In the argument about whether The Woman in White or The Moonstone (1968) is Wilkie Collins's first great mystery novel, a compromise is often found. The Moonstone.... more
On writing, writers and books
I have always held the old-fashioned opinion that the primary object of
a work of fiction should be to tell a story; and I have never believed that the novelist who properly performed this first condition of his art, was in danger, on that account, of neglecting the delineation of character—for this plain reason, that the effect produced by any narrative of events is essentially dependent, not on the events themselves, but on the human interest which is directly connected with them. It may be possible, in novel-writing, to present characters successfully without telling a story; but it is not possible to tell a story successfully without presenting characters: their existence, as recognisable realities, being the sole condition on which the story can be effectively told. The only narrative which can hope to lay a strong hold on the attention of readers, is a narrative which interests them about men and women—for the perfectly obvious reason that they are men and women themselves.
The reception accorded to "The Woman in White" has practically confirmed these opinions, and has satisfied me that I may trust to them in the future.
Preface to Second Edition of The Woman in White
Here is one more book that depicts the struggle of a human creature, under those opposing influences of Good and Evil, which we have all felt, which we have all known. It has been my aim to make the character of “Magdalen,” which personifies this struggle, a pathetic character even in its perversity and its error; and I have tried hard to attain this result by the least obtrusive and the least artificial of all means—by a resolute adherence throughout to the truth as it is in Nature....
Round the central figure in the narrative other characters will be found grouped, in sharp contrast—contrast, for the most part, in which I have endeavored to make the element of humour mainly predominant. I have sought to impart this relief to the more serious passages in the book, not only because I believe myself to be justified in doing so by the laws of Art—but because experience has taught me (what the experience of my readers will doubtless confirm) that there is no such moral phenomenon as unmixed tragedy to be found in the world around us. Look where we may, the dark threads and the light cross each other perpetually in the texture of human life.
To pass from the Characters to the Story, it will be seen that the narrative related in these pages has been constructed on a plan which differs from the plan followed in my last novel, and in some other of my works published at an earlier date. The only Secret contained in this book is revealed midway in the first volume. From that point, all the main events of the story are purposely foreshadowed before they take place—my present design being to rouse the reader’s interest in following the train of circumstances by which these foreseen events are brought about. In trying this new ground, I am not turning my back in doubt on the ground which I have passed over already. My one object in following a new course is to enlarge the range of my studies in the art of writing fiction, and to vary the form in which I make my appeal to the reader, as attractively as I can.
Preface to No Name
Readers in particular will, I have some reason to suppose, be here and there disturbed, perhaps even offended, by finding that "Armadale" oversteps, in more than one direction, the narrow limits within which they are disposed to restrict the development of modern fiction—if they can. Nothing that I could say to these persons here would help me with them as Time will help me if my work lasts. I am not afraid of my design being permanently misunderstood, provided the execution has done it any sort of justice. Estimated by the clap-trap morality of the present day, this may be a very daring book. Judged by the Christian morality which is of all time, it is only a book that is daring enough to speak the truth.
Foreword to Armadale
In some of my former novels, the object proposed has been to trace the influence of circumstances upon character. In the present story I have reversed the process. The attempt made here is to trace the influence of character on circumstances. The conduct pursued, under a sudden emergency, by a young girl, supplies the foundation on which I have built this book.
The same object has been kept in view in the handling of the other characters, which appear in these pages. Their course of thought and action under the circumstances which surround them is shown to be (what it would most probably have been in real life) sometimes right and sometimes wrong. Right or wrong, their conduct, in either event, equally directs the course of those portions of the story in which they are concerned.
Preface to The Moonstone
The story here offered to the reader differs in one respect from the stories which have preceded it by the same hand. This time the fiction is founded on facts, and aspires to afford what help it may towards hastening the reform of certain abuses which have been too long suffered to exist among us unchecked. As to the present scandalous condition of the Marriage Laws of the United Kingdom there can be no dispute. The Report of the Royal Commission appointed to examine the working of those laws, has supplied the solid foundation on which I have built my book.
Preface to Man and Wife
When I find that reading becomes an effort instead of a pleasure, I shut up the volume, respecting the eminent author, and admiring my enviable fellow creatures who have succeeded where I have failed. These sentiments have been especially lively in me (to give an example) when I have laid aside in despair "Clarissa Harlowe," "La Nouvelle Héloise," the plays of Ben Jonson, Burke on "The Sublime and Beautiful," Hallam’s "Middle Ages," and Roscoe’s "Life of Leo the Tenth." Is a person with this good reason to blush for himself (if he was only young enough to do it) the right sort of person to produce a list of books for readers in search of a liberal education? You will agree with me that he is capable of seriously recommending [Laurence] Sterne’s "Sentimental Journey" as the best book of travels that has ever been written, and Byron’s "Childe Harold" as the grandest poem which the world has seen since the first publication of "Paradise Lost."
