After he died, one of Charles Dickens’s best friends was revealed to have written a series of devastating critiques of his friend’s stories, but these reviews haven’t been seen since they were sold at auction in 1890.
But they might go on display later this year.
The reviews were written by Wilkie Collins, who met Charles Dickens in 1851 and became firm friends. Over the following years, Charles and Wilkie would become co-writers, editors and the best of friends, linked by family, sharing advice and opinions and travelling the world for work and pleasure.
Their friendship lasted a lifetime until Charles Dickens died in 1870.
However, after Wilkie Collins himself died in 1889, handwritten notes found in his library revealed what he really thought of his dear friend’s novels, and he was withering in his opinion of Dickens’ writing.
Barnaby Rudge: ‘…the weakest book that Dickens ever wrote.’
Dombey and Son: ‘…the latter half of Dombey no intelligent person can have read without astonishment at the badness of it, and the disappointment that followed lowered the sale of his next book, ‘Copperfield’…’
The Mystery of Edwin Drood: ‘…cruel to compare Dickens in the radiant prime of his genius with Dickens’s last laboured effort, the melancholy work of a worn out brain.’
Oliver Twist: ‘The one defect in that wonderful book is the helplessly bad construction of the story. The character of Nancy is the finest he ever did. He never afterwards saw all sides of a woman’s character – saw all round her. That the same man who could create Nancy created the second Mrs Dombey is the most incomprehensible anomaly that I know of in literature.’
Collins wrote the reviews inside his copy of John Forster’s The Life of Charles Dickens, and on the first page of the book, where Forster proclaims ‘Charles Dickens, the most popular novelist of the century’, Collins had added… ‘after Walter Scott’.
After his death, many of his possessions were put up for sale by auction, and the only record of Collin’s dismissive comments comes from a news article in the 20th January 1890 issue of the Pall Mall Gazette. A couple of days later, that notorious book was sold by auction house Puttick and Simpson for £3 and 5 shillings, but it has since gone missing, and no one knows who owns it today.
Ahead of an exhibition about the two men, the Charles Dickens Museum hopes that the person who owns the book with the handwritten reviews will reveal their identity and lend it to the museum.
The exhibition runs from 15th November 2023 to 25th February 2024 and marks the bicentenary of Wilkie Collins’s birth.
Emma Harper, curator of the exhibition, said, “This copy of Forster’s biography is a treasure trove of the unvarnished opinions of a great author on a fellow great author and friend. We know that Collins and Dickens were very often frank with each other but, as almost all of Collins’s letters to Dickens were burnt by the recipient, any written confirmation of this is fascinating and historically valuable. We would be very grateful for any information on its whereabouts today.”