Theosophical History Conference 2003

The Many Lives of Mabel Collins

Kim Farnell


Mabel Collins was born Minna Collins on 9th September 1851 at St Peters Port Guernsey at 8:30 am LMT. She was the daughter of Edward James Mortimer (known as Mortimer) Collins, a popular poet and journalist and Susanna Hubbard, the daughter of a Russian Merchant and banker. Her father was born in 1827, an only child the son of a Plymouth solicitor. His family weren’t wealthy and his father died of consumption when he was twelve. Soon after, his mother Elizabeth joined the Plymouth Brethren remaining a member until her death in 1872.

Mortimer was largely self-educated. The Collings family were often in severe financial straits. In 1838 he took his first job. His writings were first published in 1844. He wrote essays and poems originally for a variety of publications and also occasionally taught. By 1847 Mortimer decided to marry. When he arrived to take a new job he found the headmaster was ill in bed, and his wife received him. He fell in love and decided that she was the one he would marry. Three weeks later her husband died from his illness.

    When she met Mortimer Susanna Hubbard was forty, nineteen years older than him and the mother of six children, the oldest of whom was little younger than Mortimer himself. In 1849 Mortimer proposed – she refused immediately. Their families were horrified at the idea and sought to prevent the marriage taking place. On 9th May 1850 the couple were finally married. Though Susanna knew her new husband was much younger than she it was not until he signed the marriage register that she realised how young he really was.

    Things were difficult with Mortimer’s low income and his recently acquired large family. Susanna managed to raise some money and they decided to buy a school. It was a disaster and after three months they gave up. When a partnership in a Guernsey school turned out to be another disaster, Mortimer landed a head teachers job at another school. Life was treating the family well when Minna Mabel Collins was born. Mortimer worshipped her from the first. Calling her Mabel or May, he wrote endless poems and sonnets for her.

    Mortimer was obsessed with his writing and Susanna had to take responsibility for all practical matters. He lived with his head permanently in the clouds and spent several hours a day writing and several walking when he had the chance. He also and needed little sleep. Minna’s early childhood was spent in a country which, although British on the surface, was as different to England as any other continental country.

    Money problems meant that in 1856 Mortimer decided to devote himself totally to his writing and the family returned to England. Mortimer became fashionable and frequently held court at a local watering place. With his admirers he frequented a number of coffee rooms in local hotels and was au fait with all the gossip. Drink was becoming a larger part of Mortimer’s life and he lived far beyond his meagre means.

Then Susanna became ill and Mortimer spent more time alone. Almost penniless the family moved from lodging to lodging. Things reached desperation point and they returned to Plymouth. Mortimer was imprisoned for debt more than once. As he relied more and more on drink Minna and her half sister spent hours escorting him from his office and holding him upright. Much of his free time was spent in London. The next few years were riddled with visits by bailiffs and attempts to keep one step ahead of his debtors.

    In 1861 the family moved to London. They ran out of money and the cottage where Susanna had lived in the early days of their romance was taken again. Mortimer was followed there and again thrown into prison. The pattern of his life was now set – he would stay and work in one place for a while, overspend, run into problems with debts, spend time in prison, run away and then finally move to a new town where the whole process could begin again.

    By 1866 Mortimer was living a bachelor life in London while the rest of his family remained at Knowl Hill. Although he visited there at weekends with Susanna’s health failing further he was spending more and more time alone. He continued to write his poetry and Minna recalled falling asleep to the sound of his pen scratching the paper. By the time she was twelve years old Minna had begun to write romances and verse herself. She had never attended school – what education she had was from her father. Poetry and philosophy formed the main content of her lessons.

Mortimer was familiar in the London haunts of journalism. Many hours were spent in taverns meeting with other writers and journalists. His way of dealing with a now unhappy marriage was to deny its existence and so deny his daughter. Apart from taking responsibility for Minna’s education, Mortimer appears to have had little to do with her. A fictionalised account of his teaching of Minna appears in the novel Frances. (1) “…her father delighted to teach her at home. So she knows a lot of things other girls don’t know, and is ignorant of an infinite number of things…She knows her Shakespeare; she can read Chaucer; she can enjoy the Odyssey and the odes of Horace…She can play neither croquet nor the guitar.” A lover of the classics, a staunch Tory and conventionally religious, Mortimer ensured that Minna’s education would stand her in good stead if she were to mix with poets but be of little help in the real world.

    In 1867 Susanna died. A year later Mortimer married Frances Cotton and his life changed irrevocably. This was a love match and the couple spent barely a minute apart. Frances devoted the rest of her life to working for Mortimer. They lived at Knowl Hill surrounded by visitors and Mortimer spent hour upon hour writing. He didn’t encourage his guests to sleep much and although conversation would go on until the early hours he would be up by 8 am, clamouring for attention. He also spent hours indulging himself in his other interest, walking. Their active social life left Minna barely acknowledged.  Mortimer and Frances spent many happy years together, to which Minna appears to have been almost incidental.


    By February of 1871 Minna was engaged to Keningale Robert Cook, six years older than herself and son of Robert Keningale Cook, the Church of England Canon of Manchester. Their marriage took place on 3rd August 1871 at St Peters Church in Knowl Hill.

    Five years later Mortimer’s happy life with Frances was to come to an end. After a bout of rheumatic fever he decided to visit Minna and her husband in Richmond.  Even while so ill he didn’t want to stop writing. Finally, his heart gave up the battle and on 28th July 1876 Mortimer died and was buried the following Tuesday in Petersham churchyard. Frances lived until 1886 and spent much of her time compiling her husband’s work and letters. Minna had begun a new life. Away from her family and a new bride the world was to open its doors to her.

