Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Besant, Walter

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BESANT, Sir WALTER (1836–1901), novelist, born on 14 Aug. 1836 at 3 St. George's Square, Portsea, was fifth child and third son in a family of six sons and four daughters of William Besant (d. 1879), merchant, of Portsmouth, by his wife Sarah Ediss (d. 1890), daughter of a builder and architect, of Dibden near Hythe. His eldest brother, William Henry Besant, F.R.S. (b. 1828), senior wrangler (1850) and fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge (1853), became a mathematician of repute. Mrs. Annie Besant (b. 1847), theosophical lecturer and author, was wife of his brother Frank, vicar of Sibsey, Lincolnshire, from 1871. Much of Walter's boyhood is described by him in his novel 'By Celia's Arbour.' As a boy he devoured his father's small but representative library of the English classics. After education at home, he was sent in 1848 to St. Paul's grammar school, Portsea (now a Wesleyan chapel), where his eldest brother had been captain. After the closing of the school, Besant was at home again for eighteen months, and in 1851 went to Stockwell grammar school, which was affiliated to King's College, London. While there he made, on half-holidays, short excursions into the City, studying its streets and buildings and developing a love of London archaeology and history which absorbed him in later life. Having spent three terms at King's College, London (1854-5), where Dean Wace and Canon Ainger [q. v. Suppl. II] were among his contemporaries, he matriculated at Christ's College, Cambridge, in 1856. At Christ's his undergraduate friends included his seniors, Charles Stuart Calverley, W. W. Skeat, (Sir) Walter Joseph Sendall [q. v. Suppl. II], and (Sir) John Robert Seeley, as well as John Peile [q. v. Suppl. II], who was of his own age. He was bracketed with Calverley for the gold medal for English essay at Christ's in 1856, and won the prize offered by Calverley for an examination in the 'Pickwick Papers' at Christmas 1857, Skeat being second. After graduating B.A. as 18th wrangler in 1859, Besant gained the special bachelor's theological prize, made some unsuccessful attempts at journalism in London, and then was appointed a mathematical master of Leamington College, with the intention of taking holy orders and becoming chaplain there. In 1860 he enjoyed a first experience of continental travel, on a walking tour in Tyrol with Calverley, Peile, and Samuel Walton. Rejecting thoughts of holy orders, he accepted in 1861 the senior professorship at the Royal College, Mauritius. Among his colleagues was Frederick Guthrie, F.R.S., with whom he was on very intimate terms until Guthrie' s death in 1886. Friends on the island also numbered Charles Meldrum [q. v. Suppl. II], whom he succeeded at the college, and James Dykes Campbell [q. v. Suppl. I]. He proceeded M.A. at Cambridge in 1863. His vacations were devoted to the study of French, both old and modern, and to essay writing. At the end of six and a half years he was offered the rectorship of the college, but he refused it on the ground of ill-health. He finally left Mauritius for England in June 1867, visiting Cape Town and St. Helena on his way home.

Thereupon Besant settled in London with a view to a literary career. Next year he was engaged to write leading articles on social topics in the 'Daily News,' and published 'Early French Poetry,' his first book, the fruit of recreations in Mauritius. Though loosely constructed, the work presents much valuable information in a readable style. Encouraged by the book's reception, he contributed articles on French literature to the 'British Quarterly Review' and the 'Daily News,' besides a paper on 'Rabelais' to 'Macmillan's Magazine' (1871). These were collected in 'The French Humourists from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century' (1873). Later French studies were 'Montaigne' (1875) ; 'Rabelais' (in Blackwood's foreign classics, 1879 ; new edit. 1885) ; 'Gaspard de Coligny' (1879 ; new edit. 1894, in the 'New Plutarch' series of biographies, of which Besant was general editor 1879-81) ; and 'Readings in Rabelais' (1883). He was author also of 'A Book of French : Grammatical Exercises, History of the Language' (12mo, 1877). Besant especially helped to popularise Rabelais in England. Joining the Savile Club in 1873, he formed in 1879, chiefly among its members, a Rabelais Club for the discussion of Rabelais's work. The club lasted ten years, and to its three volumes of 'Recreations' (3 vols. 1881-8) Besant was a frequent contributor.

Meanwhile Besant identified himself with other interests. In June 1868 he became secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, a society founded in 1864 for the systematic exploration of Palestine. The salary was 200l. a year, afterwards raised to 300Z. Besant held the office till 1886, when pressure of literary work compelled his retirement; but he remained honorary secretary till his death. He devoted his pen to the interests of the fund with characteristic energy. In collaboration with E. H. Palmer [q. v.], professor of Arabic at Cambridge, with whom in his secretarial capacity he grew intimate, he wrote in 1871 'Jerusalem : the City of Herod and Saladin' (4th edit. 1899; fine paper edit. 1908), and he edited the 'Survey of Western Palestine' (1881). On Palmer's death in 1882 Besant wrote a sympathetic but uncritical 'Life' of him. He also gave an account of the society's activities in 'Twenty-one Years' Work, 1865-86' (1886), which was revised in 'Thirty Years' Work, 1865-95' (1895). Of the subsidiary Palestine Pilgrims Text Society for the translation of narratives of ancient pilgrimages in Palestine, which was founded in 1884 with Sir Charles Wilson as director, Besant was likewise secretary.

