[ The Life of Wilkie Collins ] [ Front Page ]
A DEAD SECRET
Wilkie Collins died on 23 September 1889. Ten days later, on 3 October, a letter was published in The Times with a view to setting up a Wilkie Collins Memorial Fund:
A MEMORIAL TO WILKIE COLLINS
"... a movement is on foot to erect (in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's) a suitable memorial to the late Wilkie Collins, and that subscriptions are earnestly invited for that purpose by the undermentioned provisional committee" and "We believe that it will be little short of a national disgrace were such an author, whose works have long been famous throughout the world, and which have been translated into every civilized tongue, to pass away without some permanent mark of honour from the English public, whose pleasure he has so long enhanced, and from the brotherhood of literature, of which he was so distinguished a member." concluding with "We ask every reader who has spent happy hours over Wilkie Collins's books to send us a subscription, however small, in aid of our memorial.
P.S. The following have already kindly consented to act with me as members of a provisional committee, the full list of members of which will shortly be published."
Andrew Chatto (Chatto and Windus), T. Hall Caine, J. W. Arrowsmith, A. P. Watt, W. Swann Sonnenschein, Lucas Malet, Dr. Carr Beard, E. F. S. Pigott (Licenser of Plays), Mrs Lynn Linton."
(See Appendix 1)
The chief proponent was one of Collins's newer friends, the journalist and art critic, Harry Quilter (see Appendix 2). Despite the distinguished composition of the provisional Committee, a leader in the Daily Telegraph of 3 October strongly opposed the idea:
"There is no duty so invidious and so distasteful as that of subjecting the work of any highly gifted and deservedly popular writer, recently deceased, to severely critical scrutiny and strict appraisement on its merits. In the case of the late Mr. Wilkie Collins the task is a particularly unwelcome one. Few Englishmen or Englishwomen of our generation have not been at some time or other under the spell of that novelist's remarkable narrative power, and when the pleasure which he has given to thousands has been so lavishly and liberally bestowed it seems almost ungracious to enquire curiously into the quality and status of the literary powers which enabled him to confer it. Nevertheless it is a duty which for the reputation of English literature, and to secure the highest posthumous honour at the disposal of the English people against the danger of depreciation...among the committee which has been hastily formed to procure the erection in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's Cathedral of a suitable memorial to the departed novelist there are a few distinguished names; and if their owners confined themselves to the strict text of their appeal we should be quite prepared with some reservation as to its terms, to concur in it in substance ... no one would object to the permanent mark of honour in itself, and many who are not among the professed admirers of the ingenious author would, we have no doubt, willingly contribute to it...the ill-judged proposal to which we have referred would require resistance...
The mere fact that it is found necessary to "agitate" for the admission of a memorial to a deceased English worthy into in Westminster Abbey or St. Paul's Cathedral affords the strongest possible presumption that the proper place for such a memorial is elsewhere. To form committees, to distribute circulars, to "tout" for subscriptions, and to take steps for bringing "influential" pressure to bear upon Deans are steps which ought not to have, and would not have, to be resorted to in the case of any man of distinction in art or letters, war or politics, whose title to admission was of that clear and indisputable kind which ought alone to be recognised...the great dead... are summoned to that glorious resting-place by the spontaneous voice of the nation."
As far as Collins's long-standing friend, Edward Pigott, was concerned, Quilter had unfortunately presumed too much. In a private letter to Edmund Yates two days later Pigott wrote:
"I have seen, with some surprise, my name among the members of a committee formed, at the instance of Mr. Harry Quilter, to promote a memorial to Wilkie. I had never heard of any such project; still less had I been asked to join any such committee.
would be ungracious to object to an act of, I daresay, well-meaning courtesy, or
to any proposal, however mistaken, to do honour to our dear lamented friend.
