Therefore, as a means of beguiling the time and inspiring hope, I gave them the best summary in my power of Bligh's voyage of more than three thousand miles, in an open boat, after the Mutiny of the Bounty, and of the wonderful preservation of that boat's crew. They listened throughout with great interest, and I concluded by telling them, that, in my opinion, the happiest circumstance in the whole narrative was, that Bligh, who was no delicate man either, had solemnly placed it on record therein that he was sure and certain that under no conceivable circumstances whatever, would that emaciated party who had gone through all the pains of famine, have preyed on one another. I cannot describe the visible relief which this spread through the boat, and how the tear stood in every eye. From that time I was as well convinced as Bligh himself that there was no danger, and that this phantom, at any rate, did not haunt us.
Now, it was a part of Bligh's experience that when the people in his boat were most cast down, nothing did them so much good as hearing a story told by one of their number. When I mentioned that, I saw that it struck the general attention as much as it did my own, for I had not thought of it until I came to it in my summary.
Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins, The Wreck of the Golden Mary (143)
The Wreck of the Golden Mary (1856) was the seventh of Charles Dickens's Christmas numbers, the supplements of stories by several contributors, which went out each December from 1850 with an issue of his journal, Household Words. The narrative framing the stories for 1856 tells of how the survivors of a ship wrecked en route to the California Gold Rush of 1849 maintain order and morale by collaborating in storytelling. The overtaxed captain eventually sinks into unconsciousness, yielding both the command of the lifeboat, and the first person narrative, to his inferior but adequate mate. This collapse occurs shortly after the passage above in which he cites the notorious William Bligh as an authority on cannibalism and on storytelling. This was the story Dickens devised for his first published collaboration with Wilkie Collins. Between them, they provided the shipwreck narrative as a frame, within which the stories of the other four contributors appeared (see Lohrli 236, 256). -
It was the first time Dickens had yielded to another writer part of the narrative frame by which he directed readers' responses to the contributions to the Christmas numbers. To validate this new collaborative enterprise, he invoked the collective moral authority of the British seafaring community in a story told by two seamen. "I am the Captain of the Golden Mary: Mr. Collins is the Mate," he told Angela Burdett-Coutts (Letters 8: 231). At the same time, this was one of several writings in which Dickens rebutted a charge of cannibalism recently brought against an elite group from that community by asserting the incomparable gifts for leadership, fidelity, and self-sacrifice found among British Tars. The link between the two defenses, the rebuttal of cannibalism and the justification of collaboration, is consolidated in the insistence on storytelling as a powerful prevention against cannibalism, with the citation of Bligh as authority: "[T]he example of Bligh and his men, when they were adrift like us, was o f unspeakable importance in keeping up our spirits" (151).  The Wreck of the Golden Mary is thus engaged in a complex double operation, defending the reputation of British Tars by invoking them as the strongest possible example of collective moral authority to justify an adventure in collaboration.
The collaboration of Dickens, at the height of his powers, with Collins, a junior and still relatively unknown writer, is one of the most remarkable instances of literary collaboration. It was a collaboration first imagined in nautical terms, drawing on popular constructions of the British Tar to present him both as a model for collaboration and as an exemplar to civil society. Within the story a group of ill-assorted, mostly derelict, people bound for the California Gold Rush, a destination implying unrestrained self-interest, are formed into a well disciplined community by the direction and example of the Captain and Mate. This was precisely what Dickens was hoping to effect with his latest Christmas number. In 1855, he had complained that he found contributors to that year's Christmas number, The Holly-Tree Inn, unresponsive and recalcitrant: "[T]he way in which they don't fit into that elaborately described plan, so simple in itself, amazes me" (Letters 7: 753). Collins's imagined role as Mate in the lat est Christmas number was apparently to provide a contributor more directly accountable and subordinate to the lead writer. At this stage in his career, Dickens was strongly attracted to collaboration; in January 1857, he wrote of the pleasures of rehearsing a play as like "writing a book in company" (Letters 8: 256). It was, however, collaboration imagined in hierarchical terms. This latest Christmas number was to be an example of well-led and disciplined writing in company.
