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CHURTON COLLINS: SCOURGE OF THE LATE VICTORIANS PHYLLIS GROSSKURTH It is often remarked that Matthew Arnold introduced an urbane, gentlemanly tone into English literary criticism, yet there was one nineteenth -century reviewer who patently escaped his civilizing influence. In the writings of John Churton Collins (1848-1908), the bland reasonableness of Sainte-Beuve was drowned in the fulminations of Rymer or the acerbities of Jeffrey, and Collins' contribution to critical history belongs in the "no-holds barred" tradition of rugged polemicism reinvoked in our own day by Dr. Leavis. Collins was forced to bang his way through life because he embarked on a literary career without the comfortable cushioning of a private income which sustained his more fortunate contemporaries such as John Addington Symonds or Ernest Myers. His father, an improvident Gloucestershire doctor, emigrated to Australia where he died immediately upon his arrival, and his widow back in England was left with the responsibility of rearing three small children, of whom the eldest, Churton, was only ten at the time. At school the boy evinced a remarkable ability to assimilate knowledge , and the ease with which he learned vast passages of poetry was nothing short of phenomenal. He made such an impression upon his teachers that they arranged to have him sent to King Edward's School in Birmingham, and an affiuent uncle, struck by the sincerity with which he expressed a desire to take holy orders, offered to linance his way through Oxford. Collins entered Balliol in 1868 as a contemporary of Andrew Lang, W. H. Mallock, Richard Nettleship, Herbert AsqUith, and the future President of Magdalen, T. H. Warren. At Oxford, Collins cut quite a swath as he swaggered about in a velvet coat, accompanied invariably by a noble deer hound, Prince. While he sedulously cultivated the image of an eccentricity which usually implied comfortable means, his mother struggled to educate her other less gifted sons. Andrew Lang later recalled that Collins at Oxford "always reminded me outwardly of Will Ladislaw in the then new novel 'Middlemarch.' He was slimly built and very active . . . and had a charming air of enthusiasm and of joy in life.'" Volume XXXIV, Number 3, April, 1965 CHURTON COLLINS 255 It is interesting to note that he struck none of his Oxford contemporaries with the irascibility of which many of his detractors were later to accuse him. He was popular with his fellow-students and while he passed pleasant hours in witty banter, his studies were neglected. The uncle, who had backed him with such high hopes, was stunned by the news that he had received only a third, and angrily withdrew any further financial support when Collins made it clear that he had abandoned any intention of becoming a clergyman. Thus in IS71, Collins found himself with a degree from Oxford, expensive tastes, empty pockets, and no prospects whatsoever. In this limbo-like state, he wandered into St. Giles's one afternoon where, moved by casual impulse, he opened the Bible on the lectern. Touching the text at random, he looked down to read the passage beneath his finger. It happened to be Acts 9:6: "Arise and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do." The message struck him as prophetic and legend claims that he then made his way out of the church and proceeded to London where he saw that he must make some kind of literary career for himself. There were no helpful friends to provide him with letters of introduction to prominent editors such as those which eased Arthur Symons' entry into the literary world. Collins' journalistic career began with the contribution of a series of what were called "turn-over articles" to The Globe; the first of these to be published seems to have been "End of Term," which appeared December IS, IS72. However, these articles hardly prOVided enough to live on and at one period during his early days in London he was wholly dependent on the speed with which he could address envelopes, for which he was paid 2/6 per thousand. An opportunity for earning a steady income suddenly arose in IS73 when W. B. Scoones offered...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 254-268
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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