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Monday, 6 February 2012


Charles Dickens’s 200th birthday on 7 February 2012 will be just the start of a year of hagiography. But in the past, not everyone revered his work in the way many do today.

His greatest friend, the writer Wilkie Collins, had a more balanced view of it. Some stories he thought brilliant; others he found poor.

We know this from private pencil annotations by Collins in his copy of John Forster’s 1872 biography of Dickens which was sold after his death.1

On the first page of the book, Forster writes

‘Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of the century’

Collins added ‘after Walter Scott’.

Collins never did put Dickens in the top echelon of novelists. That honour he reserved for James Fenimore Cooper, Walter Scott, and HonorĂ© de Balzac whom in 1883 and 1884 he called ‘the three Kings of Fiction’ and of those Walter Scott was ‘King, Emperor, President, and God Almighty of novelists’.2

His annotations then turn to individual Dickens books.

Oliver Twist – ‘the one defect in that wonderful book is the helplessly bad construction of the story. The character of “Nancy” is the finest thing he ever did. He never afterwards saw all the sides of a woman’s character – saw all round her. That the same man who could create “Nancy” created the second Mrs Dombey is the most incomprehensible anomaly that I know of in literature.’

Barnaby Rudge – ‘...the weakest book that Dickens ever wrote.’

Martin Chuzzlewit – ‘Chuzzlewit (in some respects the finest novel he ever wrote) delighted his readers and so led to a large sale of the next book, Dombey.’

Dombey and Son – ‘...the latter half of Dombey no intelligent person can have read without astonishment at the badness of it.’

David Copperfield – ‘incomparably superior to Dombey’

The Mystery of Edwin Drood – ‘...cruel to compare Dickens in the radiant prime of his genius (referring to Oliver Twist) with Dickens’s last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn-out brain.’

Collins was asked to finish Drood but ‘positively refused’, though rumours persisted that he had.3 In response to one he complained that the conclusion was ‘an outrage offered to Dickens’s reputation to associate his great name with rubbish which is utterly unworthy of it’.4

Apart from these private annotations, in 1860 Collins called A Tale of Two Cities ‘the most perfect work of constructive art that has ever proceeded from his pen.’ 5

And in a letter in 1854 describes Dickens’s contribution to the Christmas number The Seven Poor Travellers as ‘a noble, an exquisite story’.6

Collins was asked to write a biography of Dickens, an offer he also refused. In 1886 he wrote in a letter to one would-be biographer

‘He more than once expressed to me his dislike of being presented to public curiosity by means of “pen-portraits”, and his desire to be only known to the great world of readers after his death by his books.’7

A lesson for the many biographers clamouring for our attention in 2012.
NOTES – references to letters are to The Public Face of Wilkie Collins - The Collected Letters 2005 and its seven supplements. The [numbers] are assigned by the editors.
1. The annotated volume was sold by Puttick and Simpson on 22 January 1890 but its location is now unknown. The notes were recorded in Pall Mall Gazette, 20 January 1890.
2. See Wilkie’s letters [2182] to Miss R 12 July 1883, [2304] to Paul Hamilton Hayne, 3 May 1884, and [2102] to William Winter, 14 January 1883.
3. [3185] to George Barnett Smith, 4 December 1878.
4. [1831] to Georgina Hogarth, 18 March 1879.
5. From the preface to The Woman in White London 1860.
6. [0188] to Edward Pigott, 18 December 1854.
7. [2598] to Frederick Kitton, 2 August 1886