Contemporary Reviews, Adaptations, and Imitations
Wilkie Collins published “A Petition to the Novel Writers” in the December 6, 1856 edition of Household Words. This was the journal that Charles Dickens published prior to All the Year Round, the publication that was to serialize The Woman in White three years later. In “A Petition to the Novel Writers,” Collins identifies himself as a member of a “Disreputable Society” of people who read novels voraciously (no matter what “dull people” who shun novels have to say about him). Collins then pivots to address a series of humorous demands to the authors of popular fiction.
In many ways, this essay prefigures the beliefs about novels that were to shape The Woman in White. Current-day readers might find Collins’s outline of desirable or trite qualities in a heroine or hero especially interesting. Equally relevant are some of his early reflections on how contemporary novelists tend to depict sisters in fiction. Collins complains about how authors often create siblings with different hair colors and statures and assign them contrasting but conventional personalities. In The Woman in White, the half-sisters Laura and Marian differ significantly in their physical appearances and temperaments, and the points of similarity or difference between Collins’s opinions in “A Petition to the Novel Writers” and his depictions in his later novel are particularly notable for this reason.
Although essays like this one can shine a light on some of an author’s preferences, it’s important to remember that this was a humorous piece rather than an artistic manifesto. This essay does not provide the key to Collins’s writing style over the years—indeed, in several of his novels, we can see Collins dipping into some of the character traits and descriptors that he complains about here. This isn’t necessarily a betrayal of Collins’s stated values in this essay. When he describes the things that he wishes authors would stop doing, Collins describes his preference not as an insult to some elite artistic vision, but as a matter of audience enjoyment. A particular character trait could be “thrilling for the first five novels or so” before losing its luster in subsequent novels. The trick, it seems, is to introduce an engaging variation into fiction while not depriving readers of some of the character types they’ve known and loved over the years. What this essay can help us to think about are the twin pulls that Collins and other novelists felt between tradition on the one hand and novelty on the other. How they navigated these pulls depended, at least in part, on the most fictional trends at the time that dominated when these authors were serializing their latest tales.
This essay also provides an insight into the wide range of attitudes about novels that middle-class Victorians held. In describing his book group, Collins highlights his frustration at others’ prudish insistence on ‘dull’ readings rather than novels that delight and entertain. His love of escapist fiction, his relationship with the circulating libraries of his time, and his discussions about literary characters with his family can provide a glimpse into the distinct reading cultures that existed among people of the same class and in the same locale.
A PETITION TO THE NOVEL-WRITERS.
I HOPE nobody will be shocked, but it is only proper that I should confess, before writing another line, that I am about to disclose the existence of a Disreputable Society, in one of the most respectable counties in England. I dare not be more particular as to the locality, and I cannot possibly mention the members by name. However, I have no objection to admit that I am perpetual Secretary, that my wife is President, that my daughters are Council, and that my nieces form the Society. Our object is to waste our time, misemploy our intellects, and ruin our morals; or, in other words, to enjoy the prohibited luxury of novel-reading.
It is a private opinion of mine that the dull people in this country—no matter whether they belong to the Lords or the Commons—are the people who, privately as well as publicly, govern the nation. By dull people, I mean people of all degrees of rank and education, who never want to be amused. I don’t know how long it is since these dreary members of the population first hit on the cunning idea—the only idea they ever had, or will have—of calling themselves Respectable; but I do know that, ever since that time, this great nation has been afraid of them—afraid in religious, in political, and in social matters. If my present business were with the general question, I think I could prove this assertion easily and indisputably by simple reference to those records of our national proceedings which appear in the daily newspapers. But my object in writing is of the particular kind. I have a special petition to address to the writers of novels on the part of the Disreputable Society to which I belong; and if I am to give any example here of the supremacy of the dull people, it must be drawn from one or two plain evidences of their success in opposing the claims of our fictitious literature to fit popular recognition.
