My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Reduced price of Kindle edition until Easter

I have reduced the price of the Kindle edition for the period up until Easter in case there are Brontë lovers, stuck at home at the moment, who are quite interested in William Smith Williams, but not interested enough to buy the paperback at £9.95!
My purpose in writing the book was to get William’s story better known. In this, I was thrilled to have had an article accepted by Brontë Studies, which has now been downloaded over 100 times; my blog on the article has had 900 views. 

Monday, 23 March 2020

Belgravia and William

Charlotte Bronte wrote of seeing William and some of his children at a Ball. Having seen William's relatively modest house, I wondered what such an event might have been like. If you are watching Julian Fellows’ Belgravia on ITV, you may gain a sense of the social life on the fringe of which William and his family lived.

I was fascinated to find another connection with my current work in progress which, amongst much else, looks at aspects of the industrial revolution. Fellows has a character who as a young man owns a cotton mill in Manchester importing raw cotton from India. I am discovering the huge impact that the cotton industry had.
A third connection is with another of my books, MacRoberts Reply. Alexander MacRobert went as a young man in 1870 to Cawnpore in India (known as the Manchester of India) where he grew the British India Corporation with interests in all manner of textiles.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

William Smith Williams and Women

William Smith Williams was a son of the 19th century, and so we may expect to see in him attitudes from a society where women are viewed as second class. Is this though what the evidence reveals? In my writing of Charlotte Bronte’s Devotee (CBD) I came across quite a lot which sheds helpful light.

His mother died when he was aged ten, or thereabouts. He had an older brother, my great grandfather. His father was in business with a woman, Mary Nethersole the widow of the former owner of their wax and tallow chandler’s business. He had an aunt, Rebecca, but I found no evidence of contact with her. He had an extended family in Oxfordshire; certainly one maiden aunt, great-aunt Susanna, is mentioned. The truth is we know little of his childhood until he came within the embrace of the Hill family at Broxbourne.  The father, Francis Hill, was a rather austere school master and cleric. He and his wife had four daughters, one of whom, Margaret, William married and another became the wife of  William’s close friend, Charles Wells. I see the close relationship with the Hill family underscored when William and Margaret return to Broxbourne for the baptisms of their first three children. They became William’s family.

During his apprenticeship, William met John Keates and his poem about Keats, written after his death, perhaps offers ambiguity in its import. William writes ‘Mixt admiration fills my heart, not can I tell which most to love – the Poet or the Man’. (CBD p.30.) A decade later, William was in a social circle with radicals George Lewes and Thornton Hunt, and there are suggestions of a somewhat alternative way of life in the form of open marriage, certainly enjoyed by Lewes until he became the long term partner of George Eliot. (CBD p.66.)

We know most about William from the letters Charlotte Bronte wrote to him. Although she was writing as Currer Bell to disguise her gender, I believe that, from early on, William suspected that she was a woman. I infer from her letters that he treated her in every sense as an equal, unlike George Lewes whose laboured attention to her gender caused her great annoyance. (CBD p.140.) Women move to the centre stage when he writes to her about his four daughters, most particularly the profession they should follow, since he clearly does not want them to be beholden to a husband. He wants for them, independence.

There is perhaps a contrast when William thinks of his wife, and that he observes the absence of close friendship. (CBD p.139.) It may be that Margaret didn’t have close friends, or perhaps that William was too busy to notice. We do know that Margaret had strong family relationships as evidenced by letters to sisters in New Zealand. William would have experienced nothing of this kind.

We see William having professional relationships with a number of women. Mrs Lynn Linton was critical of him, perhaps for not publishing her manuscript. (CBD p.66) Elizabeth Gaskell looked to him for reassurance. (CBD p.180) He had a portrait of George Eliot on the wall of his office. (CBD p.184). In 1874 Millicent Fawcett wrote to William to ask his advice on publishing her novel, Janet Doncaster, asking whether she should publish it anonymously given her other writing on Political Economy. (CBD p.210)

Possibly the most difficult area comes with John Ruskin for whom William published his later writing on political economy and education, particularly the education of women. It is here where we confront attitudes that are so far adrift from contemporary thinking that it is difficult to get near. Having said this, Ruskin was advocating the education of women and not just for the home. (CBD p.205) It was only that it was education different to that available for men.