To imagine this ideal literary collaboration, comradely yet hierarchical, Dickens turned for reassurance and authority to the figure of the Tar. It is accurate in this first collaboration to attribute the plan entirely to Dickens. He had written his section before Collins was enlisted: "I never wrote anything more easily, or I think with greater interest or stronger belief" (Letters 8: 222). Collins shared Dickens's enthusiasm for nautical literature, and the fact that he was a yachting enthusiast was probably an additional qualification for his role as Mate, but at this time the junior writer was "a willing instrument and extension of Dickens" (Peters 168).
The national dependence on the seaman during the preceding century had fostered a rich range of cultural representations to express that dependence, notably the nautical fictions and melodramas of the 1820s and 1830s. The use of those representations, in the first Dickens and Collins collaboration, is highly suggestive both about what Dickens hoped for from collaboration, and about the significance of the Tar in cultural imaginings of the period. A few years later, William Makepeace Thackeray, imagining the possibility of collaboration in the essay, "On a Peal of Bells" (1860), invoked an analogy with business:
I confess I would often like to have a competent, respectable and rapid clerk for the business part of my novels; and, on his arrival at eleven o'clock, would say, 'MrJones, if you please, the archbishop must die this morning in about five pages. Turn to article 'Dropsy' (or what you will) in Encyclopedia." (295)
Thackeray was musing about the criticisms of Alexandre Dumas's industrial production, the most notorious contemporary example of collaboration. When Dickens, who habitually referred to himself as "the Inimitable," turned to collaboration, he invoked not a mundane business analogy but the more dignified and heroic image of endeavor associated with the British Tar. He also managed his anxieties about collaboration by responding to current fears that the seaman might not be as disciplined a figure as the idealized Tar. Significantly, the major nautical authority cited for the value of collaboration is the ship's captain who was the subject of the most famous breakdown of order in British nautical annals, and particularly identified with catastrophically bad relations with his mate. It was an unforced citation by Dickens: as we shall see later, there was no storytelling in the open boat of the Bounty.
Most specifically, the collaboration began in attempts to defend the reputation of one of Britain's most famous Tars, and in anxieties about loss of order and hierarchy aroused by the attack on his reputation. In 1845, the Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin had disappeared into the Polar wastes with two ships and 128 British seamen. In 1854, Dr. John Rae of the Hudson Bay Company reported that Inuit traveling on the shores of the Polar Sea had found evidence that the expedition had degenerated into anarchy and cannibalism (see Beattie and Geiger; Marlow; Nayder; Owen; Spufford; Stone, "Contents"). The suggestion that Franklin and his men had suffered such a moral cob lapse was likely to be acutely painful to those who, like Dickens, had grown up relishing the myths of the golden age of British maritime supremacy. The sixty-year-old Franklin was a relic of that time, and his expedition represented a continuation into the present of the heroic age of Trafalgar. Dickens's first response to the suggestion that a Trafalgar veteran and the flower of the British navy had succumbed to cannibalism under the gaze of the Inuit was the series of four articles in Household Words, which appeared under the running tide, 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers" (1854). In these, Dr. Rae became his first, reluctant, collaborator on the topic, his account framed by the arguments Dickens marshals against the likelihood of cannibalism in any well-led expedition of civilized men, and especially of British seamen. (Dickens yields no ground to that alternative tradition, in which cannibalism in extremity was an accepted practice among the nineteenth-century seafaring community [see Simpson], a practice which surfaces in polite literature in Thackeray's 1845 ballad, "Little Billee.") Rae, a Scotsman long resident in Canada, and working for a company at odds with the expedition's sponsor, the Admiralty, is skeptical about the vaunted discipline of British seamen, and …