A Little Fable

Daunt Books in London

Following is a short short story from Wilkie Collins (1824-1889), while I am still in the clouds after reading his novel No Name. It is called “A Little Fable”:

The other day, two good friends – a lawyer and a mathematician – happened to meet in a remote part of London, in front of a cheap book-shop. The stall outside the shop presented a row of novels, offered at half price.

Having exchanged the customary expressions of pleasure and surprise, and having made the necessary enquiries on the subject of wives and children, the two gentleman relapsed into a momentary silence. Perceiving in his friend signs of mental pre-occupation, the lawyer asked what he was thinking of. The mathematician answered, “I was looking back along the procession of small circumstances, which has led me from the starting-point of my own door to this unexpected meeting in the street.”

Hearing this, it occurred to the lawyer to look back, on his side. He also discovered that a procession of small circumstances had carried him, by devious ways, to the morsel of pavement on which he then stood. “Well,” he said, “and what do you make of it?”

“I have led a serious life,” the mathematician announced, “for forty years.”

“So have I,” the lawyer said.

“And I have just discovered,” the other continued, “that a man in the midst of reality is also, in this strange life of ours, a man in the midst of romance.”

The lawyer pondered a little on that reply. “And what does your discovery amount to?” he asked.

“Only to this. I have been to school; I have been to college; I am sixty years old – and my education is not complete. Good morning.”

They parted. As soon as the lawyer’s back was turned, the mathematician retraced his steps to the book-shop – and bought a novel.

The lawyer looked round at that moment. A strong impression was produced on him. He walked back to his friend. “When you have done with that book,” he said, lend it to me.”

Of Two Minds About Christmas

Christmas Display at L.A.’s Grier-Musser Museum

It is very easy to regard Christmas as both a time of happiness and a major pain in the ass—all at one and the same time. Below are some excerpts from the letters of Victorian novelist Wilkie Collins (1824-1889):

  • “This awful Christmas time! I am using up my cheque-book – and am in daily expectation of fresh demands on it.” to Charles Ward, December 1860-62 (I 286).
  • “at this festive season when the Plague of Plum pudding extends its ravages from end to end of the land, and lays the national digestion prostrate at the feet of Christmas…I had planned to give up eating and drinking until the return of Spring …”  to Miss Frith, 27 December 1870 (II 226).
  • “…are the filthy ‘Christmas festivities’ still an insurmountable obstacle to any proceeding that is not directly connected with the filling of fat bellies, and the exchange of vapid good wishes?” to William Tindell, 29 December 1874 (III 60; B&C II 387).
  • “…there are all sorts of impediments – literary and personal – which keep me in England at the most hateful of all English seasons (to me), the season of Cant and Christmas…But for Christmas-time, I should have read it long ago. I have returned to heaps of unanswered letters, bills, payments to pensioners, stupid and hideous Christmas cards, visits to pay – and every other social nuisance that gets in the way of a rational enjoyment of life…There is no news. Everybody is eating and drinking and exchanging conventional compliments of the season. You are well out of it” to Nina Lehmann, 28 December 1877 (III 180; B&C II 409-410).
  • “I suppose the dreadful Christmas literature is absorbing Mr Kelly’s printers.” to A P Watt 5 November 1883 (III 434).
  • “There is every temptation to die. We have not seen the sun for three weeks, in London – the plague of Christmas Cards is on the increase…Oh, what a miserable world to live in!” to Sebastian Schlesinger, 29 December 1883 (III 452; B&C II 463-465).
  • “Your kind and liberal letter reaches me , at the season devoted to prodigious eating and drinking, universal congratulating and holiday-making, and voluminous appearance of tradesmen’s Christmas bills. ‘Business’ is at a standstill, this year, until Monday next” to Perry Mason & Co, 26 December 1884 (IV 74). 
  • “But there is surely a chance of a change for the better, after the horrors of Christmas are over” To Emily Wynne, 19th December 1885 (IV 139).
  • “The horrid Christmas Day is over -. Let me forget it – and heartily wish you a happy New Year.” to A P Watt, 28 December 1885 (IV 140).
  • “It is a relief to hear that you have got over Christmas Day, and that you have energy enough to confront (I don’t say to eat) that dreadful composition called plum pudding.” to Emily Wynne, 28 December 1885 (IV 141).
  • “I have just discovered a letter of mine dated the 1st of this month – and thanking you for your kind new year’s gifts – huddled away, God knows how, among a mass of Christmas and New years’ cards in my ‘Answered Letters’ basket.” to A P Watt, 5 January 1887 (IV 222).

Despite these feelings Wilkie did keep Christmas. On 18 December 1854 he invited his friend Edward Pigott to his home in Hanover Terrace.

“Don’t talk about having no home to go to – you know you are at home here. Come and eat your Christmas dinner with us – you will find your knife, fork, plate and chair all ready for you. Time six o’clock…Mind you come on Christmas Day.” (I 110; B&C I 129).

I owe the above selections to the Wilkie at Christmas website, which also contains much useful information about this author, whose work I like more the more I read him.

What the Dickens?!

Charles Dickens (1812-1870)

It was bound to happen sooner or later. After many decades regarding him as a great writer, I seem to have suddenly fallen out of love with Charles Dickens. It happened while re-reading David Copperfield, one of my hitherto favorites of his. All of a sudden, early in the book, I just didn’t feel like continuing after Mrs Copperfield married the cruel Edward Murdstone.

Shortly thereafter, I started reading Wilkie Collins’s No Name, which I found enthralling. Where Dickens puts together a series of humorous or tragic character sketches, Collins has a rogue hero named Captain Horatio Wragge who is a mixed scoundrel, but one who seems to have a good heart. And his tall, slightly retarded wife Matilda is a compassionate portrait of a disabled woman of the 19th century.

I will try reading Dickens again—probably either The Pickwick Papers or Bleak House; but I feel that somehow I have thrown in my lot with his competition. Wilkie Collins and Anthony Trollope are, to my mind, better writers of fiction. Though perhaps not quite so deft with memorable character sketches.

Wilkie Collins (1824-1889)

Interestingly, Wilkie Collins and Charles Dickens were not only close friends, but partners who co-wrote some works and who had a marked influence on each other. It was Dickens who won all the fame, but Collins who singlehandedly invented the detective novel (The Moonstone) and who retained in his work much of the edginess which has become more popular today.

In his major novels, Collins seems to distrust marriage, seeing it almost as an existential stepping off into the void. He himself was never married, though he had a lifelong relationship with Caroline Graves and her daughter from a previous marriage.

If you are interested in learning more about Collins, there is an excellent website dedicated to his life and work.