The dull people decided years and years ago, as every one knows, that novel-writing was the lowest species of literary exertion, and that novel-reading was a dangerous luxury and an utter waste of time. They gave, and still give, reasons for this opinion, which are very satisfactory to persons born without Fancy or Imagination, and which are utterly inconclusive to everyone else. But, with reason or without it, the dull people have succeeded in affixing to our novels the stigma of being a species of contraband goods. Look, for example, at the Prospectus of any librarian. The principal part of his trade of book-lending consists in the distributing of novels; and he is uniformly unwilling to own that simple fact. Sometimes, he is afraid to print the word Novel at all in his lists, and smuggles in his contraband fiction under the head of Miscellaneous Literature. Sometimes, after freely offering all histories, all biographies, all voyages, all travels, he owns self-reproachfully to the fact of having novels too, but deprecatingly adds—Only the best! As if no other branch of the great tree of literature ever produced tasteless and worthless fruit! In all cases, he puts novels last on his public list of the books he distributes, though they stand first on his private list of the books he gains by. Why is he guilty of all these sins against candour? Because he is afraid of the dull people.
Look again—and this brings me to the subject of these lines—at our Book Clubs. How paramount are the dull people there! How they hug to their rigid bosoms Voyages and Travels! How they turn their intolerant backs on novels! How resolutely they get together, in a packed body, on the committee, and impose their joyless laws on the yielding victims of the club, who secretly want to be amused! Our book club was an example of the unresisted despotism of their rule. We began with a law that novels should be occasionally admitted; and the dull people abrogated it before we had been in existence a twelvemonth. I smuggled in the last morsel of fiction that our starving stomachs were allowed to consume, and produced a hurricane of virtuous indignation at the next meeting of the committee. All the dull people of both sexes attended. One dull gentleman said the author was a pantheist, and quoted some florid ecstasies on the subject of scenery and flowers in support of the opinion. Nobody seemed to know exactly what a pantheist was, but everybody cried “Hear, hear,”—which did just as well for the purpose. Another dull gentleman said the book was painful, because there was a death-bed scene in it. A third reviled it for morbid revelling in the subject of crime, because a shot from the pistol of a handsome highwayman dispatched the villain of the story. But the great effect of the day was produced by a lady, the mother of a large family which began with a daughter of eighteen years, and ended with a boy of eight months. This lady’s objection affected the heroine of the novel,—a most respectable married woman, perpetually plunged in virtuous suffering, but an improper character for young persons to read about, because the poor thing had three accouchements in the course of three volumes. “How can I suffer my daughters to read such a book as that?” cried our prolific subscriber, indignantly.  A tumult of applause followed. A chorus of speeches succeeded, full of fierce references to “our national morality,” and “the purity of our hearths and homes.” A resolution was passed excluding all novels for the future; and then, at last, the dull people held their tongues, and sat down with a thump in their chairs, and glared contentedly on each other in stolid controversial triumph. From that time forth (histories and biographies being comparatively scarce articles), we gaping subscribers were fed by the dull people on nothing but Voyages and Travels. Every man (or woman) who had voyaged and travelled to no purpose, who had made no striking observations of any kind, who had nothing whatever to say, and who said it at great length in large type on thick paper, with accompaniment of frowsy lithographic illustrations, was introduced weekly to our hearths and homes as the most valuable guide, philosopher, and friend whom our rulers could possibly send us. All the subscribers submitted; all partook the national dread of the dull people, with the exception of myself and the members of my family enumerated at the beginning of these pages. We gallantly and publicly abandoned the club: got a box-full of novels for ourselves, once a month, from London; lost caste with our respectable friends in consequence; and became, for the future, throughout the length and breadth of our neighbourhood, the Disreputable Society to which I have already alluded. If the dull people of our district were told to-morrow that my wife, daughters, and nieces had all eloped in different directions, leaving just one point of the compass open as a runaway outlet for me and the cook, I feel firmly persuaded that not one of them would be inclined to discredit the report. They would just look up from their Voyages and Travels, say to each other, “Exactly what might have been expected!” and go on with their reading again as if no such thing as an extraordinary domestic tragedy had occurred in the neighbourhood.