But I am anxious to confide to you my intimate conviction that nothing
could have pleased Wilkie less, - not to say, nothing could have annoyed him
more - than the anticipation of being wrangled over in his grave, or of
provoking grudges after his death, which his simplicity and sincerity of
character had always kept at a distance whilst he lived.
work was the only monument he cared for; and he was the last of men to claim the
honour of a medallion in the crypt."1
Nevertheless, on the same day, 5 October, Quilter announced in The Times that "the names of George Meredith and Thomas Hardy" had been added to the provisional committee although Catherine Peters (in The King of Inventors p. 433) notes that Hardy was "astonished and angry at the news." Edmund Yates published a paragraph in the next issue of his paper, The World, on 9 October under the pseudonym Atlas: "I have before me, as I write, two letters, written respectively by two of Wilkie Collins's most intimate friends, protesting against the action taken by Mr Harry Quilter and his associates in asking for subscriptions for the establishment of some public memorial in honour of the dead novelist." Atlas gave the text of Pigott's letter - without any additional text from a second letter - and concluded "I am bound to say I perfectly agree with these expressions of opinion."
The Times of 16 January 1890 carried a further letter from Quilter:
the subscriptions to the above fund now exceed 300 guineas, I have laid the
matter before the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's, with a view of obtaining
their permission for the erection of a memorial tablet, bust, &c., to the
late Wilkie Collins in the crypt of the above cathedral, by the side of that
which is commemorative of his dear friend Charles Reade.
Harry Quilter, Hon. Sec. Wilkie Collins Memorial Fund."
Quilter wrote again to The
Times of 26 March 1890. He
announced that the subscription list had closed with a total sum of
£307 18s. 6d. and that a decision had been finally made for the shape
which the memorial would take.
"On January 11 I wrote to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's asking for permission to erect the memorial within St. Paul's Cathedral. The decision of the Dean and Chapter was not received by me until February 9, and was, I regret to say, adverse. Dean Church did not enter into the reasons of this decision further than to say that "other considerations than Mr. Wilkie Collins's literary excellence" had to be taken into account."
"...the present writer ventured to suggest [to the committee] that the money should be devoted to the purchase of a small library of works of fiction, which should be presented to the People's Palace at Mile-end under the name of "The Wilkie Collins Memorial Library." The suggestion was favourably received, and on 13 March I wrote to the secretary of the above institution and requested him to lay the proposal before the trustees."
The phrase "other
considerations" was no doubt an oblique reference to Collins's unorthodox
lifestyle which included liaisons with both Caroline Graves and Martha Rudd
without marriage to either. His
close friends, of course, knew of what he called his 'morganatic family'
with Martha: outsiders may have heard or guessed at his domestic arrangements.
Probate on Collins's estate had been granted to his executors (who
included Francis Carr Beard) on the 11 November 1889. In the will Collins openly recognised Martha Rudd now "passing under the name of Mrs Dawson" and their three children
"respectively called Marian secondly Harriet Constance and thirdly William
Charles." The will continued
unequivocally "I hereby acknowledge the said three children as my children by
the said Martha Rudd."
were more than adequate grounds to upset the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's.
The Chairman of the Governors for the People's Palace (see Appendix 3) in March 1890 was Sir Edmund Hay Currie (1834-1913) who accepted the proposal "most gratefully" together with the Memorial Committee's three conditions that
The collection of books should bear the name of the Wilkie Collins
It should be kept apart from the general library of the People's
It should be accessible to the public at all hours during which the
People's Palace was normally open.
Following some sarcastic comments
against the Dean, Quilter's letter concluded that he had personally undertaken
the selection and arrangement of the works of fiction and he thought that
Collins had been and still was immensely popular. Twenty-nine of his books were still being reprinted well into the 20th century but the reading public reacted with what was later described as indifference. Some notables such as Henry James, who subscribed five guineas, did contribute but the overall total of just over £300 was not huge. Nevertheless it would probably represent something over £10,000 at today's values and with rejection by St. Paul's it was destined for Mile End.