We can finally look at William’s legacy for evidence. (CBD ch12.) Jane Eyre shines bright at his belief in talent irrespective of gender. His youngest daughter was a celebrated and well regarded concert soprano. His eldest daughter was wife to a celebrated portrait painter Lowes Dickinson and mother to equally celebrated sons, Sir Arthur, an accountant, and Goldie one of the thinkers behind the League of Nations. For Goldie, his mother was the perfect woman. William’s two other daughters lived their adult lives as independent women, one a widow and the other divorced, but both gainfully employed.

Margaret Dickinson

Monday, 10 February 2020

Review in Brontë Gazette

I was thrilled by this review in the Brontë Gazette:
I reproduce this with permission from the Brontë Society. Patsy Stoneman is an acclaimed literary critic who specialises in 19th-century English novel. She is Reader in English at the University of Hull.
You can buy Charlotte Brontë's Devotee from The Bronte Society and on Amazon.

Wednesday, 27 November 2019

Review of Mother of the Brontës by Sharon Wright

Sharon Wright’s Mother of the Brontës is a book as sensitive as it is thorough.

It is, in truth, a love story, and, as with so many true love stories, the end is desperately sad. In arriving at this point, though, Sharon weaves a most engaging tale, drawing on Maria’s wonderful letters. I found myself laughing at them, as I read about half forgotten feelings in romance conducted by letter. She paints a lively picture of 18th century Penzance for the well to do. Her images of early 19th century travel are as vivid, as they are uncomfortable. Her Yorkshire is cold and grey, with the occasional break in the cloud to reveal Maria's wonderful social grace.

Having read it, I can much better understand Charlotte, scarred as she was by witnessing so much pain and sadness at such a young age. I can also sympathise more with Patrick. It is a ‘must’ for Bronte fans.

Wednesday, 25 September 2019

Reviews of Charlotte Bronte's Devotee

Karen Walker writes on Facebook:

I have just finished reading my copy of Charlotte Bronte's devotee, What a thoroughly enjoyable and learned read. Lovely to read the correspondence between William and Charlotte. Absolutely brilliant book, would HIGHLY recommend it. Also many thanks to Philip for my signed copy.

Brontë biographer, Rebecca Fraser, wrote:

“The mysterious publisher William  Smith Williams has always been the unsung hero of the Brontë Story. Not only did he discover Jane Eyre, he was Charlotte Brontë’s friend and supporter. In a fascinating book Smith Williams is at last brought to life thanks to the forensic skills of his great, great nephew.” Rebecca Fraser


An 'Amazon Customer' posted this review:

I found this a very readable book, one that I could relax with. 
It was fascinating to learn how closely involved William Smith Williams had been in bringing the talents of "Currer Bell" (Charlotte Bronte) to the British public. Reading about the difficult task of being a Reader for the publishers, whereby he always gave constructive criticism of books which he had not recommended for publication as well as for those which he had recommended, made me realise how many, many hours he must have spent with huge numbers of manuscripts. To have been really honest with Charlotte Bronte about her subsequent books after the success of "Jane Eyre" would undoubtedly have been very hard.
This book, while focussing mainly on his relationship with Charlotte Bronte, shows how involved he also was with other well known authors such as Ruskin and Thackeray. It gives the modern reader a snapshot of life in early Victorian England and provides a mine of information about Smith William's direct descendants and relatives, food for thought in an age fascinated by family trees.

Lily's Mum posted on Amazon:
A delightful and well-researched book on a fascinating man
I struggle to think of anyone who wouldn't be interested in this story because so many people seem to be connected to him. Do you have an interest in the Bronte family? Ruskin? Rossetti? Thackeray? Lawrence Alma-Tadema? George Eliot? Mrs Gaskell? All crop up in this tale of publishing and friendships, with a healthy dose of sudden death and dodgy marriages thrown in to boot.

I love how much detail there is in here. I was tickled by the fact that in the early years of the nineteenth century, the road between Westminster and London was beset with highwaymen so MPs had to travel in groups for their own safety. From the first, Williams was a man of connections, counting John Keats as a schoolmate and from his first foray into publishing could count Thomas Carlyle amongst his friends with correspondence from Dickens.

