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British Association for American Studies


Issue 7, Spring 2005 Article 2


Issue 7, Spring 2005 Article 2

U.S. Studies Online: The BAAS Postgraduate Journal

Issue 7, Spring 2005

‘In Sight of the New World’: Wilkie Collins and the USA

Paul Woolf
© Paul Woolf. All Rights Reserved

“In Sight of the New World”: Wilkie Collins and the USA

I. Introduction

Over the last twenty years there has been what Tamar Heller calls a “renewed interest” in the work of the nineteenth-century English novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889) [1]. For most of the twentieth century Collins was probably best known even by literary historians as a friend, protégé and sometime collaborator of Charles Dickens. The increasing attention paid within academia to popular fiction has, however, given more prominence to some of Collins’s own works. The Moonstone (1868) in particular has attracted much examination, both for its role in the development of Victorian detective fiction (it is, arguably, the first novel-length English detective story) and for its treatment of British imperialist anxieties [2]. Collins’s progressive depictions of women and of sexuality, meanwhile, have also generated a number of studies [3].

One area of Collins’s work that has remained relatively untouched, though, is his writing about other countries. Aside from the several analyses of the role that British-colonised India plays in The Moonstone, little has been said about the fact that Collins’s novels and short stories are studded with scenes set in, and allusions to, far-away nations. In this article, I want to explore Collins’s numerous references to one such country – the United States. I intend to show how his frequent comparisons between American and English culture might help in our understanding of his writing. It is perhaps an especially useful topic to pursue for it offers a point of access into some of Collins’s lesser-known works.

I have, rather crudely, divided the ways in which Collins deals with America into four categories, and will use these classifications to structure this article. The piece will, I hope, constitute a brief overview of the relationship between Collins’s fiction and the USA. I aim to demonstrate that, although Collins never set a novel in the country, America nonetheless represented for him something genuinely significant – the hope of a more egalitarian and humane society in Britain.

II. Collins in America

In January 1874 Wilkie Collins was midway through a six-month-long reading tour of North America. Collins’s performances had been praised and panned in equal measure by the American press and the tour, though popular with the public, was proving less profitable than he had hoped [4]. Nonetheless, the fifty-year-old author was enjoying himself immensely. In a letter written that month to his friend Frederick Lehmann, Collins remarked:

“The enthusiasm and the kindness are really and truly beyond description. I should be the most ungrateful man alive if I had any other than the highest opinion of the American people. I find them to be the most cordial, and the most sincere people I have ever met … When an American says, ‘Come and see me,’ he means it. This is wonderful to an Englishman” [5].

The tour of 1873 and 1874 was Collins’s first and only visit to the United States. In works written in the years after Collins’s US trip, American characters appear more frequently than they had done in the stories he had published before it. In the light of his apparently unequivocal praise of real-life Americans, it is perhaps unsurprising to note that the fictional Americans of Collins’s later fiction are almost always depicted favourably. Their good humour and sincerity represented for Collins a welcome counterpoint to the more formal and inhibited manners of the English. But Collins’s juxtaposition of New World candour with Old World reserve was not merely a superficial comparison of modes of etiquette. As I aim to demonstrate here, Collins saw in American attitudes and behaviour a possible remedy to the moral inflexibility, the intolerance, petty-mindedness and hypocrisy of life in Victorian England that, throughout his career, he made it his authorial project to attack.

To begin, it is worth pointing out that Collins never wrote about the Anglo-American relationship as extensively or as explicitly as his mentor Dickens. Collins never wrote a novel like Martin Chuzzlewit (1843-44), Dickens’s transatlantic tale, nor produced an account of his visit to the United States like the older writer’s travelogue, American Notes (1842). No doubt for this reason, barely a fraction of the amount of critical attention given to Dickens’s interest in America has been paid to Collins’s treatment of the nation and its people.

Indeed, out of the two-dozen novels and almost fifty short stories that Collins published, I can find only two short stories and half a page of one novel actually set in the USA. However, as I now want to suggest, America and Americans are significant in much of Collins’s fiction.