An accident diverted Besant's energy to novel writing. He sent early in 1869 an article on the Island of Reunion, which he had visited from Mauritius, to 'Once a I Week.' No acknowledgment was received. By chance Besant discovered at the end of the year that the paper was published with many misprints in the issues of 16 and 23 Oct. Besant expostulated in a letter to the editor, who proved to be James Rice [q. v.]. Rice offered a satisfactory explanation, and courteously requested further contributions. Besant wrote a short Christmas story, 'Titania's Farewell,' for the Christmas number of the journal (1870). Friendly relations with the editor followed, and in 1871 Rice asked Besant to collaborate in a novel, the plot of which he had already drafted. The result was 'Ready Money Mortiboy,' which first appeared as a serial in 'Once a Week' and was published in three volumes in 1872. The book was welcomed by the public with enthusiasm. The partnership was pursued till Rice's disablement through illness in 1881. The fruits were 'My Little Girl' (1874), 'With Harp and Crown' (1874), 'This Son of Vulcan' (1875), 'The Golden Butterfly,' a triumphant success (1876), 'The Monks of Thelema ' (1877), 'By Celia's Arbour' (1878), 'The Chaplain of the Fleet' (1879), and 'The Seamy Side' (1881). Besant and Rice also wrote jointly the Christmas number for 'All the Year Round' from 1872 till 1882. The division of labour made Rice mainly responsible for the plot and its development, and Besant mainly responsible for the literary form (see Rice, James, preface to Library edit, of Ready Money Mortiboy, 1887, and Idler, 1892). With Rice Besant further wrote an historical biography, 'Sir Richard Whittington' (1879 ; new edit. 1894), and made his first attempt as a playwright, composing jointly 'Such a Good Man,' a comedy, produced by John Hollingshead at the Olympic Theatre in Dec. 1879 (HOLLENGSHEAD, My Lifetime, i. 38-9). Besant made a few other dramatic experiments in collaboration with Mr. Walter Herries Pollock. In 1887 they adapted for an amateur theatrical company which played at Lord Monkswell's house at Chelsea, De Banville's drama 'Gringoire' under the title of 'The Balladmonger.' It was subsequently performed by (Sir) H. Beerbohm Tree at the Haymarket Theatre (Sept. 1887) and at His Majesty's Theatre (June 1903). With Pollock, too, Besant published 'The Charm, and other Drawing-room Plays' in 1896.

While Rice lived, Besant made only one independent effort in fiction, producing in 1872 an historical novel, 'When George the Third was King.' On Rice's death, he continued novel-writing single-handed, producing a work of fiction of the regulation length each year for twenty years, besides writing the Christmas number for 'All the Year Round' between 1882 and 1887 and many other short stories. The plots of Besant' s sole invention are far looser in texture than those of the partnership, and he relied to a larger extent than before on historical incident. In 'Dorothy Forster' (3 vols. 1884), which Besant considered his best work, he showed ingenuity in placing a graceful love story in an historical setting. 'The World went very well then' (1887), 'For Faith and Freedom' (1888), 'The Holy Rose' (1890), and 'St. Katharine's by the Tower' (1891) deal effectively with English life in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Besant's treatment of current society is for the most part less satisfactory. But two of his pieces of modern fiction, 'All Sorts and Conditions of Men' (1882) and 'Children of Gibeon' (1886), achieved a popularity in excess of anything else from his pen, but on other than purely literary grounds.

