Ralston, William Ralston Shedden- (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 47
Ralston, William Ralston Shedden-

by Robert Kennaway Douglas

RALSTON, WILLIAM RALSTON SHEDDEN- (1828–1889), Russian scholar, born on 4 April 1828 in York Terrace, Regent's Park, was the only son of W. P. Ralston Shedden, who, as a merchant at Calcutta, amassed a considerable fortune. On his return to this country the father took up his residence at Palmira Square, Brighton, and it was there that the son spent most of his early years. He was educated by the Rev. John Hogg of Brixham, Devonshire, where, in company with three or four boys of about his own age, he studied until he went to the university. In 1846 he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and graduated B.A. in 1850. It was during this period that a great misfortune befell him. His father had become possessed with the idea that he was the rightful heir to the Ralston property in Ayrshire, and, to establish his claim, he entered on a course of litigation in prosecuting which he dissipated the whole of his fortune. The claim was pressed by the family with extraordinary pertinacity for many years, and when all available means had been exhausted, Miss Shedden, Ralston's only sister, took up the pleadings, and on one occasion she conducted the case before a committee of the House of Lords for a period extending over thirty days. Before the litigation began, Ralston had been called to the bar, but the change in the fortunes of his family compelled him to seek at once some remunerative employment. In order to shake himself free from the associations which had gathered round the name of Shedden in connection with the lawsuit, he adopted the additional surname of Ralston. In 1853 he entered the British Museum as assistant in the printed-book department, and by his zeal and ability won the respect of the superior officers. To him was soon entrusted, with others, the duty of revising the catalogue. Russian was then a language which was very little studied, and this circumstance, combined with its difficulty, impelled Ralston to master it. With untiring perseverance he devoted himself to its study, even learning by heart whole pages of the dictionary. The knowledge thus acquired proved to be of great value to the museum, and he would doubtless have risen to the highest post had his health not shown signs of giving way. Being of an extremely sensitive nature, as well as of a weakly constitution, he felt called upon to resign his appointment in 1875, after twenty-two years' service.

Ralston studied Russian literature as well as the language. In 1868 he published an edition of ‘Kriloff and his Fables,’ a work which speedily became popular and ran through many editions. In the next year he brought out a translation of Tourguénieff's ‘Liza;’ in 1872, a most interesting volume on the ‘Songs of the Russian People,’ and in 1873 a somewhat diffuse collection of ‘Russian Folk Tales.’ While following these literary pursuits he made two or three journeys to Russia, and formed numerous acquaintances among the literary classes there. With Tourguénieff he established a lasting friendship, and at the house of M. de Kapoustine he was always a welcome guest. He was also made a corresponding member of the Imperial Academy of Sciences of St. Petersburg. He travelled in other countries besides Russia, and frequently visited Germany, Belgium, Switzerland, and on two occasions Servia.

The main object of his visits to Russia was to collect materials for an exhaustive account of that country. This he compiled, and entered into an arrangement with Messrs. Cassell & Co. for its publication. At the last moment, however, he persuaded the publishers to cancel the agreement, and to accept in its place the great work on Russia by Sir Donald Mackenzie Wallace. In 1874, however, he published ‘Early Russian History,’ the substance of four lectures delivered at the Taylorian Institution in Oxford. Ralston was a large contributor to contemporary literature. He wrote constantly in the ‘Athenæum’ and ‘Saturday Review,’ as well as the ‘Nineteenth Century’ and other magazines, and he possessed a rare power of narrating stories orally. He devised a novel form of public entertainment, telling stories to large audiences from the platforms of lecture-halls. On several occasions he appeared, with great success, at St. George's and St. James's Halls, and not infrequently he gave story-tellings before the young princes and princesses at Marlborough House and at well-known social gatherings. He was always ready to deliver a story-telling lecture in aid of a charity, especially in the east of London or provincial cities.

After his retirement from the British Museum Ralston sought to devote himself continuously to literary work. But the absence of settled employment intensified the defects of a highly impressionable and volatile temperament. For weeks together he would remain, a victim of acute mental depression, in his rooms in Alfred Place, and then would suddenly reappear in his old haunts with all and more than his youthful elasticity of spirit. Early in 1889 he moved to 11 North Crescent, where he was found dead in his bed on 6 Aug. 1889. He was buried at Brompton cemetery. He was unmarried.

[Personal knowledge.]

R. K. D.