A Discovery in the Archives

Emily Bowles is a PhD student and part-time tutor in the Department of English and Related Literature, writing up her thesis on ‘Changing Representation of Charles Dickens, 1857-1939’. You can find her on Twitter: @EmilyBowles_.

Portrait of British Writer Wilkie Collins (1824-1889).
Picture by Elliott and Fry of 55 Baker Street,
taken possibly in 1871. Library of Congress
In 2015 I was lucky enough to go to the Beinecke Library at Yale University to look at the Richard Gimbel Charles Dickens Collection, thanks in part to a Santander International Connections Award. The collection is vast (described by its cataloguer as “probably the largest accumulation anywhere of Dickensian material”), compiled over forty-five years, and the catalogue produced by John B. Podeschi is the length of a Dickens novel itself1. Incidentally, this catalogue isn’t available online and is only available in its (weighty and substantial) book form. The collection is an amazing collection of letters, images, editions; it even houses a lock of Dickens’ hair, with a certificate of authenticity from his sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth. As I was only there for a limited period of time, I engaged
in a frantic process of trying to see as much of this incredible archive as possible. One of the things I looked at was a short manuscript in blessedly clear handwriting – Dickens’ handwriting has given me a lot of difficulties! – that outlined the life of Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins in his own words2.

Collins was a friend of Dickens and also collaborated with him, writing for Dickens’ journals Household Words and All The Year Round. He is perhaps best known as the father of detective fiction – his novel The Moonstone (1868) is considered the first full-length detective novel. My PhD thesis centres on representations of Dickens, in which I explore how Dickens was written about in a variety of forms including biographies, speeches and journalism. I’d done some previous work with Collins so I mentally filed it away to look up later; I’d never heard of a Collins autobiography, but didn’t know enough to identify what I was looking at.

Several months later, I put out a few feelers with people I knew to try to work out what the manuscript actually was. Thanks to the Wilkie Collins Society, I found out that the manuscript I’d looked at and put to the back of my mind was actually presumed lost for more than a hundred years. By a quirk of cataloguing, it was part of the Dickens collection rather than a Collins one: in trying to work out if other writers knew it was there, I discovered biographers of Collins had visited Yale and worked in the Beinecke Library, but hadn’t ‘discovered’ this manuscript – making it, amazingly, both ‘lost’ but also thoroughly catalogued, hidden in not-quite-plain sight.

Dickens at the Blacking Warehouse by Fred
Barnard. Published in The Leisure Hour in 1904.
This is not all that uncommon for manuscripts and autobiographical material in the Victorian period. Dickens had also written a short autobiographical piece, the contents of which were only made public after his death. This autobiographical fragment was used in the Life of Charles Dickens (1872-74) published by his lifelong friend John Forster, and it revealed for the first time Dickens’ difficult childhood and the time he spent working in a boot blacking factory (he writes of the “secret agony of [his] soul” during this time). The manuscript of this account, too, is lost; Forster, quite old and infirm by that time, is known to have cut and pasted extracts from letters into the biography manuscript, and this may be the fate that befell the autobiographical fragment. Or, then again, perhaps it is waiting in an archive to be discovered – that’s the wonderful thing about visiting libraries.

The Collins manuscript itself, only three pages long, was dictated at the breakfast table and sent to an American journalist to provide context for an article he was writing. The journalist, George Makepeace Towle, had copied verbatim some of Collins’ words for his final piece. The content of the manuscript is therefore not ‘new’ in the sense that it doesn’t tell us much about Collins’ life that we didn’t already know from the Towle article (published in Appleton’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Art on 3 September 1870). It does, however, give us back Collins’ own words and expressions, and reveal how he conceived of his early years and education; where he laid the stresses in his own life, and what moments he perceived as formative – at least, the kind of narrative of his life that he wanted to give to a journalist.

So while the ‘discovery’ is not the headline-grabbing revelation that it might have been, it does show how important it is to make thorough use of library catalogues! And it leaves us with the question of how many researchers came and went without asking the archivists, the cataloguer, or the librarians, one (or several) of whom must have known it was there (but perhaps without knowing its significance). I have written about my find for the Wilkie Collins Journal, so you can read more a more thorough explanation of what the manuscript tells us in issue 14, which can be found on the Wilkie Collins Journal website.

Interested in finding out more about Wilkie Collins?  The University of York Library has many primary and secondary resources that will be of interest for teaching or research.

Cover art by Peter Whiteman. J. M. Dent & Sons,
London, 1977 reprint. Photo by John Keogh.
A first port of call is the Literature section on the second floor of the Morrell Library.  Here you will find a vast range of texts written by and criticism on Wilkie Collins.

You can also access a range of electronic resources off campus.  This list of primary and secondary resources is from our Subject Guides page where you can find information of our 19th century collections for English and Related Literatures.

Finally,  we have a copy of The Moonstone in the Milner-White collection.  The Very Revd Eric Milner-White, Dean of York from 1941 until his death in 1963, was a member of the University Promotion Committee, which was responsible for the original planning of the University of York. One of his many interests was book collecting, and his collection of English detective fiction came to the Library after his death.  The Moonstone is widely considered to be the first full length detective novel in the English language including ‘red herrings’, a reconstruction of the crime, false suspects and a final twist in the plot.

1. John B. Podeschi, Dickens and Dickensiana: A Catalogue of the Richard Gimbel Collection in the Yale University Library. New Haven: Yale University Library, 1980. Print. ix.

2. Wilkie Collins, Autobiographical Sketch. MS. Gimbel-Dickens. Beinecke Library, Yale University. H1239.