Before continuing, though, a further word of introduction to Collins’s fiction might be helpful for those not familiar with his work. Collins, the elder son of the famous English landscape painter William Collins, was pre-eminent among a group of English writers publishing around the 1860s and dubbed “sensation novelists.” Classics of the “sensation” genre include Collins’s own The Woman in White (1860), Ellen Wood’s East Lynne (1861) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s Lady Audley’s Secret (1862). Such works are characterised by their use of implausible plots and supernatural events, and by their interest in uncovering the guilty, sinister secrets of apparently respectable families. It will become clear during this article that Collins’s stories are, in this sense, most certainly “sensational.” One might not unjustly compare his storylines to those of modern-day television soap operas. At their best, Collins’s narratives are mesmerising and enthralling; at their worst, melodramatic and a little silly.

III. “Thousands of miles away from Europe … in a situation of peril …” [6]

In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, as soon as Antigonus has served his purpose in the plot, he is swiftly dispensed of with the famous stage direction “Exit, pursued by a bear” [7]. Often in Wilkie Collins’s fiction, America fulfils the same function as Shakespeare’s bear: it is where characters are sent when they need to be got rid of in a hurry and, preferably, in a manner that adds to the excitement of the story. Such incidents constitute the first of my four categories.

In the 1881 novel The Black Robe, the young Jesuit priest Arthur Penrose must, for the sake of Collins’s characteristically labyrinthine plot, leave England for a period of time. He is sent to work in a Catholic mission, established in the territory of Arizona, newly purchased by the United States at the time the novel is set. The mission is burnt to the ground and the missionaries massacred by the, “bloodthirsty” and “ferocious” “Apache Indians” native to the area [8]. Only Penrose and another priest survive, Penrose spared by the “Indians” because of his medical skills. One of the novel’s heroes, Bernard Winterfield, mounts a rescue mission and brings Penrose back to England, just at the point that his presence is again handy for the narrative. We never learn, though, how exactly Winterfield finds and saves Penrose for there is an unexplained “lapse of seven months” in the series of English newspaper articles and diary entries through which Penrose’s fate is recounted [9].

At the very end of The Legacy of Cain, published in 1888, when the attempted murderess Helena Gracedieu is released from prison in England, we discover that she has emigrated to the United States, far enough away from the novel’s other characters to prevent her from further disrupting their lives. In America, Helena has become the leader of a new, proto-feminist religious community whose doctrine “asserts the superiority of women over men” [10].

The Evil Genius (1886) begins with the tale of an English lord wrongly accused of stealing diamonds. He dies soon after being found guilty at his trial. Following the court case, the lord’s unscrupulous wife runs off with her equally scurrilous lover to open a saloon bar in New York. In doing so, she deserts her daughter, Sydney, who now becomes the novel’s central character. Moving forward some years later, we discover that in America Sydney’s mother has been murdered by her lover. This leaves Sydney orphaned, a necessary detail in the story that now unfolds [11].

In all these instances, then, America is for Collins primarily an exotic convenience. What is interesting is that Collins only ever reports the dramatic lives his characters lead while in the United States, using letters and newspaper accounts to describe events in retrospect, rather than narrating them as they happen, as he typically does when the setting is in Britain or Europe. Events in America, it seems, only ever happen off-stage.

As anyone who has read Collins’s most famous works, The Woman In White and The Moonstone, knows, Collins was fond of using several narrators in one book, enabling both the location and narrative perspective of the story to move around as the author pleases. For a writer so willing to use this technique, there seems to be nothing in terms of self-imposed formal constraints to have prevented him writing more directly about extraordinary American incidents such as the attack on Penrose’s mission or the murder of Syd’s mother. Nor, given Collins’s predilection for the “sensational” and improbable, can we say that it was the very incredibility of such episodes that made him consign them to the past tense and the third hand. He was, after all, perfectly comfortable including equally fantastic moments in his stories ‘as they happen’ when they take place on this side of the Atlantic.

There is a more likely explanation. Collins seems to me to have been keen to maintain America at a distance from his readers so as to keep it free of the kind of complex social realities he so carefully details when writing about England, to preserve America as a place of possibilities – possibilities not only of adventure, but also the possibility for human kindness to flourish – and of opportunities for personal redemption. We can start to see this at work as we move on to the second of my four categories: Collins’s depictions of Americans living or traveling in England.

IV. “The Englishman rode on one side of the carriage and the American on the other” [12]

Collins’s short story “Mrs Bertha and the Yankee,” written in 1877 but set in 1817, sees two friends, an English army captain and a Bostonian gentleman, compete with each other for the affections of Miss Bertha, an English heiress. The two rivals fall out and end up challenging each other to a duel, to be fought in woods neighbouring Miss Bertha’s recently inherited Derbyshire estate. The American, a superior shot and a better fencer, diplomatically chooses that the duel should be conducted with swords so that he can win, but not will not kill his former friend. The Englishman, however, cheats in the duel, stabbing and leaving the American for dead. The American, it later transpires, was only injured and he returns at the end of the story to marry the heiress.

