Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Gilbert, William (1804-1890)

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GILBERT, WILLIAM (1804–1890), author, born at Bishopstoke on 24 May 1804, was the younger son of a colonial broker, who professed to be able to trace his descent from Sir Humphrey Gilbert [q. v.] He was educated at Clapham school, and in 1818 became a midshipman in the East India Company's service, but his views as to the rights of man involved him in difficulties with the officers, and he quitted the service in 1821. After some residence with a private tutor considerations of health, inclination, and economy led him to spend several years in Italy. While there he thoroughly mastered the language, and produced a volume of poems on Italian subjects and a tragedy in blank verse called 'Morna,' based upon Romani's libretto of 'Norma.' These experiments, together with an English version of the old libretto of 'Lucia di Lammermoor,' were printed for private circulation only. Returning to England about 1825, Gilbert studied at Guy's Hospital, and was attached for a short period to the staff'; he was also for a time an assistant surgeon in the navy, and subsequently accomplished some varied journalistic work. He abandoned his profession upon inheriting a competent fortune from his father.

In 1858, when he published his first book, Gilbert was nearly sixty. It was a searching study of life in the slums of London, entitled 'Dives and Lazarus,' dealing with his favourite subject, the deepening contrast between the lots of rich and poor, and, like many of his books, it bore no author's name. It had a measure of success which seems to have encouraged the author, who had previously been 'troubled by a sense of failing health, and was probably tired of a life during which, notwithstanding his great natural endowments and his varied experience, he had done little or nothing.' It was followed in 1859 by 'Margaret Meadows,' a 'tale for the Pharisees.' This was dramatised for the Olympic by Tom Taylor without the author's consent, and achieved a great success with Miss Bateman in the title role of 'Mary Warner.' The affair was referred to an arbitrator, who awarded 2001. damages to Gilbert, and ordered his name to be printed as joint author on the bills; but this last provision by Gilbert's request was not carried into execution. Of his later novels the best known was 'Shirley Hall Asylum' (1863), a very entertaining study of monomania, a subject upon which Gilbert displayed the thorougli knowledge of an expert. The book elicited a letter of unstinted praise from the Comte de Montalembert. He resided latterly at Salisbury, contributing occasionally to 'Good Words' and other magazines, and' full of literary projects to the end. He was also, it is said, a very severe but valuable critic of his son's comic operas. He was a strong liberal, and his tall thin figure was familiar at the Reform Club, of which he was for many years a member. He died in the Close at Salisbury on 2 Jan. 1890, and was buried in the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral on 6 Jan., the service being conducted by his grandson, the Rev. Spencer Weigall of the South African Mission. He married on 14 Feb. 1836 Anne, second daughter of Dr. Thomas Morris of 17 Southampton Street, Strand. His son, Mr. William Schwenck Gilbert, the well-known author of the 'Bab Ballads' and the 'Mikado,' illustrated several of his father's works. An excellent portrait of the novelist, painted in 1858 by Henry Weigall, is in the possession of Mr. W. S. Gilbert.

Though Gilbert's novels were never very popular, they were highly esteemed by a select circle for their originality. A story-teller sui generis, lacking in perspective, in fusing power, and in continuity, Gilbert was, on the other hand, endowed with a style of sparkling lucidity, a clever perhaps rather than profound observation, and a very dry but subtle humour, in which there is certainly some infusion of the spirit of Democritus.

His chief works are:

  1. 'Dives and Lazarus, or the Adventures of an obscure Medical Man in a low Neighbourhood,' 1858.
  2. 'Margaret Meadows,' 1859.
  3. 'Shirley Hall Asylum, or the Memoirs of a Monomaniac,' 1863, 2 vols. 8vo.
  4. 'De Profundis: a Tale of the Social Deposits,' 1864.
  5. 'Doctor Austin's Guests' (a sequel to No. 3), 1866, 2 vols.
  6. 'The Magic Mirror: a Round of Tales for Young and Old,' with eighty-four illustrations by W. S. Gilbert, 1866.
  7. 'The Washerwoman's Foundling,' 1867.
  8. 'The Wizard of the Mountain,' 1867.
  9. 'The Doctor of Beauweir: an Autobiography,' 1868, 2 vols.
  10. 'King George's Middy,' with 150 illustrations signed ' Bab,' 1869.
  11. 'Sir Thomas Branston,' 1869, 3 vols.
  12. 'Lucrezia Borgia, Duchess of Ferrara: a Biography,' illustrated by rare and unpublished documents, 1869, 2 vols.
  13. 'The Landlord of the Sun,' 1871, 3 vols.
  14. 'Martha,' 1871, 3 vols.
  15. 'Clara Levesque,' 1872.
  16. 'Facta non Verba,' 1874.
  17. 'Disestablishment from a Church point of view,' 1875.
  18. 'The City: an Inquiry into the Corporation, its Livery Companies, and the Administration of their Charities and Endowments,' 1877.
  19. 'James Duke, Costermonger' (another tale of the social deposits), 1879.
  20. 'Memoirs of a Cynic,' 1880, 3 vols.: a powerful protest against cruelty and hypocrisy in modern disguises, with a certain amount of what appears to be genuine autobiographical matter.
  21. 'Modern Wonders of the World, or the New Sindbad,' 1881.
  22. 'Legion; or, the Modern Demoniac,' 1882.

[Daily News, 4 Jan. 1890; Wiltshire County Mirror, 11 Jan 1890; Salisbury Times, 11 Jan. 1890; Echo, 4 Jan. 1890; Contemporary Review, xii. 437, 444; Saturday Review, 12 Sept. 1863; Athenæum, 11 Jan. 1890; Boase's Modern English Biography (this last authority and the Athenaeum give the wrong date of death); Gilbert's Works.]

T. S.