The People's Palace housed one of the first public libraries in East London. For those days, it was doubly unusual since it was administered entirely by women and was open on Sundays. The Palace also published its own Newspaper and several months prior to the decision about the Memorial Library The Palace Journal 'Notes of the Week' for Wednesday 2 October 1889 (Vol. IV, No. 99, pp. 241-242) carried a lengthy obituary notice:
"Mr. Wilkie Collins died on Monday week, and everybody who likes a good story well told - and who doesn't? - will feel the loss. Mr. Collins was not perhaps a giant of letters, - such a giant as Thackeray or Fielding, - but, in the matter of plot-construction, he was far away our greatest artist. It is, I think, an impossible thing to contemporaneously fix the position which any man will occupy in the esteem of posterity, but it seems to me that the cleverness of their structure alone will long keep alive "The Woman in White," and "The Moonstone." It may be said - indeed I think so myself - that many of Wilkie Collins's characters were mere marionettes used to work out intricacies of plot. Any such character painting and analysis as is to be found in Thackeray's "Vanity Fair," or Meredith's "Ordeal of Richard Feveral" may be looked for in vain in the writings of the novelist we have just lost. But surely there is something in a deftly-woven story, in the skilful building up of an absorbing plot, and its effective and dramatic carrying out. And I think there is a tendency to too rigidly measure the standing of any artist - novelist, poet, painter or musician - by the verdict of posterity. "Hang posterity," as one said, "what has it done for me?" It is surely a great thing to have given pleasure to thousands of the people among whom one has lived, and to have gained the love and admiration of those whom one works for during one's lifetime. And, although posterity is a very fine thing, even it sometimes makes a mistake."
...he leaves an unfinished story behind him, just as his friend Dickens left "Edwin Drood." Personally, Mr. Collins was a very lovable man and a great friend to young writers. When Mr F. Fargus (Hugh Conway) published "Called Back," many prophesied the displacement of Wilkie Collins by the new star, but professional jealousy so little affected the older man, that he took great pains to assist the rising writer in elaborating his plots."
The honorary editor and mainstay of the Palace Journal was Collins's friend and posthumous collaborator, Walter Besant, and we can conjecture that he might well have written this piece. He was obviously sympathetic to the aims of the People's Palace from its inception. His 1882 story All Sorts of Conditions of Men: an Impossible Story, written in collaboration with James Rice, had featured an idealistic Palace of Delights set also in the East End. Collins had been one of Besant's friends who presented books to the library. Besant's novels regularly provided the main fiction content for the Palace Journal and he was also President of the Literary Society.
Between 1890 and 1893 there came a protracted hiatus in proceedings. Quilter had originally published a lengthy obituary, 'In Memoriam Amici (Wilkie Collins)', in the Universal Review. He republished it in Preferences in Art, Life, and Literature (Swann Sonnenschein, London 1892) but a new postscript gave his version of events to date:
"This was written at the end of 1889. In the next few months I did what I could to get erected some worthy memorial of Wilkie Collins. My success was very partial: the press held aloof, or were adverse; the authorities of Westminster and St. Paul's alike refused to allow any monument to be erected in their precincts; the general reading public were indifferent. A few of Collins's friends and some brother artists in literature, painting, and the drama, only subscribed. I undertook to form a small Wilkie Collins Memorial Library of works of fiction to be presented to the People's Palace. This is being done, and will, I trust, be completed before these lines come before the public. The long delay has not been entirely due to my own fault, but I feel that I owe for it an apology to both the People's Palace and the subscription to the Memorial."
Quilter apparently left England to travel for more than two
years and nothing is heard in respect of the Memorial from any of the other
members of the committee. Quilter
returned in mid 1893 to a far less accommodating board of Governors.
A room adjoining the main library was made available but it was "a
cheerless apartment and needed considerable alteration before it could be
conveniently used." Quilter was
required to decorate it expending "some portion of the subscriptions and some
little time and trouble rendering it thoroughly comfortable and suitable."
He had it painted, papered and carpeted as well as arranging for chairs,
tables and bookcases. In addition
he selected large reproductions of celebrated pictures to place on the walls.
The Governors agreed to Quilter's request to remodel the electric
lighting which, as he subsequently complained, "was the single expense to
which they have contributed a sixpence"
Progress, however, had been made and The Eastern Post and City
Chronicle for 2 September 1893 carried the following notice:
"A new library at the People's Palace. - The Wilkie Collins Memorial Library" will be opened at the People's Palace early in the autumn. This library is the outcome of a movement initiated by Mr. Harry Quilter, the eminent art critic, immediately after the death of the great novelist. - It was originally intended to place a memorial in St. Paul's Cathedral, but various difficulties supervened, and then it was determined to form a library for the East End. Mr. Quilter accordingly approached Sir E. H. Currie, the then chairman of the Governors of the People's Palace, and the west ante-room was appropriated for the purpose of the library. During Mr. Quilter's absence on a tour of the world the scheme was awhile in abeyance, but since his return it has been taken up with vigour, and is now near completion. A library of 2,000 volumes of standard fiction was formed, and all these books have been handsomely bound. Mr. Quilter, who is himself carrying out the decorations of the library, has drawn largely on his collection of art curiosities and his splendid gallery of modern pictures for the purpose of enriching the library. - Admission will be free, and every endeavour will be made to render the library attractive, especially of winter evenings."