As the tale progresses, Collins increasingly contrasts the calm, friendly and noble American – described by one character as “as brave and true a man as ever breathed” and praised by another for his “unaffected sincerity and good humour” – with the obsessive and temperamental Englishman [13]. Collins connects the captain’s mean and provocative behaviour to a specifically English malady: a bout of “sunstroke” endured while serving for the colonising British Army in India [14]. The American, free of the imperial guilt that taints many of Collins’s English families, perhaps most notably the Verinders of The Moonstone, is proven to be the suitor worthy to take control of the English country estate.

Likewise, in The Two Destinies (1876) American characters are contrasted approvingly with English ones in order to critique English society. The story begins with an American married couple visiting London. They are invited to dinner by newlyweds, George and Mary Germaine. Three other couples, all English, are also invited to the dinner but the wives of all three pointedly send, at the last moment, very obviously contrived excuses for absenting themselves. After the dinner, in order to explain the cause of this thinly veiled social sleight, George Germaine hands the American couple a written account of his and Mary’s relationship. The continuance of the two couples’ friendship, it is made clear, depends upon the Americans being un-offended by the narrative, which now forms the bulk of the book.

The account informs us that George and Mary were childhood sweethearts, Mary the daughter of the bailiff employed on the estate owned by George’s father. Disapproving of his relationship with the lower-class girl, George’s father took his family to America, where he attempted to make a fortune in “a speculation in agriculture in one of the Western States” [15]. When, as we again discover only through a report, the speculation failed and George’s father died, he and his mother returned to England, but too late for George to trace and be reunited with Mary.

As the two would-be lovers grow into and through early adulthood, their two destinies become intertwined and they begin to communicate telepathically, through dreams. On the few occasions that the two actually meet, they fail to recognise each other, age and illness having changed both their appearances. The story incorporates many of Collins’s favourite themes: bigamy, illegitimate birth, attempted suicide and financial fraud before George and Mary can finally be married. Throughout, we are impelled to understand George and Mary as humanly flawed but, above all, decent, caring and moral people, deserving of mutual happiness. Their separation is initiated by the insistence of George’s father on maintaining class boundaries in what is revealed to be a rigidly stratified society, and that separation is enforced throughout by similar prejudices. Even when finally married, the exposure of their unconventional past lives, just before the fateful dinner party, ensures their ostracism from polite English society.

Having handed his narrative to the Americans, George takes Mary away to live in Naples so that they can escape the shame sure to be inflicted upon them by their intolerant English peers. The end of the novel shows the American couple to be less quick to rush to judgment than their English counterparts, much more sympathetic and, importantly, free from class bigotry; they decide to continue their European holiday by joining the Germaines in Italy immediately. They alone can recognise and acknowledge the Germaines for their true goodness.

The Fallen Leaves, published in 1879, features the wonderfully named Rufus Dingwell, another American whose tolerance and humanity throws into relief the narrow-mindedness of the English. Throughout, Rufus’s “straightforward sincerity of feeling…one of the indisputable virtues of his nation” is set against “the innumerable insincerities of modern English life” [16]. Later, “insincerity” is described as “one of the established institutions of English Society” [17]. The novel portrays an American encountering English cant and prejudice. It also contains an example of the third of the four categories into which I have divided Collins’s ways of treating Anglo-American themes. This category involves Englishmen who return to England from lengthy periods in the United States, primed by their unconventional experiences in the New World to confront Old-World straitlacedness.

V. “I come from America last …” [18]

The Englishman in question in The Fallen Leaves is the even more spectacularly named Amelius Goldenheart. The twenty-one-year-old Goldenheart, though born in Buckinghamshire, has been brought up in Tadmor, a Christian Socialist commune in Illinois. The story begins with a sea voyage from New York to Liverpool on which Rufus first meets Amelius, who is on his way, as he says, “to London to see life” [19]. The encounter gives Collins the opportunity of having Amelius expound his Christian Socialist beliefs, and of demonstrating how he has internalised those values.

