15 MAY 1880, Page 19


IN the dedication of this book to his Italian friend and trans- lator, Signor Alberto Caccia, Mr. Collins takes occasion to remark that he respects his art far too sincerely to permit. limits to be wantonly assigned to it which are imposed in no other civilised country on the face of the earth; that he has never asserted a truer claim to the best and noblest sympathies of Christian readers than in presenting to them the character of the innocent victims of infamy ; and that he knows that the wholesome audience of the nation at large has done liberal justice to his books. He then goes on to allude to the "interest- ing moral problem" which he has worked out in the present volumes, and affirms that the events in which the two chief per- sonages play their parts have been combined with all possible care, and have been derived, to the best of his ability, from natural and simple causes.

It would seem, therefore, that Mr. Collins is inclined to take himself quite seriously. It is the more interesting to know this, inasmuch as the ordinary reader of Mr. Collins's books might conceivably fail to discover it from the evidence of the books themselves. It has been popularly supposed that Mr. Collins was a mighty weaver of plots, and that the dissemination of his works was in direct proportion to the intricacy of his webs. When the ordinary reader thinks of Wilkie Collins, he connects him in his mind with memories of The Woman in. White, The Moonstone, and After Dark ; whereas Mr. Collins himself has all the time been pluming himself on The New Magdalene, The Law and the Lady, and Fallen Leares,—and this by no means because of the awful or entertaining ingenuity with which the denouements were worked out, but because they enlighten humanity in regard to certain moral problems of deep and momentous import, and hold up to nature a mirror which educates the soul even more than it diverts the understanding. The plots are there, it is true, but there are no more than the necessary vehicle for the inculcation of profound ideas ; they are not to be regarded as owning any intrinsic value beyond this. And Mr. Collins objects to the squeamishness of English taste ; he vindicates the superiority of art to bigoted and temporary fashions in morals, and wishes, apparently, to give his readers to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as freely as M. Zola does, or as M. Theophile Gautier did.

All this goes to show one of two things : either that a public may be lamentably mistaken in its author, or that the author may be curiously mistaken about himself. Is Mr. Collins, in fact as he declares himself to be in purpose, a moral reformer, or is he merely an ingenious story-teller? Are his ends greater than his means, or are his means so cunningly devised as to make his ends comparatively insignificant or invisible ? Do his puppets exist solely for the sake of the dance, or is the dance contrived to elucidate the mechanism of the puppets? Or, to approach the matter from another side, is a noble warmth at the heart, or a creepy sensation down the spine, the commoner

• /cabers Daughter. By Wilkie Collins. London Chatto and Whulas. consequence of reading one of Mr. Collins's novels ? and can it be that Mr. Collins, incapacitated by the nature of the case from feeling the creepy sensation himself, has incautiously leapt to the conclusion that it is incumbent upon him to feel the warmth at the heart? These are weighty questions, to which we may not venture to give an authoritative reply. Each one of Mr. Collins's readers must answer them for himself, accord- ing to the light that is in him. But such is the fallen nature of mankind, that most of us will decline, save upon the most undeniable evidence, to believe that a hornpipe is a religious convulsion, a merry-andrew a moralist, or a Wilkie Collins a Jeremy Taylor, or even a Bunyan. We are willing to be amused by anybody; but when it comes to being edified, we are apt to become rather fastidious, especially if the edification is presented to us in the three-volume form.

But let us be serious for a moment—as serious as is Mr. Wilkie 'Collins himself. When a novelist has written so long or so much that he begins to lose the pleasure of creation, and to suspect his ideas of a lack of freshness, he will generally (if he goes on writing at all) endeavour to justify himself in doing so by claiming a motive and a value for his work loftier and more -abstract than satisfied him before. His quips and cranks have grown stale, and no longer produce their former effect; but since he cannot afford to be neglected, he must needs strive to -arrest attention by blustering about his "motives." "If you imagine," he says to his reluctant audience, "that this object which I hold in my hand is a sow's ear, you are sadly mistaken. I respect zoological science too sincerely to permit limits to be wantonly assigned to it; nor have I ever asserted a truer claim to the best and noblest sympathies of Christian hearers, than when I observe that if the sow is a development of protoplasm, the silkworm is no less so ; and that consequently the sow might be considered but another version of the silkworm, and a silk purse but a special adaptation of the sow's ear." But after all is said and done, the audience do but arch their eyebrows, and remain of opinion that the proverb has the best of the argu- ment, after all, and that their friend on the stump was quite as well worth listening to when he shared the common view, as .since he has taken to elaborating perfunctory deductions.

