The son of a Portsea wine merchant, Sir Walter Besant was born the fifth of ten children on 14th August, 1836. His brother William went on to become a famous mathematician and his brother Frank's wife Annie was the Annie Besant of the matchgirls' strike and later head of the Theosophical Society. A mathematics graduate of Christ's College, Cambridge, Sir Walter started out as a teacher at Leamington College, later accepting the post of Senior Professor at the Royal College of Mauritius in 1861, from which he returned in 1867 suffering from boredom and ill-health.
Once settled in London he began his life afresh as a man of letters. His first book was on the subject of early French poetry and he published a series of similarly esoteric articles, later forming the Rabelais Club in 1879, to discuss the latter's works. Through James Rice, the editor of Once a Week, Besant was persuaded to enter the world of fiction as co-author with Rice of Ready Money Mortiboy published in 1872. They continued to write fiction together until Rice's premature death in 1882. Their partnership was described in a letter to The Times by Mr Percy Fitzgerald:
They met at each other's rooms over a pipe and glass of grog, and debated the story, chapter by chapter. Rice, having read his friend's daily portion of the work would arrive furnished with many ingenious expedients for unravelling or complicating the situation...Besant had a gift for seizing on and developing what was thus put before him. Rice was the 'business manager.'This trait of Besant's was later utilised by Wilkie Collins, who, on his deathbed requested that Sir Walter finish his last novel, Blind Love then being serialised in the Illustrated London News (1889).
Besant and Rice's biggest success was with the comedy The Golden Butterfly, published in 1876. This was the tale of an American millionaire's vulgarity. However, Besant's favourite of their joint works was The Chaplain of the Fleet, published in 1881.
After Rice's death Sir Walter continued to bring out a novel annually for the next 18 years covering mainly the historical romance and "novels with a purpose" genres, the latter tending to be the more successful. A large proportion of his novels were set in "the great and marvellous country which we call East London." London was his passion and he wrote a series of articles describing various areas of the city in the Pall Mall Magazine.
One of his London novels, All Sorts and Conditions of Men published in 1882, deals with the founding of a People's Palace in Stepney. Fantasy became reality when Sir Walter helped to organise donations for the setting up of a real "People's Palace" in the Mile End Road for the recreation and cultivation of Eastenders in 1887 - Besant was a trustee of the Palace from 1887-1891. The educational branches of the "Palace" later grew into a part of the University of London. His obituary in The Times stated:
to him must be given the credit for imagining what might be done by a combination of wealth, emotion, and common sense in furnishing the poor of the great cities with some of those rational enjoyments and opportunities of living which they cannot get for themselves.
An untiring organiser and fundraiser Besant was treasurer of the Palestine Exploration Fund at its inception in 1865 and then secretary for 18 years from 1868-1886. He was forever thinking up new schemes including the Women's Labour Bureau, which he intended "to afford the needed protection, and prevent women from working either in literature, journalism, or any other profession under a standard price." The exploitation of female labour was explored in a further East End novel, Children of Gibeon.However, he was certainly no feminist and did not think that women had shown themselves equal to men in intellectual achievements. Nevertheless, he did not rule out the prospect of this changing with improved education.