The critic Philip O’Neill has argued persuasively that the portrait of Tadmor combines “the best features” of several real communes then established in the States [20]. Certainly, judging by The Fallen Leaves, Collins seems to have approved of the fundamental ethics of the American Christian Socialist movement. The novel, predominantly set in London, revolves around Amelius’s relationship with an impoverished young prostitute, Simple Sally, who he rescues from her ruthless and violent pimp and takes into his house. The community is, inevitably, scandalised, with only Rufus and Amelius’s French servant supporting Amelius’s consistent prioritisation of human compassion and forgiveness above maintaining respectable appearances. Collins also deploys Amelius as a mouthpiece for certain specific political beliefs, having him at one stage deliver a public lecture in which he attacks modern capitalism as anti-Christian and calls for reform of the British parliamentary system to give workers greater rights [21].

At the beginning of the novel, Amelius says of Tadmor: “We find our Christianity in the spirit of the New Testament – not in the letter” [22]. The narrative then makes the case that, if the purpose of Christianity is to improve people’s lives, it is this “spirit” – rather than the prudery, piety and Scriptural literacy of the orthodox church – that represents genuine Christianity. This is not to say, though, that Collins presents Amelius’s Christian Socialism without consideration or qualification. We often see Amelius as an impetuous idealist, too quick to act on well-meaning instincts to think through the consequences for himself and those around him of his actions. Collins uses Rufus, Amelius’s older, more worldly American friend, to offer a more moderate and pragmatic agenda. If Amelius is a walking experiment, the experiment being to discover what happens when the teachings of a Chrisitan Socialist commune are applied in the world at large, then Rufus is there to help bridge the gap between the absolute idealism of self-enclosed communities like Tadmor and the realities of the modern urban world.

The mystery at the centre of The Fallen Leaves involves a middle-aged woman, Emma Farnaby, obsessively attempting to trace the illegitimate child who was stolen from her at birth. Between them, Amelius and Rufus solve the mystery and expose as the villain of the piece Mrs Farnaby’s husband, now a successful tradesman and seemingly upright member of the community. The father of the lost baby, Farnaby had taken the child in order to avert a scandal that would, in turn, prevent him from marrying Emma and taking control of her father’s business, the basis of the wealth and status that he now enjoys. The child, rather predictably, is discovered to be Simple Sally, the prostitute for whom Amelius is now caring, and she and Emma Farnaby are reunited at the mother’s death-bed. Rufus and Amelius thus effect a satisfactory, if not entirely happy, ending, as well as exposing the destructive secrets of past immoral behaviour that, as in so many Victorian novels, fester not far beneath the veneer of social respectability.

It is implicit in The Fallen Leaves that people like Rufus and Amelius could only come from America, that a community like Tadmor could only survive there, and that Rufus’s combination of wisdom and open-mindedness could only flourish in the New World. In the novel, London is a place of lives ruined by greed, by the bourgeois need to pretend that sexual desire does not exist, and by the brutal system of prostitution that is there to serve those self-same, supposedly non-existent, sexual desires. It takes Rufus’s American-ness and Amelius’s Americanisation to put right some of those wrongs.

It is, though, in a novel written by Collins twenty years before he visited the American continent that he deals most thoroughly with the idea of the New World redeeming the Old. Hide and Seek, published in 1854, bears a certain similarity to The Fallen Leaves in that it too deals with an Englishman who returns from a long stint in America to expose the sins of middle-class England.

Matthew Grice is, as is perhaps suggested by the alias he assumes, Mat Marksman, a figure seemingly modeled (at least in part) on Natty Bumppo, the hero of James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking tales. Cooper was, not incidentally, one of Collins’s three favourite authors, along with Scott and Balzac [23]. A restless and solitary man, Mat has spent “twenty years of wandering amid the wilds of the great American continent,” has been scalped by one set of South American “Indians” and has lived with another [24]. He carries with him a Leatherstocking-esque long rifle, is described as being “cool, [with a] quick eye just as vigilant as ever” and, like Cooper’s frontiersman, says of himself that he is “not much better than a cross between a savage and a Christian” [25].

Mat has returned to England to try to find out what happened to his sister, Mary, and the illegitimate child she was carrying when he last heard news of her, nearly twenty years ago. In London, Mat befriends Zack Thorpe, another of Collins’s impetuous and irreverent but well-meaning young men. The novel’s prologue introduces us to Zack as a six-year-old, unsuccessfully protesting to his rigidly disciplinarian father, the secretary of an “eminent” Religious Society, about having to sit through a patience-testing, two-hour church sermon [26]. For the adult Zack, forced by his father into a stultifying career in petty commerce, London is a dreary place, only coming alive at night as he sneaks out of the house to visit theatres and after-hour drinking dens.

