Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Wells, Charles Jeremiah

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WELLS, CHARLES JEREMIAH (1799?–1879), poet, was born, probably in or near London, of parents of whom nothing is recorded except that they belonged to the middle class. According to his statement in writing, the year of his birth was 1800, but he spoke of himself at the close of his life as an octogenarian, and when it is considered that he was old enough in 1816 to send Keats a present of roses and receive a sonnet in return, which seems to imply an acquaintance of some duration, it can hardly be doubted that he was somewhat older than he afterwards represented himself. He had been the schoolfellow of Keats's younger brother Tom at Cowden Clarke's school at Edmonton, where Keats himself was educated, and where Richard Henry Horne [q. v.] was a pupil in Wells's time. He thus obtained introduction to the literary circle in London, of which Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Hazlitt were members. He appears to have been especially intimate with Hazlitt, and was on friendly terms with Keats until their acquaintance was dissolved by a practical joke thoughtlessly and cruelly played off by Wells upon Keats's invalid brother Tom, of which Keats speaks with bitter resentment. Wells meanwhile had entered a solicitor's office, and, after serving his articles, commenced practice somewhere about 1820. He had been considered backward and inattentive at school, but he attended Hazlitt's lectures, and his first book shows that he must have been proficient in Italian. Wells's ‘Stories after Nature,’ published anonymously in 1822 (London, 12mo), are the nearest approach to the Italian novelette that our literature can show. Simple in plot, yet generally founded on some striking idea, impressive in their conciseness, and highly imaginative, they are advantageously distinguished from their models by a larger infusion of the poetical element, but fall short of them in artistic structure and narrative power, and the style is occasionally florid. They would have been highly appreciated in the Elizabethan age, but the great subsequent enrichment and expansion of the novel left little room for them in Wells's day. They passed without remark, and, except for a notice in the ‘Monthly Repository’ by R. H. Horne in 1836, were absolutely forgotten until in 1845 W. J. Linton reprinted a few in his ‘Illuminated Magazine’ from ‘the only copy I ever saw,’ picked off a bookstall in 1842. The ‘Stories’ were reissued by Linton in a limited edition in 1891.

Similar neglect attended Wells's next and much more ambitious performance, the now celebrated dramatic poem ‘Joseph and his Brethren,’ written, according to his own improbable statement, at twenty, and published under the pseudonym of ‘H. L. Howard,’ in December 1823, with a title-page dated 1824. This fine work, though pronounced by Hazlitt ‘not only original but aboriginal,’ failed to elicit so much as an attack; and not a trace of it can be found until, in 1837, it was named with admiration by Thomas Wade [q. v.]

Wells probably remained in town until 1830, for in that year he placed a memorial in St. Anne's, Soho, to Hazlitt, whose daily associate he had at one time been, but from whom he had latterly been estranged. About this time, partly from real or imaginary apprehensions about his health, partly from general dissatisfaction with his position, he renounced his probably not very lucrative practice as a solicitor and retired to Wales, where he gave himself up almost entirely to field sports. In 1835 he removed to Broxbourne in Hertfordshire, and followed the same course of life. About this time he married Emily Jane Hill, sister-in-law of William Smith Williams (1800–1875), whose name is remembered in connection with the literary history of Charlotte Brontë. In 1840, possibly on account of impaired means, he migrated to Brittany, and was for some time professor of English in a college at Quimper; he appears, however, to have continued to follow the chase with assiduity, and to have been on intimate terms with the Breton noblesse. The literary connection with England, which seemed to have died away, was revived through W. J. Linton's action, already mentioned, in reprinting some of the ‘Stories after Nature.’ Wells, learning the fact through the younger Hazlitt, contributed a striking tale, ‘Claribel,’ to Linton's ‘Illuminated Magazine’ for 1845, and offered another, which Linton declined, and which appears to have been lost. He also wrote two papers on Breton subjects in ‘Fraser's Magazine.’ Some time afterwards he came on a short trip to England and visited Linton, who describes him as ‘a small, weather-worn, wiry man, looking like a sportsman or fox-hunter.’ This may have been in 1850, when Mrs. Wells was in London endeavouring to find a publisher for ‘Joseph and his Brethren,’ which had undergone a thorough revision. None could be tempted, and the revised copy went astray. Extracts, however, had got about, and after several years came into the hands of Mr. Swinburne, who, under the additional stimulus of a highly appreciative notice of Wells by D. G. Rossetti in Gilchrist's ‘Life of Blake,’ composed an eloquent and generous panegyric which unfortunately did not appear until published in the ‘Fortnightly Review’ for February 1875, just too late to prevent the general holocaust of his manuscripts which Wells had made upon his wife's death in the preceding year—‘a novel,’ he says, ‘three volumes of stories, poems, one advanced epic.’ Two tragedies entitled ‘Dunstan’ and ‘Tancrede,’ and a poem on Bacchus and Silenus, are also mentioned as having once been in existence. Swinburne's encomium, however, produced the long-lacking publisher for ‘Joseph,’ and Wells, who was now living at Marseilles, where his son, afterwards celebrated in connection with Monte Carlo, was practising as an engineer, once more started into activity, and produced another revision, which appeared in 1876, under the editorial care of Mr. Buxton Forman, with a prefatory note by Mr. Swinburne. One additional scene, considered too long an interpolation, was retrenched, but was printed by Mr. Forman in the first volume of ‘Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century’ (1895). Between 1876 and 1878 Wells carried out a new revision of his work, with copious additions. The manuscript remains in the hands of Mr. Forman, who contemplates its publication. The title was to have been altered, not very felicitously, into the Egyptian form of Joseph's name, ‘Sephenath-Phaanech,’ and it was to have been dedicated to R. H. Horne. During the last year of his life Wells was confined to bed by a painful and incurable malady, but wrote nevertheless to Mr. Forman, ‘I am as cheerful as the day is long.’ He died at 2 Montée des Oblats, Jardin de la Colline, Marseilles, on 17 Feb. 1879.

‘Stories from Nature’ being but a slight though a charming book, Wells's reputation must rest chiefly upon his dramatic poem. It is truly poetical in diction, and often masterly in the delineation of character; but its especial merit is the fidelity with which the writer reproduces the grand Elizabethan manner with no approach to servility of imitation. He is as much a born Elizabethan as Keats is a born Greek; his style is that of his predecessors, and yet it seems his own. It must have been impossible for him to draw Potiphar's spouse without having Shakespeare's Cleopatra continually in his mind, and yet his Phraxanor is an original creation. The entire drama conveys the impression of an emanation from an opulent nature to which production was easy, and which, under the stimulus of popular applause, might have gone on producing for an indefinite period. The defect which barred the way to fame for him was rather moral than literary; he had no very exalted standard of art and little disinterested passion for it, and when its reward seemed unjustly withheld, it cost him little to relinquish it. Wells's portrait, from a miniature taken about 1825, has been reproduced in the second edition of ‘Joseph and his Brethren’ (1876) and in ‘Literary Anecdotes of the Nineteenth Century.’ A new edition of ‘Joseph,’ with essays by Theodore Watts-Dunton and A. C. Swinburne, was issued in ‘The World's Classics’ in 1908.

[H. Buxton Forman in Miles's Poets of the Century, vol. iii., and in Lit. Anecd. of 19th Century, i. 291–318; W. J. Linton in Stories after Nature, 1891; A. C. Swinburne in Fortnightly Rev. Feb. 1875, and in Joseph and his Brethren, 1876; Academy, 1 Mar. 1879 (by Edmund Gosse); Athenæum, 5 Feb. 1876, 8 Mar. 1879.]

R. G.