Wilkie Collins: And His Mantle
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
Wilkie Collins: And His Mantle
Happening the other day to be laid aside by one of those troublesome ailments in which complete relaxation of mind is necessary to the convalescence of body, I was in want of something easy and interesting to read. My own books are collected principally with a view to my own work, and limited in number by the narrow walls of an "exiguous study,"—
- Non ebur neque aureum
- Mea renidet in domo lacunar;
so the local suburban library had to be called to our aid, a library which, although it boasts itself as established "in connection with Mudie's," has rarely any publication later than the "remainders" of three years ago. I have had experience of that library, and
know what to expect. "Get me a Wilkie Collins," I said; "anything except 'The Woman in White,' 'The Moonstone,' or 'Man and Wife.'" which, indeed, I know pretty well by heart. Willing hands were immediately at work on my behalf among the tattered covers, and a faded, three-volume Wilkie Collins was soon beside my pillow.
It was not a good example of his work; indeed it was a very poor one. It was dated in the last year of his life, and so belonged very probably to that period in which, so I have been told, the pens of kindly companions helped his failing vigor to keep pace with the demands of the market. You saw at every turn the evidence of the faltering hand. Here was a passage of coarse melodrama, crude and glaring; here a situation was repeated shamelessly from one of his earlier successes, "with the bloom off," the savor wasted. The general impression left upon the mind, when the book was finished, was one of a mild melancholy; for, after all, what sadder spectacle is there in the literary life than that of a once spirited talent which has exhausted its resources, but is still compelled to recoin its imagination for the necessities of existence? Yes, these last books of Wilkie Collins were evolved in a faded twilight of his genius; and yet, criticize this one as I might, the fact remained that it had certainly held me captive through its three volumes of ingenious repetition; and that, whatever its faults of construction and of "body," it had the one saving and redeeming grace of fiction, the power of human interest. And, putting it aside, I was led into a comparison between Wilkie Collins and his successors, was led even to wonder whether, in his own particular line, he has any adequate follower at all. Those of us whose daily duties necessitate a double estimate of literary work — the commercial as well as the artistic — are apt to fall into the habit of our profession, and to ask ourselves, after reading a book, new or old, "What should I have thought of that book if it had come to me in manuscript? What would be its chances were it published as a new book to day?" And applying these questions to this forgotten novel of fourteen years ago, I was bound to confess, first, that I should have spoken very warmly of the manuscript if it had borne an unknown name; and, second, that so far as my judgment goes, the story, if published to-day as the work of a new writer, would have found the critics of the daily press eagerly enthusiastic, and would have had every chance of a considerable commercial success. And yet it was a poor example of Wilkie Collins's work. I wonder whether we quite realize how good that work was?
I propounded these ideas to a friend; but he had little sympathy. "Wilkie Collins without a successor? Look at Conan Doyle! Have you read 'The Hound of the Baskervilles?' " I had not, but I now have; and my first impression is not greatly shaken. One hears wonderful things, from a publisher's point of view, about "The Hound of the Baskervilles," and one is in no way surprised to hear them. For it is a story of great ingenuity; precisely the sort of story to compel the reader to pursue the serial; and even the hardened student of Sherlock Holmes will be hard put to it to tell the eventual catastrophe. Further than that, there is in the general picture and background of the moor, a suggestion of atmosphere which one had not before expected in Dr. Doyle; there is real feeling here, with a trace of grim power and of reserved strength. But put "The Hound of the Baskervilles" over against "The Moonstone," and I think my friend must reconsider the inheritance of the mantle of Wilkie Collins! It happens that the two stories are rather uncommonly suited for comparison, and particularly so in regard to that environment which we have already noted down to Dr. Doyle's credit account. We have here the Grimpen Mire, and there the Shivering Sand, and the uses to which the two are put are, for the purposes of fiction, curiously similar. But how incomparably the advantage is with Collins! The nervous, sensitive touch with which he treats Rosanna Spearman's secret haunt invests the place with the true spirit of mystery; he suggests rather than defines, and the suggestion palpitates with vague horror. Speaking for myself I can get no such "thrill" from the Grimpen Mire.