Besant, in whom philanthropic interest was always strong, had made personal inquiry into the problems of poverty in East London, and in these two novels he enforced definite proposals for their solution. The second book dwelt on the evils of sweating, and helped forward the movement for the trades-organisation of working women. The first book, 'All Sorts and Conditions of Men,' which was mainly a strenuous plea for the social regeneration of East London, greatly stimulated the personal sympathy of the well-to-do with the East End poor. In this novel Besant depicted a fictitious 'Palace of Delight,' which should cure the joyless monotony of East End life. Besant helped moreover to give his fancy material shape. A bequest of 13,000l. left in 1841 by John Thomas Barber Beaumont [q. v.], with the object of providing 'intellectual improvement and rational recreation and amusement for people living at the East End of London,' was made the nucleus of a large public fund amounting to 75,000l., which was collected under the direction of Sir Edmund Hay Currie, with Besant's active co-operation, for the foundation of an institution on the lines which Besant had laid down. The Drapers' Company added 20,000l. for technical schools. Ultimately, Besant's 'People's Palace' was erected in Mile End Road, and was opened by Queen Victoria on 14 May 1887. The Palace contained a hall the Queen's hall capable of holding 4000 people for cheap concerts and lectures. There were soon added a swimming-bath, library, technical schools, winter garden, gymnasium, art schools, lecture rooms, and rooms for social recreation. Besant actively engaged in the management, was leader of the literary circle, and edited a 'Palace Journal.' But the effort failed, to Besant' s regret, to realise his chief hope. Under the increased patronage and control of the Drapers' Company, the educational side encroached on the social and recreative side until the scheme developed into the East London Technical College, and finally into the East London College, which was in 1908 recognised as a branch of London University. A portion of the People's Palace was maintained under that title for social and recreative purposes, but it became a subsidiary feature of the institution (see article by Sir Edmund Hay Curbie in Nineteenth Century, Feb. 1890; cf. Century Magazine, June 1890, and Guide to the People's Palace, 1900).

At C. G. Leland's suggestion Besant took, in 1884, another step in promoting beneficial recreation. He initiated 'The Home Arts and Industries Association,' which established evening schools through the country for the voluntary teaching and practice of the minor arts, such as wood-carving, leather-work, fretwork, weaving, and embroidery. There are now some 500 schools, and annual exhibitions of work are held. Besant also suggested in 1897 the Women's Central Bureau for the employment of women, hi connection with the National Union of Women Workers.

At the same time much of Besant's public spirit was absorbed by an effort to improve the financial status of his own profession of author. In 1884 he and some dozen other authors formed the Society of Authors, with Lord Tennyson as president and leaders in all branches of literature as vice-presidents. The society's object was threefold, viz. the maintenance, definition, and defence of literary property ; the consolidation and amendment of laws of domestic copyright; and the promotion of international copyright. Besant, who organised the first committee of management and was chairman of committee from 1889 till 1892, was the life and soul of the movement throughout its initial stages. On 15 May 1890 he started, with himself as editor, 'The Author,' a monthly organ of propaganda. He represented the society at an authors' congress at Chicago with Mr. S. Squire Sprigge) in 1893 and gave an account of its early struggles and growth. In his lifetime the original Membership of sixty-eight grew to nearly 2000. The society's endeavour to secure copyright reform under his direction proved substantially successful and influenced new copyright legislation in America in 1891, in Canada in 1900 and in Great Britain in 1911. But Besant's chief aim was to strengthen the author's right in his literary property and to relieve him of traditional financial disabilities, which Besant ascribed in part to veteran customs of the publishing trade, n part to publishing devices which savoured of dishonesty, and in part to the unbusinesslike habits of authors. His agitation brought, him into conflict with publishers of high standing, who justly resented some of his sweeping generalisations concerning the character of publishing operations. Like other earnest controversialists Besant tended to exaggerate his case, which in the main was sound. The leading results of his propaganda were advantageous to authors. He practically established through the country the principle that author's accounts with publishers should be subject to audit. He exposed many fraudulent practices on the part of disreputable publishers, both here and in America, and gave injured authors a ready means of redressing their grievances. At Besant's instigation the society's pension fund for impoverished authors was started in 1901. In 1892 he established an Authors' Club in connection with the society, and in 1899, in his 'The Pen and the Book,' he tave his final estimate of the authors' nancial and legal position. In George Meredith's words, Besant was 'a valorous, alert, persistent advocate' of the authors' cause and sought 'to establish a system of fair dealing between the sagacious publishers of books and the inexperienced, often heedless, producers' (Author, July 1901). In 1895 Besant, who had already advocated the more frequent bestowal on authors of titles of honour, was knighted on Lord Rosebery's recommendation. He had been elected in 1887 a member of the Athenaeum under Rule II.

In Oct. 1894 Besant entered on what he considered his greatest work, which was inspired conjointly by his literary and public interests. He resolved to prepare a survey of modern London on the lines on which Stow had dealt with Tudor London. With the aid of experts, he arranged to describe the changing aspects of London from the earliest times till the end of the nineteenth century. Preliminary studies of general London history he embodied in "London" (1892 ; new edit. 1894), 'Westminster' (1895), 'South London' (1899), 'East London ' (1901), and ' The Thames ' (1902). He was also general editor from 1897 of 'The Fascination of London,' a series of handbooks to London topography. But the great survey was not completed at his death, and, finished by other hands, it appeared in ten comprehensively illustrated volumes after his death, viz. : 'Early London' (1908), 'Medieval London' (2 vols. 1906), 'London in the Time of the Tudors' (1904), 'London in the Time of the Stuarts' (1903), 'London in the Eighteenth Century' (1902), 'London in the Nineteenth Century' (1909), 'London City' (1910), 'London North ' (1911) and 'London South' (1912). He also originated in 1900, with (Sir) A. Conan Doyle, Lord Coleridge, and others, the ' Atlantic Union,' a society for entertaining in England American and British colonial visitors. Becoming a Freemason in 1862, he was hon. sec. of the small society, the Masonic Archaeological Institute. Some eighteen years later he was member of a small Archaeological Lodge, which, originally consisting of nine members, now has 2000 corresponding members scattered over the globe. He long resided at Hampstead, where he was president of the Antiquarian Historical Society, and vice-president of the Art Society. He was elected F.S.A. in 1894.