Of course, it's for his friendship with Currer Bell (or Charlotte Bronte, as she is more usually known) that we acknowledge Williams today. His recognition and encouragement of Charlotte's talent from the first builds a close and lasting friendship. Reading her letters to him (treasured and preserved by the family) are a treat and make you wish that his letters had also been kept. Indeed, the one we have reminded me of the treatment of the one letter from Fanny Cornforth quoted in Paull F. Baum's book of Rossetti's letter to Fanny. The Bronte Encyclopedia suggested that this letter from Williams to Charlotte showed Williams to have 'no great skill in writing and that the ambitions which frustrated him so were based more on fantasy than fact' which is a sweeping statement for one letter, especially one written on the occasion of Emily Bronte's death. It is obvious from Charlotte's responses to his other letters over many years that his letters brought her joy.

One of the unexpected joys of the book are Charlotte's comments on being a woman at the time, many of them offered while Williams still (on the face of it) believed he was corresponding with a gentleman. On the subject of female further education, Charlotte was enthusiastic - 'Whenever I have seen families of daughters sitting waiting to be married, I have pitied them from my heart.' I absolutely loved the comments she got back from Poet Laureate Robert Southey after sending him some of her poems - 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be ... the daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind.' Well, he's a keeper.

This is an easy read because the tone of the narrative is so friendly and conversational from a writer who obviously loves his subject and wants you to love it too. I feel I know figures in literary history just that bit better after reading this and my opinion of Charlotte Bronte has risen greatly. I knew pretty much nothing of Williams beyond his part in Bronte's publishing life but found his achievements as fascinating as his personal life. The friendship he shared with Charlotte was not all plain sailing especially with Mrs Williams (at least in the perception of Charlotte) and one quote from Charlotte on friendship really struck a chord with me:

'In the matter of friendship I have observed that disappointment here arises chiefly - not from liking our friend too well - or thinking of them too highly - but rather from an over-estimate of their liking for and opinion of us.'
In these times of on-line, written friendships, I find that to be unfortunately true and wise words indeed.

You can find this review  also on the blog of Kirstie Stonell Walker, author and student of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 

Cheryl Pivac posted this on Amazon New Zealand. Cheryl is descended from William's wife's family and let me have some wonderful family letters:
"Don't just read this book once ~ Read it TWICE
Some books you read once... this book I read twice.

The second time I got even more from this book a wonderful insight into a truly gentle man of great wisdom and ideals.

Philip has made William Smith Williams come alive within the pages of this book. Well done!"


Fran Manning
is William's great (3x) granddaughter and she wrote this:

“Thank you so much for transporting me back into the lives of our family and their friends, and into the streets and homes of mid Victorian London and to Haworth Parsonage. As a result I now feel that I  know my 3 x Great Grandfather, his family and some of his friends as real people. I can also feel the environment in which they lived and the passions that drove them in their daily lives. 
The extensive research, attention to detail, entertaining and reader-friendly style, and honesty in reporting made it a wonderful read. I found the skilful connections you made of events and people at a particular time to their appearances in previous or later chapters very helpful”. 



The Library of Bishop Grosseteste University has included the book in their display for the Lincoln Book Festival 2019.


PwC mailing to former partners



Monday, 2 September 2019

John Ruskin revisited

A fascinating reassessment of the importance of John Ruskin has come in two excellent books published this year.

Suzanne Fagence Cooper has approached the subject from her art history background. To See Clearly: Why Ruskin Matters is a beautiful, intriguing book.

Andrew Hill is a Financial Times Journalist and, in Ruskland: How John Ruskin Shapes Our World, looks at Ruskin’s thinking on political economy. I am sure William would have approved.

The books also tell, amongst much more, of the influence of Ruskin on Charlotte Bronte. This influence came via William Smith Williams.

I have charted John Ruskin’s relationship with William Smith Williams who worked closely in the 1860s, editing The Selections of the Writings of John Ruskin published by Smith, Elder & Co in 1861.

http://www.williamsmithwilliams.co.uk/2019/03/william-smith-williams-and-john-ruskin.html