Further delays must have supervened because the library did not in fact open until 8 December 1894. It was necessary to complete the decorations, provide seating for 40 readers and finish the special binding of a thousand or so books. It was not a lending library but unusually displayed the books on open shelving - generally an unpopular practice at the time. The Wilkie Collins Memorial Library, however, came to be regarded as the gem of the four libraries housed by the People's Palace. A further newspaper report appeared in the East London Observer for 12 January 1895:
Wilkie Collins Memorial Library. - This library, which was offered to the
governors of the People's Palace for East London and accepted by them two
years ago, has been provided with a comfortable, warm, and tastefully decorated
room adjoining the free library of the Palace, and is well lighted by electric
light. There are 1,036 volumes,
mostly novels and poems, arranged on shelves which extend round the whole of the
lower portion of the walls, whilst some classic pictures above relieve the
monotony of the books. It was
opened to the public on the 8th December, and to the end of that
month 708 persons used it. Admission
is by ticket, to be obtained of the attendant on duty at the counter of the
large library. This addition to the
Palace is a distinct acquisition to the East End, and worthy of bearing the name
of the great fictional writer, after whom it is named.
Quilter wrote once more to the press (The Times and The Daily News of 24 January 1894) declaring that the objectives of the Memorial Fund had at last been realised and apologising for the delays. He repeated the three conditions applying to the library and expressed his thanks
"to the publishers who have supplied us, in almost every case, at their lowest trade price; and especially to Messrs. Bentley and Son for a generous present of about 100 volumes, and Messrs. Sampson Low and Co., who have made no charge whatever for the books ordered from their firm."
Quilter then went on to explain his principles of selection
for the books and offered to make available a detailed account of the
expenditure incurred with a balance sheet to all of the original subscribers.
Walter Besant repeated these details shortly afterwards in The Author,
(Vol. 4 February 1894, p. 336).
Soon, even before the turn of the century, the People's Palace was forced to change for a new age. In November 1901, shortly after Besant's death, the Governors proposed the closure of the main library and by February 1902 the books and furniture were transferred to the nearby Mile End library. The Wilkie Collins Memorial still retained its separate identity within the Palace in its own room and in 1906 an offer by Stepney Borough Council to rehouse it was refused. Perhaps this was because Quilter was still in evidence - he died the following year, in 1907. Two years later the Collins books were moved from their original home into glass-fronted bookcases in the Octagon which had been reopened as a recreational hall. But the end was not far off. In May 1911 the Governors finally decided to close the Memorial Library and transfer all of the books to the local Mile End public library, literally around the corner in Bancroft Road. For a while Quilter's magnificent decorations became home to lectures by the technical schools but subsequently the Wilkie Collins room was used as the Board Room for the East London College up until the 1930s.2
And this is the last that is known of the Wilkie Collins Memorial Library. There is no trace of any of the volumes in Bancroft Road which incidentally has an extensive collection of Walter Besant titles. Surprisingly, the Libraries and Museums Reports for the Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, published each year on 31 March, make no mention of the transfer for 1911 or for any of the years between 1910 and 1914. This is strange since the Reports make a point of listing all donations even of single books and small pamphlets.
Further, detailed examination of the handwritten minutes books for the Public Libraries and Museums Committee reveals no record whatsoever of such a transfer between 1909 and 1912.4 On the other hand the minutes are extremely detailed in respect of other donations, bequests and special collections. They mention the purchase of specific books and authors, tenders for the supply of new books and even volumes to be removed because of inappropriate subject matter or in a condition which made them unfit for circulation. The minutes cover not only the Mile End but also St George's, Whitechapel and Limehouse Libraries together with general meetings of the various committees and sub-committees.