Besant died at his residence, Frognal End, Hampstead, on 9 June 1901, and was buried in the burial ground in Church Row attached to Hampstead parish church. He married in Oct. 1874 Mary Garrett (d. 1904), daughter of Eustace Forster Barham of Bridgwater, and left issue two sons and two daughters. His library was sold at Sotheby's on 24 March 1902. Bronze busts by (Sir) George Frampton, R.A., were set up in the crypt of St. Paul's Cathedral in 1901 and on the Victoria Embankment, near Waterloo Bridge, in 1902. A portrait, painted by John Pettie, R.A., and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1887, now belongs to his elder son. A portrait was also painted by Emslie.

Besant was of a thick-set figure, with bushy beard, somewhat brusque in manner, but genial among intimate friends, generous in help to struggling literary aspirants, and imbued with a high sense of public duty. His methodical habits of mind and work, which were due in part to his mathematical training, rendered his incessant labour effective in very varied fields. In his own business of authorship his practice did not always cohere with his principle ; by selling outright the copyrights of his novels he contradicted the settled maxim of the Authors' Society that authors should never part with their copyrights. He had no love of priests and religious dogma, and tended to depreciate the religious work of the church in the East End of London (see Nineteenth Century, 1887), but he admired and energetically supported the social work of the Salvation Army.

Of Besant' s novels written alone after Rice's death fifteen appeared in the three-volume form (at 31s. 6d.), and were soon reissued in cheap single volumes. These works were: 1. 'All Sorts and Conditions of Men,' 1882. 2. ' The Revolt of Man,' 1882. 3. 'All in a Garden Fair,' 1883. 4. 'The Captain's Room,' 1883. 5. 'Dorothy Forster,' 1884. 6. 'Uncle Jack,' 1885. 7. 'Children of Gibeon,' 1886. 8. 'The World went very well then,' 1887. 9. 'Herr Paulus,' 1888. 10. 'For Faith and Freedom,' 1888. 11. 'The Bell of St. Paul's,' 1889. 12. 'Armorel of Lyonesse,' 1890. 13. 'St. Katharine's by the Tower,' 1891. 14. 'The Ivory Gate,' 1892. 15. 'The Rebel Queen,' 1893 ; Dutch trans. 1895. There followed, with two exceptions, in single volumes at six shillings, 16. 'Beyond the Dreams of Avarice,' 1895. 17. 'In Deacon's Orders,' 1895. 18. 'The Master Craftsman,' 2 vols. 1896. 19. 'The City of Refuge,' 3 vols. 1896. 20. 'A Fountain Sealed,' 1897. 21. 'The Changeling,' 1898. 22. 'The Orange Girl,' 1899. 23. 'The Fourth Generation,' 1900. 24. 'The Lady of Lynn,' 1901. 25. 'No Other Way,' 1902. 'The Holy Rose,' 1890, and 'A Five Years' Tryst,' 1902, were collections of short stories in single volumes. 'Katharine Regina' (1887 ; Russian trans. 1888) and 'The Inner House' (1888) appeared in Arrowsmith's Shilling Library.

He was also author of 'The Eulogy of Richard Jefferies' (1888), 'Captain Cook' 1889), 'The Rise of the Empire' (1897), and 'The Story of King Alfred' (1901). [n 1879 he wrote 'Constantinople,' with William Jackson Brodribb [q. v. Suppl. II]. There appeared posthumously 'Essays and Historiettes' and 'As we are and as we may be ' in 1903, and his 'Autobiography,' edited by S. Squire Sprigge, in 1902.

[Autobiography of Sir Walter Besant, ed. by S. Squire Sprigge, 1902; The Author, 1901, and passim; The Times, 11, 13, and 17 June 1901 ; Athenæum, 15 June 1901 ;

Palestine Exploration Fund, Quarterly Statement, 1901, pp. 207-9; Forum, July 1902; Review of Reviews, Sept. 1893 (art. by John Underhill) Nineteenth Cent., Sept. 1887; private information.]

W. B. O.