    Considering the chaotic state of Minna’s early life, she must have considered the prospect of marriage to someone as seemingly respectable as Keningale Robert Cook, the chance of a lifetime. He had a degree in law, and so the chance of a good professional career, wrote poetry and was approved by Mortimer.  He was also an ardent spiritualist.

    The son of a clergyman Robert was born 1845 and educated at Rugby. He attended Trinity College in Dublin from January 1863 where he obtained his bachelors degree in 1866 and Masters and Bachelor in Laws as well as his Doctorate in Laws in 1875. From 1869 he had been employed by the Post Office dealing with money orders. He held this job until at least 1873. By 1875 he was a stockbroker in the City of London. By the time of his marriage Robert had already completed and published a book of verse, Purpose and Passion.  To say that this didn’t meet with great acclaim is rather understating its negative reception. Now a published writer he continued to sell his work wherever he could.  

Throughout 1871 and 1872 he wrote innumerable pieces for Amelia Lewis’ magazine Woman.  Minna had written since she was small and this magazine saw her first published writings. Robert’s sister Louisa also wrote occasionally for the magazine, and Mortimer contributed to the first issue. Almost every issue contained Minna’s or Robert’s writings. They covered a range of subjects but were primarily concerned with education, the role of women and the arts.

    By 1875 Minna’s first novel, The Blacksmith and Scholar was published under the name of Mabel Collins. Although still called Minna, or Minnie, at home, gradually she was to become known as Mabel. The publication of her first novel was slightly overshadowed by Robert gaining his doctorate in law the same year.

    In 1876 with her father’s death a gap appeared in the world of romantic fiction that Mabel was more than able to fill. Mabel’s novels were to appear with unremitting regularity. 1877 was a milestone year in many ways for the Cooks. Robert was to buy the Dublin University Magazine, Mabel would have her second novel, An Innocent Sinner, meet with great success, and Frances would publish her biography of Mortimer. Mabel was totally unimpressed with Frances’ biography of her father. She took advantage of the Dublin University Magazine to air her disquiet.

    Robert acted as the kiss of death to the Dublin University Magazine while Mabel was launching on a roller coaster of success. Her second novel An Innocent Sinner attracted enthusiastic reviews.

    Although Robert persisted in his literary efforts, his wife’s was already eclipsing his work. In 1879 Mabel had two more books published, In This World and Our Bohemia. Many of Mabel’s books were two or three volumes in length, and once she had begun to produce her novels there was nothing to hold her back. Many were first seen in serialised form in magazines.

    Mabel settled into a marriage offering unremitting boredom. Each morning, Robert left for work while she tried to fill the hours until his return. Each day Robert would go to his office like a machine, each evening come home and complain about it. Although he enjoyed spending his time writing Robert was no saleable author. His monotonous life was punctuated by long evenings of study.

    Mabel was popular in her circle, a tall, graceful woman with auburn hair and a delicate colouring. She looked younger than her age throughout her life. And on embarking into married life she felt her brain was atrophying. In these circumstances it was not at all difficult for Robert to persuade her to attend séances. Mabel became a renowned medium herself. In later years she became violently opposed to spiritualism as her experiences while working as a medium and in attending the séances of others led her to believe that the practice was highly dangerous.

In 1878 Mabel described how a procession of priests appeared as her inspiration and that she wrote the first seven chapters of Idyll automatically. She saw a face within Cleopatra’s Needle while looking from her window and was aware that it was an Egyptian face. Soon after long processions of white-robed priests came in at the door of the house and up the stairs and into her room. This happened constantly and she grew accustomed to it.

    On one occasion while she was working on a novel her sister in law was present and noticed Mabel change in her my appearance, becoming rigid, and with her eyes closed Mabel wrote on until she opened her eyes. Mabel found that she had written the prologue and first chapter of the Idyll of the White Lotus. The experiences continued until Mabel had seven chapters completed and this writing was originally published as part of Cobwebs in 1882. It was during 1884-5, when Mabel was ill and there was “much trouble” in her life that the work was finally finished.

    The text of Light on the Path was acquired in a similar manner where Mabel described being taken away from her body to a hall where the wall was covered in jewels. She found that these were words and memorised what she could to write down on returning to her body. The two experiences differed in that the second time Mabel was actively attempting to attain a different condition of consciousness. She continued for many years to repeat these experiences, particularly in 1893, when she states she was almost constantly out of her body.

    Robert hadn’t given up his attempts at writing. He had another collection of verse and two romantic plays published. His final work, The Fathers of Jesus took over ten years to complete and was published shortly after his death. By the time of Robert’s death in 1886 the Cooks’ marriage had failed and the couple had separated. He died on 24th June 1886 with his father by his side. A rather strange obituary appears in Light in July 1886 where it states that his wife “Miss Mabel Collins, besides one or two clever novels wrote some very original short stories wherein Spiritualism, or some facts based on it, were prominent motives”. As Mabel was working on her fourteenth book at this time she would no doubt have questioned being attributed with “one or two clever novels”.

In his will Robert left Mabel a little over £2,651. When the will was re-sworn two years later the sum rose to a little over £3,279. With the income Mabel earned from her books she would be able to live comfortably for a few years as this sum was equivalent to about £161,596 in 1989).


(1) reference.. Frances Edward James Mortimer Collins and Frances Collins Frederick Warne & Co. 1880.