In 1883 he was instrumental in the setting up of the Society of Authors and was a leading light in it until his death, helping to turn writing into a profession. A rather ambiguous reference to it was made in Volume I of the Pall Mall Magazine, 1893, where the column Without Prejudice declares:
"We authors" - as Beaconsfield said to his sovereign - have also a society, and we have sent out Mr Besant and others to represent us at the World's Fair. We want to get more money out of America. We are not pirated now - only robbed. The American Copyright Act - flaunted as a capitulation to the Commandments - is the most ingenious way of breaking the Eighth Commandment ever devised by the wit of man or lawyer. You will say it is very sordid to think of money; you will speak of divine inspiration; you would rather see us go on the rates; to save us from base reward you even borrow our books instead of buying them; you cannot understand why a writer should prefer an honest Copyright Act to a halo. Good! I am at one with you. It is sordid to prostitute one's muse. One should be like Mr Harold Skimpole, and let the butcher and the baker go howl. The thought of money sullies the fairest manuscript. The touch of a cheque taints. Good again! Only, when the great poem is written, when the great novel is done, there is money in it! Who is to have this money? The author? Certainly not. We are agreed his soul must be kept virgin. But why the publisher? (Above all, why the American publisher?) Why not the printer? Why not the binder or the bookseller? Why not the deserving poor? None of these will be defiled by the profits. Why should the money not be used to found a Lying-in Hospital, or an Asylum for Decayed Authors, or a Museum to keep Honest Publishers in? Why should not authors have the kudos of paying off the National Debt? If they are to be the only Socialists in a world of individualists, let them at least have the satisfaction of knowing their money is applied to worthy purposes.
In addition to all this Besant was also a prominent Freemason. He was initiated into the Lodge of Harmony in Mauritius in 1862 and when he returned to England joined the Marquis of Dalhousie Lodge, London No. 1159 which was mainly an Anglo-Indian Lodge. Freemasonry appealed to him as, "a religion which requires no priest." He became its Worshipful Master in 1873. Furthermore, he was a member of the Masonic Archaeological Institute from 1869 to its demise in 1872. The latter being concerned with Masonic connections to Alchemy, Rosicrucianism and Gnosticism. On the 12th January 1886 he became one of the nine founders of the Quatuor Coronati Lodge, No. 2076, consecrated at Freemasons' Hall in London where it still meets. Its purpose, according to an Oration given at its founding by another co-founder, the Rev. A.F.A. Woodford, was to "help forward the important cause of Masonic study and investigation [and] induce a more scholarly and critical consideration of [Masonic] evidences, a greater relish for historical facts." At the time it was seen as a "revolution in world masonry" and unique in being founded specifically as an "archaeological lodge". Although, apparently not enthusiastic about rites and ceremonies Besant saw Freemasonry as a great potential force for social and religious improvement in the world at large. He believed that Quatuor Coronati would help to bring better understanding of the origins of the Craft. At the first meeting after his death, QC Lodge was "draped in mourning" following the "sudden death of our valued Secretary."
According to his Who's Who entry his recreation was "looking on", although he doesn't seem to have been very good at it - even at home in Hampstead he was President of the Hampstead Antiquarian Historical Society and Vice-President of the Hampstead Scientific Society and the Hampstead Arts Society! In 1884 he initiated the Home Arts Association, which established evening schools through the country to promote handicrafts. A constant campaigner he fought for the rights of sweatshop workers in the East End, for the poor in the parish of St James' Ratcliffe, the Ragged School Union, the London Hospital, free public libraries, the work of the Salvation Army, and during the last two years of his life concerned to cultivate a better understanding with North America he worked for the Atlantic Union.
In 1874 he had married Mary Forster-Barham and they had four children, Philip, Celia, Geoffrey and Mary, whilst the couple also took over the care of Sir Walter's nephew Digby, the son of his younger brother Frank and his estranged wife, Annie. Sir Walter did make a couple of interesting statements about being a parent:
"Parentage is a very important profession, but no test of fitness for it is ever imposed in the interest of the children."Of marriage he is quoted in the Girl's Own Paper, Vol XVII, 1896 as saying:
"If you must hold yourself up to your children, hold yourself up as an object lesson and not as an example."
