Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

IMMEDIATELY after the production of The Woman in White, when all England was admiring the arch-villainy of `Fosco', the author received a letter from a lady who has since figured very largely in the public view. She congratulated him upon his success with somewhat icy cheer, and then said, `But, Mr. Collins, the great failure of your book is your villain. Excuse me if I say, you really do not know a villain. Your Count Fosco is a very poor one, and when next you want a character of that description I trust you will not disdain to come to me. I know a villain, and have one in my eye at this moment that would far eclipse anything that I have read of in books. Don't think that I am drawing upon my imagination. The man is alive and constantly under my gaze. In fact he is my own husband.' The lady was the wife of Edward Bulwer Lytton.

Hall Caine, My Story (1908), pp. 334-335.

EVERYBODY has heard of the storm created by the publication of Tess and Jude , but much earlier than this, the love scenes in Two on a Tower had been censured as unpleasantly suggestive, while The Return of the Native—The Return of the Native of all books—had been described in the pages of a prominent literary journal as `betraying the influence' of decadent French fiction. Earlier still, and still more amazingly, Wilkie Collins had contrived to offend the innocents.... An editorial note which appeared in The Graphic of 30 January 1875 reveals the remarkable state of mind that had been created by an attitude of excessive moral vigilance.

In last week's instalment of The Law and the Lady the following paragraph, which occurs on page 83, column 2, was printed thus:—

'He caught my hand in his and covered it with kisses. In the indignation of the moment I cried out for help.'

In the author's proof the passage stood as follows :—

`He caught my hand in his, and devoured it with kisses. His lips burnt me like fire. He twisted himself suddenly in the chair, and wound his arm round my waist. In the terror and indignation of the moment, vainly struggling with him, I cried out for help.'

The editor of this journal suppressed a portion of the paragraph on the ground that the description as originally given was objectionable. Mr. Wilkie Collins having since informed us, through his legal advisers, that, according to the terms of his agreement with the proprietors of The Graphic; his proofs are to be published verbatim from his MS.,. the passage in question is here given in its original form.

One up to Wilkie! we may think, but this was not to be the last word. Our editor perfectly foresaw his opportunity, and sure enough, when The Law and the Lady had run its course as a serial and was issued in three volumes, The Graphic, instead of the customary review, simply printed beneath the title of the work an apology to its readers for having provided them with a tale the true nature of which had only been discovered after its first chapters were in print.

Forrest Reid, `Minor Fiction in the Eighties', The Eighteen-Eighties: Essays, ed. Walter de la Mare (1930), pp. 111-112.

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