At the time Mat meets him, Zack has just left home, his relationship with his increasingly strict and unbearably pious father having broken down entirely. Zack introduces Mat to another friend, Valentine Blyth, a jovial painter who has a beautiful, though deaf-and-dumb, adopted daughter, nicknamed Madonna. Mat sees in Madonna the unmistakable likeness of his sister Mary. He becomes determined to investigate what happened to Mary, and to find out how Madonna ended up living in Blyth’s family. Mat, who proves to be a tirelessly determined investigator, eventually learns that his aunt Joanna had forced the pregnant Mary out of the family home and that Mary, destitute, had died not long after giving birth to Madonna. After an early childhood being raised in a circus, Madonna was adopted by Blyth. Mat also discovers the name of Madonna’s biological father who, in a final and ironic twist, turns out to be Mr Thorpe, Zack’s seemingly spotless father. The end of the novel sees Zack and his now-humbled father reconciled (at least, partially) and Mat, finally at peace with himself, reintegrated into a family unit with Zack, Madonna and Blyth.

It is indicative of the critical neglect of Collins’s interest in America that, despite the extent to which Mat’s various adventures on the continent are described during Hide And Seek, in her introduction to the most recent edition of the novel, the leading Collins scholar Catherine Peters makes absolutely no reference to America. Peters instead concentrates on the novel’s depiction of Madonna’s disability.

Yet, it seems to me, this is very much a story about America, about the possible influence for good that the New World might have on the Old. At almost every key point in Mat’s investigation, Collins reminds us of his (Mat’s) time in America – the scars he picked up when attacked by Indians becoming red and inflamed each time he unearths a new clue. Collins attributes Mat’s “cunning,” his detective ability and his absolute determination to his experiences in America, noting that “nothing could escape” his “observant eyes…which had been trained by his old Indian experience to be always unscrupulously at work, watching something” [27]. At one critical point in the plot, Mat needs to steal the key to Blyth’s bureau, in which is locked a bracelet that proves Madonna’s identity. In order to do this, Mat effectively drugs Blyth with a drink called “Squaw’s Mixture” which he learnt to make while part of “an exploring gang” in the North West of America [28]. Mat is further aided in his quest by his wealth; he carries a large roll of banknotes earned prospecting for gold in California.

America equips Mat – practically, financially and psychologically – to be the agent who ultimately brings truth and happiness to London. Working class, but rich because of his time in America, Mat represents a radical challenge to the English society Collins delineates in Hide and Seek – again, one of unyielding class stratification. Furthermore, Mat liberates Zack from “the strong strait-waistcoats of prudery and restraint” represented by both Zack’s father and Mat’s aunt, taking the younger man with him when he returns to America for “‘a season’s hunting … in the wild country over the water'” [29].

The novel proffers one other, self-evident, clue to its engagement with questions of Old and New World relations. Perhaps the pivotal moment in the entire book is when Mat first lays eyes on Madonna. This occurs at Blyth’s house during an exhibition the painter is giving to friends of two recently completed works. One of these paintings is entitled “‘Columbus In Sight of the New World'” (from which I derive the title of this article). The painting is a bizarre piece that conflates time and space to incorporate Columbus arriving in America, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin all in the same scene. It is described as “the largest canvas … encased in the most gorgeous frame” yet produced by Blyth [30]. Mat saves the painting from falling to the floor from the wall, to which it has been inadequately attached, shortly before first seeing his sister’s child. Quite literally, Mat preserves the aspirations to human redemption, individual and communal endeavour, social progress and democracy that are for Collins embodied in figures like Columbus and Washington. The next moment, Mat sees Madonna, and the process through which he ‘saves’ Zack, exposes the hypocrisy of Mr Thorpe, and reunites himself with his family begins in earnest. It is a moment that ignites the possibility of transferring the New-World hopes symbolised by the painting back to the Old World.

VI. “…the voyage to America …” [31]

This section deals with the last of my four categories: the rare scenes of Collins’s stories actually located in America. Hide and Seek contains the half-page of novel set by Collins in the United States to which I referred earlier. This is a short passage added to the very end of the story by the author when it was republished in 1861. These three brief paragraphs see Zack convincing Mat to return with him to England and “the friends who loved him,” America figured as the catalyst of familial reunion [32].