And now, to come to the main object of this paper,—the humble petition of myself and family to certain of our novel–writers. We may say of ourselves that we deserve to be heard, for we have braved public opinion for the sake of reading novels; and we have read, for some years past, all (I hold to the assertion, incredible as it may appear)—all the stories in one, two, and three volumes, that have issued from the press. It has been a hard struggle—but we are actually still abreast of the flood of fiction at this moment. The critics may say that one novel is worth reading, and that another is not. We are no critics, and we read everything. The enjoyment we have derived from our all-devouring propensities has been immense,—the gratitude we feel to the ladies and gentlemen who feed us to repletion, is inexpressible. What, then, have we got to petition about? A very slight matter. Marking, first of all, as exceptions, certain singular instances of originality, I may mention, as a rule, that our novel-reading enjoyments have hitherto been always derived from the same sort of characters and the same sort of stories, varied, indeed, as to names and minor events, but fundamentally always the same, through hundreds on hundreds of successive volumes, by hundreds on hundreds of different authors. We, none of us, complain of this, so far; for we like to have as much as possible of any good thing; but we beg deferentially to inquire whether it might not be practicable to give us a little variety for the future? We believe we have only to prefer our request to the literary ladies and gentlemen who are so good as to interest and amuse us, to have it granted immediately. They cannot be expected to know when the reader has had enough of one set of established characters and events, unless the said reader takes it on himself to tell them. Actuated by this conviction, I propose in the present petition to enumerate respectfully, on behalf of myself and family in our capacity of readers, some of the most remarkable among the many good things in fiction which we think we have had enough of. We have no unwholesome craving after absolute novelty —all that we venture to ask for is, the ringing of a slight change on some of the favourite old tunes which we have long since learnt by heart.
To begin with our favourite Hero. He is such an old friend that we have by this time got to love him dearly. We would not lose sight of him altogether on any consideration whatever. If we thought we had done with his aquiline nose, his tall form, his wavy hair, his rich voice, melancholy would fall on our fireside, and we should look at life for the future with jaundiced eyes. Far be it from us to hint at the withdrawal of this noble, loving, injured fascinating man! Long may we continue to weep on his deep chest and press respectfully to our lips the folds of his ample cloak! Personally speaking it is by no means of him that we are getting tired, but of certain actions which we think he has performed often enough. For instance, may we put it respectfully to the ladies and gentlemen who are so good as to exhibit him, that he had better not “stride” any more? He has stridden so much, on so many different occasions, across so many halls, along so many avenues, in and out at so many drawing-room doors, that he must be knocked up by this time, and his dear legs ought really to have a little rest. Again, when his dignity is injured by irreverent looks or words, can he not be made to assert it for the future without “drawing himself up to his full height?” He has really been stretched too much by perpetual indulgence in this exercise for scores and scores of years. Let him sit down do—please let him sit down next time! It would be quite new, and so impressive. Then, again, we have so often discovered him standing with folded arms, so often beheld him pacing with folded arms, so often heard him soliloquise with folded arms, so often broken in upon him meditating with folded arms, that we think he had better do something else with his arms for the future. Could he swing them for a change? or put them akimbo? or drop them suddenly on either side of him? or could he give them a holiday altogether, and fold his legs for a change? Perhaps not. The word Legs— why, I cannot imagine—seems always suggestive of jocularity. “Fitzherbert stood up and folded his arms,” is serious. “Fitzherbert sat down and folded his legs,” is comic. Why, I should like to know.
