Monday, July 09, 2012

Wilkie Collins meets a reader

Peter Ackroyd's brief life of Wilkie Collins, while disappointingly thin on gossipy speculations about Collins's seedier aspect--his two households, his opium addiction--does offer plenty of anecdotal nuggets to enjoy, of which the following is easily my favorite. Soon after the publication of his novel of a reformed prostitute, The New Magdalen, Collins took a trip on a train and shared a car with a clergyman and his two daughters. Ackroyd writes,
When the clergyman fell asleep one of the young ladies quietly took out a book from her bag; she dropped it and, when Collins retrieved it for her he saw that it was The New Magdalen. She blushed as she realised that her secret reading was discovered. "It's perfectly dreadful," she told her sister. But soon enough she was thoroughly absorbed in it. On signs that her father was about to wake, she quickly returned the book to her bag. When Collins looked at her, she blushed again.
It's a charming little story, almost too perfect to believe, like the story (for which I can't this morning find a reference) that Dickens overheard a reader in a shop asking for the next number of his current book and from that realized just how far behind he'd allowed himself to fall--at which point he raced home and set to work.

But it's more fun to believe it, so let's. And let's also be grateful that Collins wasn't traveling in Japan, where people wrap their books in brown covers, or in the future, where all e-readers present the same anonymous face.

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