As I noted at the start of this article, Collins also set two short stories in America. One of these, “A Sad Death and Brave Life” is actually taken up almost entirely with a description of a highway robbery and a criminal trial that take place in England [33]. The other, a long short story, is titled “John Jago’s Ghost or, the Dead Alive.” The basic plot of the tale is loosely based on an account of a real-life murder case in Vermont that was published while Collins was in the US and that he read some time during his reading tour of the country [34].

When Collins writes about the US, the images he usually invokes are glamorous or sensational ones: gold-prospecting in California, murders in New York saloon bars, religious and political communes, massacres by Apache Indians in Arizona and so on. It seems at first glance strange, then, that on the one occasion Collins situates a story in the country, he chooses an actually somewhat banal episode of domestic jealousy and sets it on a farm in the midst of “scenery as flat, as monotonous, and as uninteresting to the traveler, as any that the earth can show” [35]. Even the murder turns out not to have been a murder after all, the supposed victim having run away rather than been killed.

“John Jago’s Ghost” is narrated by Philip Le Frank, a London lawyer. At the very beginning of the tale, Le Frank is at pains to point out that, coming originally from the Channel Islands, he is as much French as he is English. “It is to this day a trial to my father to hear his son described as a member of the English bar,” Le Frank notes [36].

Suffering from overwork and nervous exhaustion, Le Frank is told by his doctor to take a holiday abroad and chooses to visit distant relatives in the States, owners of a farm. The exact location of the farm is not given in the story, but seems from Collins’s description of the landscape to be somewhere in the arid mid-west. At the farm, Le Frank finds that his cousins “‘stick fast to our English ways'” [37]. The family is unhappy and dysfunctional, riven by greed and envy stirred up by the family’s eldest daughter, one of Collins’s many middle-aged women who quote the bible and moralise while simultaneously intriguing and plotting. The only likeable member of the family is Naomi Colebrook, an attractive and, with her “strong American accent,” thoroughly American young woman [38]. It is through her persistence and sense of justice, allied with Le Frank’s legal experience, that the mystery of the seeming murder is solved and the family’s two brothers – unpleasant, but innocent of any crime – escape being executed for it. At the story’s end, Le Frank takes Naomi back to England, where they are married.

“John Jago’s Ghost” is subtitled “An American Story” but what one notices about it is that, even when setting a narrative in the US, Collins utilises America to illuminate English attitudes. In adapting his story from its source, he changed the nationality of the protagonists from American to English, stressing the family’s persistence in “‘stick[ing] fast'” to “‘English ways'” even while they live in America. Only the Anglo-French Le Frank and the very American Naomi – both of whom Collins invented for his version of the story – represent any kind of integrity, humanity or goodness.

However, Collins cannot maintain in “John Jago’s Ghost” an entirely unproblematic portrayal of Americans. John Jago himself, the American man apparently murdered, is violent and obsessive, willing to trick Naomi into marrying him. And the members of the farming community depicted in the tale are seen as superstitious and as primitive in their legal processes. The America glimpsed in “John Jago’s Ghost” starts to seem just as dour and just as flawed as England. When experienced at first hand rather than by remote report, the United States cannot remain the place of adventure and ideals that it is everywhere else in Collins’s fiction. It is, maybe, no surprise that Collins ends the tale by taking Le Frank and Naomi back to London, retreating from this all-too-real America.

After “John Jago’s Ghost” Collins never again attempted to set a substantial work in America; preserving an idea of the country unsullied by reality was, perhaps, much too useful to him to do that. It was better to tell stories about an imagined America, than to tell any further authentically American stories

VII. Conclusion

Although he had hoped to, Collins never returned to America after his 1874 reading tour. A man notoriously beset by illness upon illness, his deteriorating health did not allow him to make a second trip [39]. Not long after arriving back in London, Collins wrote to a friend that: “I came back from America with a new stock of health – as I supposed. But my native climate has already made me so ‘bilious’ that I can hardly see. My eyes are yellow, and my head aches and the doctor positively forbids dinner today” [40].

It was a pity that Collins could not again cross the Atlantic because, just as his imaginative rendering of America was as a potential remedy to the degradations of old England, so the real America was a tonic to the author himself.