A word—one respectful word of remonstrance to the lady-novelists especially. We think they have put our Hero on horseback often enough. For the first five hundred novels or so, it was grand, it was thrilling, when he threw himself into the saddle after the inevitable quarrel with his lady-love, and galloped off madly to his bachelor home. It was grand to read this—it was awful to know, as we came to know at last by long experience, that he was sure before he got home to be spilt—no, not spilt; that is another word suggestive of jocularity—thrown, and given up as dead. It was inexpressibly soothing to behold him in the milder passages of his career, moody in the saddle, with the reins thrown loosely over the arched neck of the steed, as the gallant animal paced softly with his noble burden, along a winding road, under a blue sky, on a balmy afternoon in early spring. All this was delightful reading for a certain number of years; but everything wears out at last, and trust me, ladies, your hero’s favourite steed, your dear, intelligent, affectionate, glossy, long-tailed horse, has really done his work, and may now be turned loose, for some time to come, with great advantage to yourselves, and your readers.
Having spoken a word to the ladies, I am necessarily and tenderly reminded of their charming representatives—the Heroines. Let me say something, first, about our favourite two sisters—the tall dark one, who is serious and unfortunate: the short light one, who is coquettish and happy. Being an Englishman, I have, of course, an ardent attachment to anything like an established rule, simply because it is established. I know that it is a rule that, when two sisters are presented in a novel, one must be tall and dark, and the other short and light. I know that five-feet-eight of female flesh and blood, when accompanied by an olive complexion, black eyes, and raven hair, is synonymous with strong passions and an unfortunate destiny. I know that five feet nothing, golden ringlets, soft blue eyes, and a lily-brow, cannot possibly be associated by any well-constituted novelist, with anything but ringing laughter, arch innocence, and final matrimonial happiness. I have studied these great first principles of the art of fiction too long not to reverence them as established laws; but I venture respectfully to suggest that the time has arrived when it is no longer necessary to insist on them in novel after novel. I am afraid there is something naturally revolutionary in the heart of man. Although I know it to be wrong, to be against all precedent, I want to revolutionise our favourite two sisters. Would any bold innovator run all risks, and make them both alike in complexion and in stature? Or would any desperate man (I dare not suggest such a course to the ladies) effect an entire alteration, by making the two sisters change characters? I tremble when I see to what lengths the spirit of innovation is leading me. Would the public accept the tall dark-haired sister if she exhibited a jolly disposition and a tendency to be flippant in her talk? Would readers be fatally startled out of their sense of propriety if the short charmer with the golden hair appeared before them as a serious, strong-minded, fierce-spoken, miserable, guilty woman? It might be a dangerous experiment to make this change; but it would be worth trying—rather (if I may be allowed to mention anything so utterly irrelevant to the subject under discussion as real life) because I think there is some warrant in nature for attempting the proposed innovation. Judging by my own small experience I should say that strong minds and passionate natures reside principally in the breasts of little light women especially if they have angelic blue eyes and a quantity of fair ringlets. The most facetiously skittish woman for her age with whom I am acquainted is my own wife who is three inches taller than I am. The heartiest laugher I ever heard is my second daughter who is bigger even than my wife and has the blackest eyebrows and the swarthiest cheek in the whole neighbourhood. With such instances as these, producible from the bosom of my own family, who can wonder if I want, for once in a way, to overthrow the established order of things, and have a jovial dark sister and a dismal light one introduced as startling novelties in one or two of the hundred new volumes which we are likely to receive next season from the Circulating Library?
But, after all, our long-established two sisters seem to be exceptional beings, and to possess comparatively small importance, the moment our minds revert to that vastly superior single personage, THE HEROINE. Let me mention, to begin with, that we wish no change to be made in our respectable, recognised, old-fashioned Heroine, who has lived and loved and wept for centuries. I have taken her to my bosom thousands of times already, and ask nothing better than to indulge in that tender luxury thousands of times again. I love her blushing cheek, her gracefully-rounded form, her chiselled nose, her slender waist, her luxuriant tresses which always escape from the fillet that binds them. Any man or woman who attempts, from a diseased craving after novelty, to cheat me out of one of her moonlight walks, one of her floods of tears, one of her kneeling entreaties to obdurate relatives, one of her rapturous sinkings on her lover’s bosom, is a novelist whom I distrust and dislike. He, or she, may be a very remarkable writer; but their books will not do for my family and myself. The Heroine, the whole Heroine, and nothing but the Heroine—that is our cry, if you drive us into a corner and insist on our stating precisely what we want, in the plainest terms possible.