"I have lived a good long time in the world...and looking back upon all the people that I have known, I can safely say that the number of unhappy marriages I have personally witnessed have been very small indeed. Given love as an essential, then the woman who yields to the promptings of her heart and accepts the burdens - light or heavy - of marriage, leads the happiest life."His home in Hampstead was christened "Frognal End," being at the furthest boundary of the Frognal district. In an article appearing in The Woman at Home of 1897, Sarah A Tooley describes his residence as, "A picturesque red house [standing] on a gentle eminence...approached by a path bordered by lawns and shady trees. Everything bears the impress of the proprietor, for the house has been planned and built under Sir Walter's own eye, and the grounds laid out after his own ideas. There is an utter absence of stiffness and formality; vegetables and strawberries thrive on sunny banks sloping down from the lawn, and are not relegated to an ugly kitchen garden. Flowers, fruit, and vegetables live amicably together in a setting of lawns and grassy slopes and under the protecting care of fine old trees which Sir Walter did not plant...As you enter the house from the side porch, covered with greenery and flowers, it seems that the brightness and sunshine from without accompany you into Sir Walter Besant's study. It looks literally like a room set in a garden...Of Sir Walter's genial personality one needs not to speak, nor of his command of language and flow of ideas which render him and ideal "interviewee." He loves to talk pacing the room to and fro."
In 1887 he was elected to the Athenaeum Club and in 1894 elected Fellow of the Society of Antiquities. He was knighted in 1895 for his great services to literature on which occasion a great public dinner was given for him by the Society of Authors, attended by nearly 250 guests. Sir Martin Conway was in the chair and Sir Walter's health proposed by the writer Mr Hall Caine. His friend W.H. Rylands declared that "one great advantage [his works] possess in a marked degree, is that of being entirely pure and wholesome: a moral qualification, not too common among writers and readers in the present age." Sir Walter Besant died on the 9th June, 1901 as a result of Bright's disease and was buried in the burial ground off Church Row in Hampstead. A commemorative plaque was also set up along the Victoria Embankment in London
His obituary in The Times, sums up his life thus:
Personally Walter Besant was very popular...He might have lived longer had he kept in check his kindly propensity towards answering, at great length, the innumerable letters he received from young authors, and towards reading and passing friendly criticism on the books they sent him. His purse, too, was always open; the amount of his quiet and perhaps not always wise benefactions to distressed authors was very large and we may be sure that it will never be known.
The appearance of the work before us, says much for the greater attention now paid in the places of learning to the study of modern languages. Mr Besant recognises the fact that, notwithstanding French is professedly taught at every respectable school in England, the ignorance which prevails on the subject of French literature and literary history is great indeed. As a help to the removal of this state of things, he has prepared this useful and interesting little introduction to early French poetry, to show by what means, and through what various standards of taste, the language of poetry came down to Boileau; and he does this by reviewing the principal writers of French poetry, from Froissart - the first that can be considered as having written in modern French - down to Clément Marot, "who is the last of the old poets in thought, and the first of the new in language." The book will be found as interesting as it is instructive.
The Monks of Thelema (by Besant & Rice, 1878)
The rules of the Order are few. Thus, whereas in all other monasteries and convents, everything is done by strict rule, and at certain times, we, for our part, have no bells, no clocks, and no rules of daily life. The only bell heard within this convent is that cheerful gong with which we announce the serving of dinner in the refectory...whereas it was formerly the custom to shut up in the convents those who, by reason of their lacking wit, comeliness, courage, health, or beauty, were of no use in the outer world, none should be admitted but such women as were fair and of sweet disposition, nor any man but such as was well-conditioned and of good manners. And again, whereas in other convents some are for men and some for women, in this Abbey of Thelema men and women should be admitted to dwell together, in such honourable and seemly wise as befits gentlemen and gentlewomen...as regards the three vowls taken by monks and nuns of religion, those assumed by this new fraternity should be also three...vows of permission to marry, to be rich, if the Lord will, and to live at liberty.
Quarantine Island (The Strand Magazine, 1892)
"No," he cried, passionately. "You drew me on: you led me to believe that you cared for me: you encouraged me. What? Can a girl go on as you have done without meaning anything? Does a girl allow a man to press her hand - to keep her hand - without meaning anything? Unless these things mean nothing, you are the most heartless girl in the whole world; yes - I say the coldest, the most treacherous, the most heartless!"