The USA is just one of a number of countries that Collins mentions recurrently in his fiction. I suspect that in their own, different ways each foreign nation about which Collins writes represents for him first and foremost a reference point, against which he can compare the successes and, especially, the failures of English society. It would be interesting to examine in more specific detail his interest in other nations, France and Italy in particular, as I have here done here with America. As the “renewed interest” in Collins’s work continues, such studies will help to form a more complete view of the provocative and challenging ways in which he critiqued the political, social and cultural life of Victorian England.

University of Birmingham


[1] Tamar Heller, Dead Secrets. Wilkie Collins and the Female Gothic (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 4.

[2] See David A. Miller, The Novel and the Police (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988), 32-57; Peter Thoms, Detection and its Designs. Narrative and Power in Nineteenth-Century Detective Fiction (Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998), 93-121; John Sutherland, Introduction to Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone, edited with an introduction and notes by John Sutherland (1868; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999); Christopher GoGwilt, The Fiction of Geopolitics. Afterimages of Culture, from Wilkie Collins to Alfred Hitchcock (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000); Brian W. McCuskey, “The Kitchen Police: Servant Surveillance and Middle-Class Transgression,” Victorian Literature and Culture 28:2 (2000), 359-375.

[3] See Heller, and Philip O’Neill, Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1988).

[4] See The Letters of Wilkie Collins: Volume 2, 1866-1889, edited by William Baker and William M Clarke (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1999), 366-376; Kenneth Robinson, Wilkie Collins: A Biography (London: The Bodley Head, 1951), 260-274.

[5] Printed in Letters, 372.

[6] The quotation is from Wilkie Collins, The Black Robe: Volume II (1881; Chestnut Hill: Elibron Classics, 2004), 233.

[7] William Shakespeare, “The Winter’s Tale” (1610/1611), in William Shakespeare: The Complete Works, edited by Peter Alexander (London: Collins, 1959), 393.

[8] Collins, The Black Robe, 233.

[9] Ibid., 253.

[10] Wilkie Collins, The Legacy of Cain (1888; Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1993), 326.

[11] Wilkie Collins, The Evil Genius (1886; Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995), 26-47.

[12] The quotation is from Wilkie Collins, “Mrs Bertha and the Yankee” (1877), in Wilkie Collins: The Complete Shorter Fiction, edited by Julian Thompson (New York: Carroll & Graf, 1995), 621.

[13] Ibid., 629; 620.

[14] Ibid., 635

[15] Wilkie Collins, The Two Destinies (1876; Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1995), 10.

[16] Wilkie Collins, The Fallen Leaves (1879; Stroud: Alan Sutton Publishing, 1994), 27; 45.

[17] Ibid., 55.

[18] The quotation is from Wilkie Collins, Hide and Seek, edited with an Introduction and Notes by Catherine Peters (1854/1861; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993, reprinted 1999), 187.

[19] Collins, The Fallen Leaves, 20.

[20] Philip O’Neill, Wilkie Collins: Women, Property and Propriety (Basingstoke: Macmillan Press, 1988), 41.

[21] Collins, The Fallen Leaves, 116-126.

[22] Ibid., 25

[23] See Catherine Peters, The King of Inventors: A Life of Wilkie Collins (London: Secker and Warburg, 1991), 377.

[24] Collins, Hide and Seek, 203.

[25] Ibid., 184; 220.

[26] Ibid., 403.

[27] Ibid., 267; 246.

[28] Ibid., 304-305.

[29] Ibid., 21; 418.

[30] Ibid., 230

[31] The quotation is from Wilkie Collins, “John Jago’s Ghost” (1873-74), in Wilkie Collins, Who Killed Zebedee? (London: Hesperus Press, 2002), 33.

[32] Collins, Hide and Seek, 430.

[33] Wilkie Collins, “A Sad Death and Brave Life,” in Complete Shorter Fiction, 879-884.

[34] See Robert Ashley, “Wilkie Collins and a Vermont Murder Trial,” New England Quarterly 21:1/4 (1948), 368-373.

[35] Collins, “John Jago’s Ghost,” 34.

[36] Ibid., 33.

[37] Ibid., 36.

[38] Ibid., 38.

[39] See Catherine Peters, King of Inventors for an account of Collins’s ongoing medical problems and The Letters of Wilkie Collins Volume 2 for Collins’s various expressions of his desire to return to the US.

[40] Letters, 381-382.