Monday, January 30, 2017

A Celebration of Wilkie Collins, 1902 Article

A Celebration of Wilkie Collins, article in The Speaker 1902

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IN his recently published biography of Dickens, Mr. F. G. Kitton, referring to Edwin Drood, mentions the report that Wilkie Collins had undertaken to complete the work which Dickens left unfinished. An older generation may remember that the reputation of Collins then stood so high that the rumour was not dismissed as preposterous. It was considered that he possessed qualifications fitting him well for the task. Perhaps no contemporary writer was better acquainted with Dickens’s method of work, or in stronger sympathy with his instinct for melodrama and “intensity.” The two had collaborated more than once-—with astonishing success, if the object aimed at was to ignore the characteristics of each. Wilkie Collins explained how the thing was done. The plot decided upon, they wrote their respective portions side by side, and each inserted passages in the chapters of the other, with the result that this arrangement deprived the passages so treated of their Dickens or Collins flavour, and rendered, as Wilkie Collins said, discovery of the exact nature of the collaboration difficult, if not impossible. It was a diversion that pleased them both; but the wonder cannot be suppressed that Dickens was so willing to sacrifice his individuality. Wilkie Collins left Edwin Drood alone, of course. That his name should ever have been associated with it was absurd. He himself never had any intention of laying his hand upon the magician’s work, but the collaboration left distinct and definite traces upon his own style, more particularly in minor characterisations.

Literary fashions are almost as changeable as fashions in dress, and Wilkie Collins is to-day out of fashion. True, many of his novels have acquired the fame of the sixpenny edition. But his is not a name to conjure with, and if reference is ever made to him, it is as the producer of sensational novels of a type which long ago lost its freshness. Mr. Guy Boothby is, no doubt, regarded by many as his lineal successor, possibly as an improvement upon him. Every decade has its host of sensational writers. Wilkie Collins was only a sensational writer; he has had his vogue, and is known no more.

Is this attitude towards him right? Is it just to look upon him as the inventor of ingenious “shockers" and nothing better? A fair consideration of the score of novels from his pen cannot but result in the conclusion that Wilkie Collins is entitled to a place among the writers of his country much higher than has yet been granted him. He is in many respects a great novelist. In his best books there is an insight into character, intensity of imagination, a wealth of ingenuity, humour, and a compelling interest, that no modern worker in the same department of fiction possesses. The books produced towards the end of his life are curiously unequal, but who can deny the extraordinary merit of The Woman in White, The Moonstone, Armadale, of the short stories of After Dark? Anyone unfamiliar with Wilkie Collins should read A Terrible Strange Bed, in the After Dark volume. In that-—surely one of the finest short stories in the language—-nearly all his qualities are exhibited, on a small scale. A drugged man lying on a bed which has a heavy tester, a picture of a cavalier wearing a hat with three plumes-—the materials are simple, but they are treated with masterly skill.

Reading the story, we are reminded of Edgar Allan Poe. The drugged man, preternaturally excited by an overdose of the opiate, is alone in the room; there is only the picture to arrest his attention. The feathers in the gallant hat have a strange fascination for him. He watches them. After a while he fancies there is a difference in them. One of them is not so plain to view as at first; part of it has disappeared. How has this happened? As he endeavours to explain the matter to himself, the second feather alters; and ultimately the third. Then the truth flashes upon him; the tester is sinking, so slowly, so noiselessly, that had he slept its descent would not have wakened him; and its quiet, remorseless fall blots out the picture. At first, paralysed with fright, he can only stare stupidly at the descending death. Then, with an effort, he rolls from the bed; and so just escapes being crushed to death. There is a horror in this story that never degenerates into repulsiveness; an eeriness that holds the reader as spell-bound under the sliding terror as the intended victim.

The Moonstone has been called the best detective story ever written. It is, at once, much more and much less than that. The detective part of it is not only secondary, but, on the whole, ineffective. Sergeant Cuff is an admirable figure, but he is beaten in a way that would have shamed Sherlock Holmes. The power of the story lies in the suggestion of mystery, wonderfully sustained. The unaccountable disappearance of the diamond; the feeling of hostile influences around the chief persons of the story; the way in which the various points of view are expressed by Wilkie Collins’s favourite method-—not then out worn-—often trusting the telling of the tale to first one, then another of the characters—-these are the elements which give the novel its attractiveness. The story does not stand or fall by the complexity of its machinery; it has the interest of character. The heroine is excellently sketched, and there is real pathos in Rosanna Spearman and the luckless doctor‘s assistant who is successful in unravelling the many-sided puzzle. But it is in The Woman in White that we find Wilkie Collins’s greatest triumph in characterisation. The book grips one from the start; the touch of a hand laid slightly and suddenly on the shoulder of Walter Hartright as he was walking home from Hampstead at night thrills the reader as it thrilled him. We are held in the bonds of the mystery throughout. But even more than in the story are we interested in Count Fosco, a creation or which the greatest novelist might be proud. There is not a false touch in the conception. A magnificent, terrible villain, who yet cultivates the courtesies of life, the love of the arts, and has a true tenderness for his white mice and his canaries—he reminds us of the dark chronicles of the Latin race, of the suave criminals of fifteenth century Italy. Armadale is, perhaps, Wilkie Collins’s maturest work. In no other of his novels do we find the same ease, deftness of execution, and sureness of touch in dealing with his men and women. The fascinating adventuress Miss Gwilt——a near relation of Becky Sharp’s-—the country solicitor, Pedgift, Senior, and the easy-going "hero," Allan Armadale—-these present three distinct types, each drawn with equal power and fidelity to life. Allan Armadale, especially, is worthy of George Eliot.

Mr. Hardy holds that modern writers have no story to tell. Wilkie Collins had, and knew well how to tell it. He, like the Ancient Mariner, holds the reader with his glittering eye from first to last. So potent is his power that even in those stories that are not his best one is compelled to read on. His methods are not the methods of to-day--but the admission is not a condemnation, and many a modern novelist, who sneers at his technique, might, if he would, learn a much-needed lesson from Wilkie Collins. Though his imagination had a strain of that feverishness which Taine fancied he detected in Dickens, yet it was entirely devoid of offence. In his writing there is none of the spiritual clamminess that pervades the writing of Poe. Though in his books “horrors upon horrors’ head accumulate," the tone is absolutely healthy, the trend clean and wholesome. Collins had a full sense of the responsibility attaching to a writer of fiction-—especially the class of fiction in which he was an expert. And when many of the popular writers of to-day are buried in the limbo of oblivion, the name of Wilkie Collins will, we venture to think, survive as the representative of a school of fiction which has boasted numerous craftsmen, but few masters. - Alpha

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