Rank weeds and lush, slimy water plants sent an odor of decay and a heavy miasmatic vapor into our faces, while a false step plunged us more than once thigh deep into the dark, quivering mire, which shook for yards in soft undulations at our feet. The tenacious grip plucked at our feet as we walked, and when we sank into it it was as if some malignant hand were tugging us down into those obscene depths, so grim and purposeful was the clutch in which it held us.
Every one has his own weird; for my part this passage leaves my withers unwrung. To my own imagination nothing could be less like the sucking inhalation of the moor than this figure of a malignant hand with a purposeful grasp. The simile has the air of a convention, and Collins at any rate never dealt in conventions.
"I have read the first three numbers of Wilkie's story," wrote Dickens of "The Moonstone," "it is a very curious story, wild and yet domestic, with excellent character in it and great mystery. It is prepared with extraordinary care." Dickens, if any man, knew the secret of effect in his art, and in this off-hand comment to Wills, he has put his finger upon the very pulse of Collins's workmanship. "It is prepared with extraordinary care;" alas! we do not find such elaboration in the detective story nowadays.
The first few chapters of "The Hound of the Baskervilles" are constructed as though the story were to be thrice the length, and then the whole thing is dragged together with a jerk that throws it altogether off its balance. "It is wild, and yet domestic, with excel lent character in it;" there is the whole differentiation. Collins possessed an almost unique talent for conveying the atmosphere of mystery into the very heart of a commonplace, English home, and many of its most uncanny characters, Rosanna Spearman, old Mrs. Catherick and Hester Dethridge are figures of the ordinary servant class, whom we might expect to encounter any morning in the corridor of a country house. But his great strength lies in the fact that every person in his drama is a real character. In this he had great advantage in the contemporary example of Dickens, whom he often deliberately imitated. But, while without Dickens's opulence, he is also without his exaggeration, and his novels present a long gallery of portraits, which deserve, I think, to live with all but the best of English fiction. This faculty helped him immensely in giving interest to his rather piece meal method of construction; his various "narratives" are full of the lively and varied personalities of the narrators. When Dr. Doyle's Dr. Watson has to take up his parable and report to Holmes, we get a merely colorless and perfunctory precis; but when Miss Clack recounts the nobility of Mr. Godfrey Ablewhite, we are entertained with the endless diversity of an intensely entertaining individuality. Finally. I shall never be brought to confess that Sherlock Holmes himself is more than the skeleton of Sergeant Cuff.
It is a poor form of eulogy that praises its predilections at the expense of another's gods, and I hasten to make my peace with Dr. Conan Doyle's vast and well-won company of admirers. Indeed, why not? For I am myself among them, and have enjoyed "The Hound of the Baskervilles" with the best. But I have chosen Dr. Doyle as being by far the best of Collins's successors, and, putting their works side by side, I confess that I am jealous of the reputation of Wilkie Collins, who in these days of laudatores temporis acti seems to me to have been passed over with but a portion of his posthumous credit. I should like to see, for example, a good library edition of his works, well illustrated and worthily bound. Or, perhaps, I should say an edition of the best of his works, to be selected by his literary executor in consultation with his publishers, for one must end by remembering what one noticed at the start, that he had to write too long and too regularly. The best of him, however, is in its own line quite unrivalled by his successors, as it was unsurpassed by his contemporaries. It has no literary affectations, to be sure; and those critics who can believe nothing to be worth saying unless it be said through a web of involution and verbiage, may perhaps object that he lacked "distinction." Possibly that may be so; but he had, at any rate, almost every other literary virtue. He wrote clear, natural English, with a remarkable sense of effect; and when he was in his prime he secured that effect without relinquishing his hold upon a certain manly dignity; he was impressively mysterious without being melodramatic or tawdry. And there are characters in his books to whom one wishes to return, characters which could only have been drawn by a hand that moved at the dictate of a' mind inspired by very broad and humane sympathies. Gabriel Betteredge, poring over "Robinson Crusoe;" Fosco twittering to his white mice; Anne in the Scotch inn in the storm of mist; the new Magdalen in the hospital tent; the old nobleman shivering over his papers in the icy hall; the rival lovers face to face upon the arctic floe; these and many others make up a company that is hardly to be matched in modern popular fiction. "They don't write such books now," says the old man in the chimney corner, as he turns over with lingering affection the pages of some forgotten favorite. Well, for my part, I return to Wilkie Collins; and, remembering many grateful hours in his companionship, I join voices with the old man. Upon the whole, I don't believe they do.