The Vanishing Man of Letters
Whittington-Egan, Richard, Contemporary Review
TRADITIONALLY, the image of the Man of Letters is that of a quiet and gentle scholar leading an eminently civilised life isolated behind the stout book barriers of his comfortable study. Perhaps. But sometimes the Man of Letters could also be fierce; none fiercer than John Churton Collins (1848-1908). He could be positively savage. His Ephemera Critica is a breviary of carefully calculated insult. Not that, in the majority of cases, it was unearned outcome! But Collins was an undeniably strange Bookman. Keen as mustard, fearless as well as tactless, he did not hesitate to treat even the great George Saintsbury to a barbed tongue-lashing. Reviewing that critic's A Short History of English Literature, he referred scathingly to 'the mingled coarseness, triviality and dogmatism of his tone, the audacious nonsense of his generalisations, and the offensive vulgarity of his diction and style--a very well of English defiled ... he has imported into his work the worst characteristics of irresponsible journalism'. And, a final damning note, 'he seems to take a boisterous pride in exhibiting his grossness'. It was his persistently negative, not to say paranoid, ferocity as a reviewer that brought Churton Collins the opprobrium of his peers. Tennyson, who is known to have referred to him as a 'Jackass', is further alleged (by Gosse) to have epithetised him as 'A louse on the locks of literature'.
He was a sort of Jack the Ripper of the literary journals--a curiously apt citing, for as it happens Collins was an extremely ardent amateur of crime, always avid for a good wrangle over the riddles of celebrated criminological mysteries, and did actually join in the East End hunt for the veritable Jack. He also contrived to scrape up an acquaintance with the Tichborne Claimant. Railways, psychical research, and the combing of graveyards were other enthusiasms. Indeed, whenever he visited a strange town his first port of call was always the local cemetery. Although hard-working, good-humoured, and exemplarily patient as a teacher, he was subject to violent mood swings and his ebullience could evaporate in a trice, to be replaced by a black suicidal depression which might last for months. He fought a long battle for the recognition of English literature in the university curriculum, and saw victory in 1893 with the establishment of the English honours school at Oxford. Collins died a bizarre death in 1908 under circumstances just as mysterious as those of any of the old murders he so loved to puzzle over. Seized by an acute attack of depression, he decided to spend a month of rest and recuperation at a doctor friend's in …
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Publication information: Article title: The Vanishing Man of Letters. Contributors: Whittington-Egan, Richard - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 283. Issue: 1653 Publication date: October 2003. Page number: 229+. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group.
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