And yet the audience are not altogether just, nor is the haranguer altogether unjustifiable. The simplest facts of life .are complex enough in their first origin to puzzle an Aristotle, if he has nothing better to be puzzled about; and the novelist who has come to the end of his inventive powers may plausibly believe that, in thenceforth subordinating invention to analysis, he has advanced rather than retrograded. As regards Mr. Wilkie Collins, moreover, we are the less disposed to press hard upon him because, in Jezebel's Daughter, he is nearly as enter- taining as he ever was, and the only trace of moral or elevated motive that the book contains is to be found in the above-men- tioned dedication. The story is told in the fantastically real- istic way which Mr. Collins has uniformly affected, and which, as much as anything else, classes him with those who possess inventiveness, as distinguished from imagination. In other words, Mr. Collins has not the power to bring an object or an event so vividly before his mind as to feel safe in removing it from the strictest relation to time, space, and cause. His ideas must grow laboriously out of the earth ; they can never come to him from the sky ; and as he lacks imagination himself, he inevitably postulates the lack of it in his reader, and in the effort to make him believe that he is reading a genuine "narrative," he -succeeds in never letting him forget that he himself is penning unmitigated fiction. The story is intended to be very horrible, but what is true of all Mr. Collins's stories is true also of this,— in his most horrible moments he is never otherwise than enter- taining, except when he commits a breach of good-taste. And the reason is not far to seek ; it lies in the unlifelikeness of the dramatis personce. You may place a character in the most appalling situation; you may subject him to the most inhuman tortures, mental or physical, and the most tender-hearted reader will not much mind, so long as he is persuaded that the charac- ter in question could never by any possibility have existed. If Mr. Collins possessed the faculty of making us believe in his fictitious people, the mind refuses to contemplate the appalling effects he would have achieved. Unfortunately, this is a sword that cuts both ways, or rather, it is as blunt of one edge as it is of the other. If Mr. Collins cannot terrify us, neither can he stir our tenderer emotions; if we do not lament when he mourns, neither do we dance when he pipes. But the reader sits with a pleased grin of suspense and curiosity widening his features, and he reads

and reads, and does not want to leave off till he comes to the end. Say what you will, it is capital entertainment, smoothly and artfully prepared by a workman who knows the use of his tools. But why should Mr. Collins try to make us believe that Jezebel, the modern Lnerezia Borgia, who will poison you as soon as look at you, is at bottom what Artemns Ward or Mr. Barnum would call a "moral figger,"—is redeemed, in other words, by the supremacy of her maternal affection? This re- demption is so palpably lugged in by the head and ears, and is in itself so grotesquely preposterous, that we should have sup- posed even Mr. Collins might have hesitated to suggest it. But he has done so in accordance with a fashion which was perhaps introduced by Dickens, and which has been violently developed since his time, the fashion of discovering exquisite traits of generosity, tenderness, and nobility in natures the most lost and degraded. It is a cheap and tawdry form of senti- mentality; it would ascribe to the author a more than ordinary power of seeing into the depths of a millstone ; but, so far as our knowledge and belief go, it rests upon a foundation ef fact so small as to be practically non-existent. A man or a woman is wicked exactly in proportion as be or she is selfish ; and no wicked person can ever do a" good "action from other than a selfish motive. Moral deformity is as much a matter of growth, organisation, and permanence as is physical deformity; and the latter can be thrown aside at a moment's warning, just as little as the former. But alas some artists have so little regard for the integrity of nature, that they would be willing to let the sun rise in the west, if thereby they might get a more striking effect of light and shade for their lay-figure. If Mr. Collins would only consent to let his stories alone, and not insist upon our taking out of the bag more than was ever put into it, or than it is capable of holding, he would save himself much trouble, and his readers a good deal of yawning.