loose ends or superfluous characters. There are numerous byways, but all lead back into the high road again. The complexities are legion, but they have the orderly disorder of an arabesque, not the confusion of a tangled skein.
Another of Collins's characteristics is his subtle sense of dramatic effect. He "excites us not by what he tells us, but by what he does not tell us." The writer of the article in the Bookman goes on to say here:
He creates an atmosphere of fateful drama, and then keeps us on the tip-toe of expectancy for the crisis which arrives, in most cases, quite late in the story—and occasionally, never at all. . . With the ordinary stock in trade of the sensational writer he will have little to do. Murder seldom looms in his stories; of fighting there is next to nothing; hair-breadth escapes interest him but slightly; and out-of-the-way occurrences are few and far between. . . . Eschewing these things on the one hand, and the psychological interest of the character novel on the other, it is surely a signal testimony to his power as a literary artist that he should hold us with such unmistakable enthralment. He is a master of dramatic innuendo; the Sterne of sensationalism. He can thrill you more by the posting of a letter than most of his school can by a lurid murder.
As a third characteristic Mr. Compton-Rickett cites the faculty for pictorial suggestion. With Collins, “scenic effects are no mere background, but an integral part of the story."
Thus the supernatural element in “Armadale” revolves round a series of dream pictures; and even a sunset on the Norfolk Broads and the slanting rain of a passing storm are organic elements in the
plot. The most dramatic scene in “No Name," where the heroine, Magdalen, meditates suicide, is presented in pictorial form—and peculiarly vivid pictorial form. . . . Whatever the subject, rarely
does Collins fail to paint his scene without the telling economy of the genuine artist.
Having achieved a high reputation, “the strain of maintaining it proved too much for the author. Always somewhat of an invalid, his health became worse, and the effort to interest is at times only too obvious.” But, says his critic, “even were we to put aside all the later work and rest Collins’s reputation upon some half-dozen of his early books, there is sufficient here to entitle him to a distinguished place among the novelists of the age. Mr. Thomas Hardy wrote of him:
He probably stands first, in England, as a constructor of novels of complicated action, that depend for their interest on the incidents themselves and not on character. Yet while he was writing
he was scandalously ridiculed by the same critical papers that twenty years afterward praised second rate imitations of his methods.
Of the personality of the novelist, Mr. Watts-Dunton, who knew him very well, says: “He was the sweetest-tempered literary man I have ever met; without a spark of envy in his nature, and modest to a degree.” Not the least tribute to Collins’s powers is to be found in the many imitations that his works have evoked.
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