One and Two (The Strand Magazine, Vol V, 1893)
It was at two in the morning; he had spent the evening quietly in the society of three other men and two packs of cards...He opened his door and entered his room. Heavens! At the table, on which the lamp was burning, sat before a pile of books - himself! Challice rubbed his eyes; he was not frightened; there is nothing to alarm a man in the sight of himself, though sometimes a good deal to disgust; but if you saw, in a looking-glass, your own face and figure doing something else, you would be astonished: you might even be alarmed. Challice had heard of men seeing rats, circles, triangles, even - he thought of his misspent evenings which were by no means innocent of whisky and potash: he concluded that this must be an Appearance, to be referred, like the rats and circles, to strong drink. He thought that it would vanish as he gazed.
Dorothy Forster (a Jacobite novel published in 1884)
"Nay, Miss Dorothy," said Mr Hilyard, "you understand not the strength of love nor the power of Jenny's beauty." She had bright black eyes, red lips, and a rosy cheek, with black curls and a tall, good figure; and, in a word, the girl was well enough, and might have pleased some honest fellow of her own rank and birth. "She is," continued Mr Hilyard, "a most beautiful and bewitching creature; witty and roguish. You must not suppose because a gentlewoman seldom or never loves a man below her own degree (yet Venus, the great goddess, loved Adonis the shepherd boy), that therefore a gentleman cannot love a woman of inferior birth. Why, Boaz, a great prince, as one may suppose, loved Ruth, who seemed to him a simple leasing-maid, and King Cophetua loved a beggar-maid. There are other examples too many to enumerate. As for Jenny's witcheries, I believe not in them any more than consists in her bright eyes and smiles."
The City of Refuge (The Pall Mall Magazine, Vols VIII, IX & X, 1896)
She was transformed; not in face, because any change in that face would be a change for the worse; but she was glorified. She was no longer Sister Cicely of the House of Meditation, disguised with hair cut short, hanging over her ears, and the most hideous costume possible to imagine. She was Cicely of the world, Cicely of Outside...
I have read the article on the "Matrimonial Bureau" with more interest than I expected [this is an article introducing the subject by Annie S Swan], because the subject is approached with a sense of responsibility which commands respect. I am most strongly convinced that marriage, for most of us, is the best and happiest condition of life. An unmarried man or woman is incomplete; the best side of his nature, that which permits habitual self sacrifice, can only be imperfectly developed. Therefore one who promotes and encourages people to love and marriage may very possibly be doing a good work. At the same time, a Matrimonial Bureau cannot be made to appear otherwise than ugly. There is a sense of shamelessness attached to it, of fortune-hunting, of offering oneself, of parading and proclaiming charms and attractions. Put quite plainly, one would shudder at the thought of one's own girls entering their names in such a Bureau. Your article speaks of friendless and lonely young people. Certainly the evils, to young men as well as young women, of living in a great town without friends - the larger the town, the greater is the difficulty of making friends. The hopelessness of relief, i.e., the relief of society; the loneliness of the lodging; the terrible silence of the room - presently used to drive me out into the streets, where at least there was movement and noise. If anything could be done to bring young men and girls together; to introduce society in the place of loneliness; a great part of your pleading would be met. There is no need for a Matrimonial Bureau where there is social intercourse. Cannot some one establish a club, in every parish or every district, which shall be a social institute or club to which all young people of good character would be admitted? Such a club need not be expensive; yet it must not ignore classes; girls who were art students, for instance, would not probably join a club where there were shop girls, nor would shop girls associate with factory girls. At the club would be held concerts, dances, theatrical performances, quiet evenings of talk and rest. There is room for any number of such clubs. It is to the social life created by such clubs or institutions as these that I would look for the real or natural Matrimonial Bureau - the Bureau without a book; not in the shameless Register which proclaims that a girl wishes to meet a man who will marry her, that she is five feet six in height, that she is considered good-looking, that she has a good temper and is "domesticated" - imagine a girl of self-respect proclaiming that she is "domesticated"!
