Wilkie Collins and Dickens
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164 ] Wilkie Collins and Dickens1 It is to be hoped that some scholarly and philosophic critic of the present generation may be inspired to write a book on the history and aesthetic of melodrama. The golden age of melodrama passed, it is true, before any person living was aware of its existence: in the very middle of the last century . But there are many living who are not too young to remember the melodramatic stage before the cinema replaced it; who have sat entranced, in the front stalls of local or provincial theatres, before some representation of East Lynne, or The White Slave or No Mother to Guide Her2 ; and who are not too old to have obsessed with curious interest the replacement of dramatic melodrama by cinematographic melodrama, and the dissociation of the elements of the old three-volume melodramatic novel into the various types of the modern 300-page 7s. 6d. novel. Those who have lived before such terms as “high-brow fiction,” “thrillers” and “detective fiction” were invented realize that melodrama is perennial and that the craving for it is perennial and must be satisfied. If we cannot get this satisfaction out of what the publishers present as “literature,” then we will read – with less and less pretence of concealment – what we call “thrillers.” But in the golden age of melodramatic fiction there was no such distinction. The best novels were thrilling; the distinction of genre between such-and-such a masterly “detective” novel of today is greater than the distinction of genre between Wuthering Heights, or even The Mill on the Floss, and East Lynne, the last of which “achieved an enormous and instantaneous success, and was translated into every known language, including Parsee and Hindustani.”3 We believe that several contemporary novels have been “translated into every known language”; but we are sure that they have less in common with The Golden Bowl or Ulysses, or even Beauchamp’s Career, than East Lynne has in common with Bleak House.4 In order to enjoy and to appreciate the work of Wilkie Collins, we ought to be able to reassemble the elements which have been dissociated in the modern novel. Collins is the contemporary of Dickens, Thackeray, George Eliot; of Charles Reade and Captain Marryat.5 He has something in common with all of these novelists; but particularly and significantly with Dickens.CollinswasthefriendandsometimesthecollaboratorofDickens; [ 165 Wilkie Collins and Dickens and the work of the two men ought to be studied side by side.6 There is, unhappily for the literary critic, no full biography of Wilkie Collins; and Forster’s Life of Dickens is, from this point of view, most unsatisfactory.7 Forster was a notable biographer; but as a critic of the work of Dickens his view was a very narrow view. To anyone who knows the bare facts of Dickens’s acquaintance with Collins, and who has studied the work of the two men, their relationship and their influence upon one another is an inexhaustible subject of study. And a comparative study of their novels can do much to illuminate the question of the difference between the dramatic and the melodramatic in fiction. Dickens’s “best novel” is probably Bleak House; that is Mr. Chesterton’s opinion, and there is no better critic of Dickens living than Mr. Chesterton .8 Collins’s best novel – or, at any rate, the only one of Collins’s novels which every one knows – is The Woman in White.9 Now Bleak House is the novel in which Dickens most closely approaches Collins (and after Bleak House, Little Dorrit and parts of Martin Chuzzlewit);10 and The Woman in White is the novel in which Collins most closely approaches Dickens. Dickens excelled in character; the creation of characters of greater intensity than human beings. Collins was not usually strong in the creation of character; but he was a master of plot and situation, of those elements of drama which are most essential to melodrama. Bleak House is Dickens’s finest piece of construction; and The Woman in White contains Collins’s most real characterization. Everyone knows Count Fosco and Marian Halcombe intimately; only the most perfect Collins reader can remember even half a dozen of his other characters by name.11 CountFoscoandMarianareindeedrealpersonagestous;as“real”asmuch greater characters are, as real as Becky Sharp or Emma Bovary.12 In comparison with the characters of Dickens they lack only that kind of reality which is almost supernatural, which hardly seems to belong...