It is also not at all clear that a large quantity of books would have been welcome. On 11 July 1910 the committee were "considering removing duplicates from all the Borough Libraries to make room for new volumes and to avoid congestion." The minutes for 12 June 1911 include a long list of periodicals to be withdrawn and either given to the Mile End Workhouse and Infirmary or destroyed. In addition, Bancroft Road had officially become the local reference library and discussions were underway from 1 May 1911 with regard to its closure for alterations and redecorations. It was in fact closed between 29 April and 1 July 1912.
It seems inconceivable that the Memorial Library could have passed to the Borough of Stepney without a mention in any of its official Transactions. The inevitable conclusion is that neither the Mile End nor any of the other Stepney libraries actually received the volumes in question. Did some official of the People's Palace subvert the Governors' best intentions? Were the books merely thrown out with their tacit approval? Were they sold elsewhere? The ultimate tragedy of the Wilkie Collins Memorial Library is that it became lost in the Governors' decisions to preserve the educational facilities of the People's Palace at the expense of its other main aim to provide recreational facilities for the disadvantaged population of East London. The complete disappearance of 1036 specially bound volumes is a mystery almost worthy of Collins himself.
More than a century after his death, nearly all of Collins's works have returned to the bookshops from which they were absent for many years. In contrast to the Memorial Library, his books have stood the test of time and provide the legacy he would have wanted. They have more than justified Pigott's comment of 1889 that "his work was the only monument he cared for."
THE PROVISIONAL COMMITTEE
OF THE MEMORIAL FUND
(from The Times of 3 October 1889)
Andrew Chatto. Collins's friend and publisher since 1875.
T. Hall Caine. Manx novelist and a recent friend of Collins.
J. W. Arrowsmith. Publisher of The Guilty River in 1886.
A. P. Watt. Collins's friend and literary agent.
W. Swann Sonnenschein. Quilter's publisher.
F. Carr Beard. Collins's long-standing friend and doctor.
[E. F. S. Pigott. Lifelong friend of Collins and examiner of Plays from 1874]
Lucas Malet. Novelist, pseudonym for Mrs Mary St. Leger Harrison.
Mrs Lynn Linton. Eliza Lynn Linton; anti-feminist novelist and journalist.
Plus (from The Times of 5 October 1889)
HENRY (HARRY) QUILTER
Harry Quilter (24 January 1851- 10 July 1907) studied at Trinity College Cambridge and subsequently at the Slade School of Art. He became a barrister-at-law in the Inner Temple in 1878. As an artist, he exhibited at the Institute of Painters in Oil Colours and was art critic for both The Spectator (1876-1886) and The Times (1880-1881). Quilter published several books on art over a twenty year period as well as editing editions of Meredith's Jump-to-Glory Jane in 1892 and Browning's Pied Piper of Hamelin in 1898.
Quilter was not universally popular. He had a long-standing public feud, partly conducted through the pages of The World (17 and 24 February and 24 March 1886), with Whistler who disparagingly referred to him as 'Arry. Oscar Wilde in The Pall Mall Gazette (18 November 1886) called him "The apostle of the middle classes ... [who] raises literature to the position of upholstery, and puts it on a level with the anti-macassar!"
Quilter wrote a generous appreciation of Collins in the Contemporary
Review (vol. 53, January 1888, pp. 572-593), declaring "he has told
stories better than they have ever been told before."
He founded his own journal, the short-lived Universal Review in
1888 and persuaded Collins to contribute one of his
rare autobiographical pieces, 'Reminiscences of a Storyteller,' to the
second number in June that year. Following
Collins's death, Quilter wrote a lengthy obituary and critique entitled 'In
Memoriam Amici (Wilkie Collins)' in the Universal Review of October
1889 This was reprinted in his
most elaborate publication, Preferences in Art, Life, and Literature
(Swann Sonnenschein, 1892).
The friendship between Quilter and Collins seems to have started in early 1887. The first identified letter from Collins is dated 28 January with an invitation for them to meet and on 8 January 1888 Collins wrote "In two words, I am proud and happy. Proud to have been the subject of such criticism as yours, and happy - at my age, when death has robbed me of many friends - to have found a friend who fills one of the vacant places in my regard. Ever yours. Wilkie Collins."