This is taken from a column entitled Coincidences in Fiction and Fact:
...Mr Walter Besant must have been struck by the resemblance of truth to fiction a short time back. In his "Doubts of Dives" one of the characters is Mr Pinder, who figures as an old dramatic critic. A copy of the book was bought by a Mr Dives, of Johannesburg, on account of his own name occurring in the title. What was his amused astonishemnt to find coincidence upon coincidence. He had a friend named Pinder, who had been a dramatic critic, and in other points resembled the creation of the novelist's imagination. He wrote to Mr Besant on the subject. That gentleman could only answer that it was "most extraordinary."
Taken from the column Random Readings:
...Sir Walter Besant had an amusing experience once with a London cab-driver. He drove from Piccadilly to some place in the suburbs, outside the radius. On getting down, he tendered to the driver three shillings and sixpence, which was a little over the proper fare. The man however wanted five shillings. Besant refused. "I'd like to fight you for it!" said the driver. "The very thing!" said Besant, who had never in his life put on a boxing-glove, and was almost as ignorant as Mr Pickwick even of the fighting attitude. "The very thing! Capital! We'll have the fight in the back garden. My brother will look on, hold the stakes, and see fair play." The cabman got down slowly, as if he did not quite care about it after all. He followed into the back garden, where there was a lovely little bit of green turf, quite large enough for practical purposes. Mr Besant placed his five shillings in his friend's hands, took off his coat and waistcoat, and rolled up his sleeves - all with an air of cheerful alacrity. "Now, my friend," said he, "I am ready as soon as you are!" His anxiety was very great, but it decreased as he watched the cabman's face express successively all the emotions of bounce, surprise, doubt, hesitation, and abject cowardice. "No, no," he said at last; "gimme the three-and-six. I know your tricks, both of you - I've been done this way before!"
Sir Walter Besant seems to have been a bit of a saviour to Rudyard Kipling, who reminisces in his autobiography Something of Myself:
...As I entered my empy house in the dusk there was no more in me except the horror of a great darkness, that I must have been fighting for some days. I came through that darkness alive, but how I do not know. Late at night I picked up a book by Walter Besant which was called All in a Garden Fair. It dealt with a young man who desired to write; who came to realise the possibilities of common things seen, and who eventually succeeded in his desire. What its merits may be from today's "literary" standpoint I do not know. But I do know that that book was my salvation in sore personal need, and with the reading and re-reading it became to me a revelation, a hope and strength. I was certainly, I argued, as well equipped as the hero and - and - after all, there was no need for me to stay here for ever. I could go away and measure myself against the doorsills of London as soon as I had money. Therefore I would begin to save money, for I perceived there was absolutely no reason outside myself why I should not do exactly what to me seemed good. For proof of my revelation I did, sporadically but sincerely, try to save money, and I built up in my head - always with the book to fall back upon - a dream of the future that sustained me. To Walter Besant singly and solely do I owe this - as I told him when we met, and he laughed, rolled in his chair, and seemed pleased.
A letter from Sir Walter Besant appearing in The Times in 1889:
TO THE EDITOR OF THE TIMES.
Sir, - Will you kindly allow me to explain that the gentleman of my name who has been standing for the Common Council of London is not the person (myself) for whom he seems to have been generally taken?
I hope his failure was not due to the same belief among the electors. As Cinna, the poet, was murdered by his justly incensed fellow-citizens for his verses, so this candidate for civic distinction may perhaps have been rejected on account of his novels, being mistaken for his namesake.
A Common Councilman of the City must possess two qualifications. he must be a freeman and he must reside in the ward which he represents. For my own part, I possess neither of these qualifications.
I remain, Sir, your obedient servant, WALTER BESANT, Novelist.
United University Club, Pall-mall East, SW, Oct. 12