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Exploring Wilkie Collins’ Writing Desk

Wilkie Collins’ writing desk was kindly gifted to Pembroke by Rosemary Watt on 9th May 2017.  Graduate student Joseph Ashmore (2009) explored its story with the guidance of Librarian Patricia Aske.

Wilkie Collins wrote over thirty major books, over a hundred articles, short stories and essays, several plays, and corresponded regularly with a network of people.  All of this writing must have required mobile equipment because he commissioned a travelling desk, an exact copy of the one owned by his friend Charles Dickens.   The desk contains papers Collins kept in it, a pocket diary from 1889, and a private account book.  So what was it like for Joseph discovering all of this?

“It was such a delight and a real privilege to unpack Collins’ writing desk. It’s always fascinating to have an insight into the material conditions of writing, and especially so in this case — I guess the easy transportability of the writing desk goes hand in hand with the developments in travel and technology in the Victorian era, developments which Collins also used in his novels. The desk itself is a joy to behold—it’s clearly been well used, but it seems in great condition. There are some wonderful details: a tiny blotter, a small wooden box which has compartments for different classes of stamp, and a bodkin (though I’m not well informed enough to know what this is for).”

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The papers that accompany the desk transform it from an intriguing artefact to a personal treasure with its own story. One piece of paper records the anniversaries of important births and deaths, from Collins’ father in 1847 to the family dog, Tommy, in 1885.  But the desk also reminds us of how short Collins’ life was, with letters detailing how the desk came into the possession of his agent, A.P. Watt, following his death, and a diary that records the last year of his life.

“Looking at Collins’ diary, too, was intriguing, but it makes for pretty grim reading: Collins’ personal life wasn’t the most stable. It records the last year of his life, and most of the entries record his consumption of opium, brandy and ‘pick-me-ups’. It’s striking, given the state he must have been in, that they’re so meticulously recorded—this is a different side to Collins’s investment in the practices of writing and recording. An entry in another hand records the date and time of Collins’s death.”

It is remarkable how personal the experience of opening and exploring the writing desk becomes with the addition of diaries and papers. Collins is inescapably present, exactly as he should be.

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