THE PEOPLE'S PALACE3
The People's Palace was conceived at a meeting at the Mansion House on 23 June 1885 to continue the existing Beaumont Trust for the benefit of local inhabitants "for the purposes of affording them intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement by means of libraries, access to reading of newspapers and journals, lectures, and other means for the diffusion of useful and entertaining knowledge."
Building began after a royal ceremony for laying the
foundation stone in June 1886 and the vast, central Queen's Hall opened in May
1887. The library came to be known
as the Octagon and was completed a year later in June 1888.
It was described by the Palace Journal as "very striking...with
a lofty domed roof...presenting a very fine appearance," and "it may fairly
be stated that there is nothing like it anywhere, except the Reading Room of the
British Museum." Other facilities
offered by the People's Palace were lectures, concerts, a gymnasium, swimming
pool, and day and evening Technical Schools which had their own distinct
Construction continued for another four years and the Palace was not completed until 1892. By this time, however, it had exhausted its resources and was already in financial difficulties. The conflict between the recreational and educational ideals had been recognised as early as 1891 and soon the recreational side, deemed as unsustainable, was sacrificed for the furtherance of the Technical Schools. These became the East London College in 1896 and were ultimately incorporated as Queen Mary College in December 1934.
The People's Palace had royal patronage and would have been very much a current topic for Londoners in the late 1880s. The library was extensively used by 1,200 to 1,400 readers every day. On a bank holiday in 1888 the Palace was visited by over 26,000 people and one and a half million passed through the turnstiles in the first year. Hence it would have been a natural home at this time for a popular library to commemorate a popular author.
THE SUBSCRIPTION FORM
CHRONOLOGY OF THE WILKIE COLLINS MEMORIAL LIBRARY
23 September 1889 Wilkie Collins dies
3 October 1889 Public announcement in the press of a Collins Memorial
5 October 1889 Telegraph leader rejecting the proposed Memorial
9 October 1889 The World also comes out against the Memorial
11 January 1890 Quilter writes to the Dean and Chapter of St. Paul's
9 February 1890 St. Paul's rejects the idea of a monument to Collins
13 March 1890 Quilter writes to the Trustees of the People's Palace
25 March 1890 The People's Palace agrees to house the Memorial Library
Mid 1893 Quilter returns from world travels
8 December 1894 The Wilkie Collins Memorial Library opens
9 June 1901 Walter Besant dies
November 1901 Governors propose closure of the main Palace Library
31 January 1902 Main Palace Library closed
February 1902 Books and furniture of main library go to the Mile End Library
Memorial library remains in its own side room
1906 Stepney Borough Council offers to house the Collins library.
10 July 1907 Quilter dies
1909 Collins books moved to Octagon recreation room
May 1911 Board of Governors formally restructured
May 1911 Books supposedly transferred to Mile End library but disappear without trace
1. 'Wilkie Collins and Edmund Yates: A Postscript', P. D. Edwards, WCSJ (New Series) Vol.1, 1998 pp. 47-49 (referring to Item 308 in the Edmund Yates Papers in the University of Queensland Library).
2. 'A Brief History of the People's Palace Library, East London, 1882-1902'
3. From Palace to College: an illustrated account of Queen Mary College, Moss, G. P. and Saville, M. V., London 1985.
4. Metropolitan Borough of Stepney, Public Libraries and Museums Committee, Minute Book 5 (STE 1157) and 6 (STE 1158).
Anselm Nye, Librarian and Archivist, Queen Mary, University of London, for his advice and for sharing his knowledge of the early history of the People's Palace; to Chris Lloyd of Mile End Library, Bancroft Road, for his advice on local history and for locating the early records of Stepney Borough Council's Libraries and Museums Committees; Peter Brading for consulting his original research notes for his study of the People's Palace; and to Vida Guinn, Assistant information Manager, CILIP, for checking the early records of the Libraries Association.
© Andrew Gasson
Originally published by The Wilkie Collins Society in March 2004
All material in these pages is © copyright Andrew Gasson 1998-2010