Being, thus, conservatives in regard to the established Heroine, though tainted with radicalism in reference to the established Hero, it will not, I trust, appear a very unaccountable proceeding, if we now protest positively, and even indignantly, against a new kind of heroine—a bouncing, ill-conditioned, impudent young woman, who has been introduced among us of late years. I venture to call this wretched and futile substitute for our dear, tender, gentle, loving old Heroine, the Man-Hater; because, in every book in which she appears, it is her mission from first to last to behave as badly as possible to every man with whom she comes in contact. She enters on the scene with a preconceived prejudice against my sex, for which I, as a man, abominate her; for which my wife, my daughters, my nieces, and all other available women whom I have consulted on the subject, despise her. When her lover makes her an offer of marriage, she receives it in the light of a personal insult, goes up to her room immediately afterwards, and flies into a passion with herself, because she is really in love with the man all the time—comes down again, and snubs him before company instead of making a decent apology—pouts and flouts at him, on all after-occasions, until the end of the book is at hand—then, suddenly, turns round and marries him! If we feel inclined to ask why she could not, under the circumstances, receive his advances with decent civility at first, we are informed that her “maidenly consciousness” prevented it. This maidenly consciousness seems to me very like new English for our old-fashioned phrase bad manners. And I am the more confirmed in this idea, because, on all minor occasions, the Man-Hater is persistently rude and disobliging to the last. Every individual in the novel who wears trousers and gets within range of her maidenly consciousness, becomes her natural enemy from that moment. If he makes a remark on the weather, her lip curls; if he asks leave to give her a potato at dinner-time (meaning, poor soul, to pick out for her the mealiest in the dish), her neck curves in scorn; if he offers a compliment, finding she won’t have a potato, her nostril dilates. Whatever she does, even in her least aggressive moments, she always gets the better of all the men. They are set up like nine-pins for the Man-Hater to knock down. They are described, on their introduction, as clever, resolute fellows; but they lose their wits and their self-possession the instant they come within hail of the Man-Hater’s terrible tongue. No man kisses her, no man dries her tears, no man sees her blush (except with rage), all through the three volumes. And this is the opposition Heroine who is set up as successor to our soft, feminine, loveable, sensitive darling of former days!
Set up, too, by lady-novelists, who ought surely to be authorities when female characters are concerned. Is the Man-Hater a true representative of young women, now-a-days? If so, what is to become of my son—my unlucky son, aged twelve years. In a short time, he will be marriageable, and he will go into the world to bill and coo, and offer his hand and heart, as his father did before him. My unhappy offspring, what a prospect awaits you! One forbidding phalanx of Man-Haters, bristling with woman’s dignity, and armed to the teeth with maidenly consciousness, occupies the wide matrimonial field, look where you will! Ill-fated youth, yet a few years, and the female neck will curve, the female nostril dilate, at the sight of you. You see that stately form, those rustling skirts, that ample brow, and fall on your knees before it, and cry “Marry me, marry me, for Heaven’s sake!” My deluded boy, that is not a woman—it is a Man-Hater —a whited sepulchre full of violent expostulations and injurious epithets. She will lead you the life of a costermonger’s ass, until she has exhausted her whole stock of maidenly consciousness; and she will then say (in effect, if not in words):—”Inferior animal, I loved you from the first—I have asserted my womanly dignity by making an abject fool of you in public and private—now you may marry me!” Marry her not, my son! Go rather to the slave-market at Constantinople—buy a Circassian wife, who has heard nothing and read nothing about man-haters, bring her home (with no better dowry than pots of the famous Cream from her native land to propitiate your mother and sisters), and trust to your father to welcome an Asiatic daughter-in-law, who will not despise him for the unavoidable misfortune of being—a Man!