...I submit that the best book which your correspondent has recommended is "The Vicar of Wakefield"—and of the many excellent schoolmasters (judging them by their works) in whose capacity for useful teaching he believes, the two in whom I, for my part, most implicitly trust, are Walter Scott and Charles Dickens. Holding these extraordinary opinions, if you asked me to pick out a biographical work for general reading, I should choose (after Boswell’s supremely great book, of course) Lockhart’s "Life of Scott." Let the general reader follow my advice, and he will find himself not only introduced to the greatest genius that has ever written novels....
Keeping clear of living writers, may I recommend one or two works of fiction, on the chance that they may not have been mentioned, with a word of useful comment perhaps, in other lists?
Read, my good public, Mrs. Inchbald’s "Simple Story," in which you will find the character of a young woman who is made interesting even by her faults—a rare triumph, I can tell you, in our Art. Read Marryat’s "Peter Simple," and "Midshipman Easy," and enjoy true humour and masterly knowledge of human nature. Let my dear lost friend, Charles Reade, seize on your interest, and never allow it to drop from beginning to end in "Hard Cash." Let Dumas keep you up all night over "Monte Cristo," and Balzac draw tears that honour him and honour you in "Père Goriot." Last, not least, do justice to a greater writer, shamefully neglected at the present time in England and America alike, who invented the sea-story, and created the immortal character of "Leather Stocking." Read "The Pilot" and "Jack Tier"; read "The Deerslayer" and "The Pathfinder," and I believe you will be almost as grateful to Fenimore Cooper as I am.
Article in Pall Mall Gazette
[Armadale] is by far the best thing I have ever written, and in my own opinion, no other book of mine can compare with it.
Interview in Cassell’s Saturday Journal
All my novels are produced by the same literary method.... I have now to tell you how I wrote "The Woman In White."
My first proceeding is to get my central idea—the pivot on which the story turns.
The central idea of "The Woman In White" is the idea of a conspiracy in private life, in which circumstances are so handled as to rob a woman of her identity by confounding her with another woman, sufficiently like her in personal appearance to answer the wicked purpose. The destruction of her identity represents a first division of the story; and the recovery of her identity marks a second division.
My central idea suggests some of my chief characters. A clever devil must conduct the conspiracy. Male devil? or female devil? The sort of wickedness wanted seems to be a man's wickedness. Perhaps a foreign man. Count Fosco faintly shows himself to me, before I know his name. I let him wait, and begin to think about the two women. They must be both innocent and both interesting. Lady Glyde dawns on me as one of the innocent victims. I try to discover the other — and fail. I devote the try what a walk will do for me — and fail. I devote the evening to a new effort — and fail. Experience tells me to take no more trouble about it, and leave that other woman to come of her own accord. The next morning, before I have been awake in my bed for more than ten minutes, my perverse brains set to work without consulting me. Poor Anne Catherick comes into the room, and says: "Try me".
I have got my idea; I have got three of my characters. What is there to do now? My next proceeding is to begin building up the story.
Here, my favourite three efforts must be encountered. First effort: to begin at the beginning. Second effort: to keep the story always advancing, without paying the smallest attention to the serial division in parts, or to the book publications in volumes. Third effort: to decide on the end. All this is done, as my father used to paint his skies in his famous sea-pieces, at one heat. As yet, I do not enter into details; I merely set up my landmarks. In doing this the main situations of the story present themselves; and, at the same time I see my characters in all sorts of new aspects. These discoveries lead me nearer and nearer to finding the right end. The end being decided on, I go back again to the beginning, and look at it with a new eye, and fail to be satisfied with it. I have yielded to the worst temptation that besets a novelist — the temptation to begin with a striking incident, without counting the cost in the shape of explanations that must, and will follow. These pests of fiction, to reader and writer alike, can only be eradicated in one way. I have already mentioned the way—to begin at the beginning. In the case of "The Woman In White," I get back (as I vainly believe) to the true starting point of the story. I am now at liberty to set the new novel going; having, let me repeat, no more than an outline of story and characters before me, and leaving the details, in each case to the spur of the moment.
For a week, as well as I can remember, I work for the best part of every day, but not as happily as usual. An unpleasant sense of something wrong worries me. At the beginning of the second week, a disheartening discovery reveals itself. I have not found the right beginning of "The Woman In White," yet....
My last difficulty tried me, after the story had been finished, and part of it had been set in proof for serial publication in "All The Year Round." Neither I, nor any friend whom I consulted, could find the right title. Literally, at the eleventh hour, I thought of "The Woman In White." In various quarters, this was declared to be a vile melodramatic title that would ruin the book. Among the very few friends who encouraged me, the first and foremost was Charles Dickens. "Are you too disappointed?" I said to him. "Nothing of the sort, Wilkie! A better title there cannot be."...The day's writing having been finished, with such corrections of words and such rebalancing of sentences as occur to me at the time, is subjected to a first revision on the next day, and is then handed to my copyist. The copyist's manuscript undergoes a second and a third revision, and is then sent to the printer. The proof passes through a fourth process of correction, and is sent back to have the new alterations embodied in a Revise. When this reaches me, it is looked over once more, before it goes back to press. When the serial publication of the novel is reprinted in book-form, the book-proofs undergo a sixth revision. Then, at last, my labour of correction has come to an end, and (I don't expect you to believe this) I am always sorry for it.
Article in The Globe