But I am losing my temper over a hypothetical case. I am forgetting the special purpose of my petition, which is to beg that the Man-Hater may be removed altogether from her usurped position of heroine. I have respectfully suggested slight changes in other characters—I imperatively demand total extinction in the present instance. The new-fashioned heroine is a libel on her sex. As a husband and a father, I solemnly deny that she is in any single respect a natural woman. Am I no judge? I have a wife, and I made her an offer. Did she receive it as the Man-Haters receive offers? Can I ever forget the mixture of modest confusion and perfect politeness with which that admirable woman heard me utter the most absolute nonsense that ever issued from my lips? Perhaps she is not fit for a heroine. Well, I can give her up in that capacity without a pang. But my daughters and nieces have claims, I suppose, to be considered as examples of what young ladies are in the present day. Ever since I read the first novel with a Man-Hater in it, I have had my eye on their nostrils, and I can make affidavit that I have never yet seen them dilate under any circumstances, or in any society. As for curling their lips and curving their necks, they have attempted both operations at my express request, and have found them to be physical impossibilities. In men’s society, their manners (like those of all other girls whom I meet with) are natural and modest; and—in the cases of certain privileged men—winning, into the bargain. They open their eyes with astonishment when they read of the proceedings of our new-fashioned heroines, and throw the book indignantly across the room, when they find a nice man submitting to be bullied by a nasty woman, because he has paid her the compliment of falling in love with her. No, no! we positively decline to receive any more Man-Haters, and there is an end of it!
With this uncompromising expression of opinion, I think it desirable to bring the present petition to a close. There are one or two other good things in fiction, of which we have had enough; but I refrain from mentioning them, from modest apprehension of asking for too much at a time. If the slight changes in general, and the sweeping reform in particular, which I have ventured to suggest, can be accomplished, we are sure, in the future as in the past, to be grateful, appreciating, and incessant novel-readers. If we cannot claim any critical weight in the eyes of our esteemed authors, we can at least arrogate to ourselves the minor merit, not only of reading novels perpetually but (and this is a rarer virtue) of publicly and proudly avowing the fact. We only pretend to be human beings with a natural desire for as much amusement as our work-a-day destinies will let us have. We are just respectable enough to be convinced of the usefulness of occasionally reading for information; but we are also certain (and we say it boldly, in the teeth of the dull people), that there are few higher, better, or more profitable enjoyments in this world than reading a good novel.
Publication note: The periodical story that follows this article is titled “The Frenchman With Two Wives.”
Collins, Wilkie. “A Petition to the Novel Writers.” Household Words [London, England], edited by Charles Dickens, vol. 14, no. 350, 6 December 1856, pp. 350-54. Dickens Journals Online, http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-xiv/page-481.html. Accessed 2 November 2018.
- If you would like to view scanned images of the original publication text, listen to an audio version of this article, or explore the fiction and essays that followed it in Household Words, the curators of Dickens Journals Online have hosted and shared the entire periodical. ↵
- "Accouchement" refers to giving birth, and Collins's reference to this woman's very large family pokes fun at the hypocrisy of this woman's protest. ↵
- Collins was to keep his own counsel man of these respects. At no time does Walter Hartright "stride" or "draw himself up to his full height" in the serial edition of The Woman in White. ↵
- For all that he celebrated women's competence and autonomy in some of his work, Wilkie Collins was still tied enough to prevailing cultures of sexism, racism, and dehumanization to make jokes like this one in multiple contexts. It is likely that a significant portion of his audience found these jokes as humorous as he did. ↵