My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

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task of being a Reader for the publishers, whereby he always gave constructive criticism of books which he had not recommended for publication as well as for those which he had recommended, made me realise how many, many hours he must have spent with huge numbers of manuscripts.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


Wednesday, 14 August 2019

Charlotte Brontë's Devotee - the published book

The Book is now on sale from The Bronte Society

“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

The book tells the revealing story of Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with William Smith Williams who, as the Reader at her publisher Smith, Elder & Co, recognised her genius. But, who was he? William was a radical Victorian, friend to many of the giants of 19th century art and literature: Thackeray, Thomas Carlyle, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot and the Rossettis. Through him we gain an insight into the world of publishing, the art and science of lithography and the controversial thinking of John Ruskin on women’s education, politics and economics. He was a family man and, with his wife Margaret, produced a line of remarkable progeny.

Whence had he come and wither did he go? Charles Dickens and George Meredith were also publishers’ Readers and their stories are well known, but what of William Smith Williams?

I was spurred on my quest by words from a letter his brother in law, Robert Hill, wrote on his death: ‘There were complementary notices of his death in nearly all the papers. Nobody could have been more universally beloved or respected than he was.’ I read the obituaries and they were indeed full of praise and affection. One sentence in the Publishers Circular in particular caught my attention: ‘The truth is that Mr Williams’ previous education had fitted him to be a judge of good work, and he was singularly fair and unbiased.’ I had to discover what this ‘previous education’ had been, but also what else he had done to merit such fulsome praise and, indeed, who were those people who loved and respected him.

I found a true Renaissance man as at home with art as with literature, with science as with politics. His childhood had been spent in the crowded courts bordering London’s Strand. He was orphaned at age fourteen and then largely self educated. He was an apprentice publisher and then a lithographer before joining Smith, Elder. He wrote a poem in praise of John Keats and presented a paper to the Society of Arts on Lithography. Following his all too few years of friendship with Charlotte Bronte, he mentored many other writers. One such, Frederick Wicks, wrote this if him:

‘Thrusting back his massive growth of white hair, he would clasp his hands nervously in thought before delivering his opinion, and then would follow in short, pregnant sentences a perfect flood of light upon the matter in hand. He was never content with general commendation and approval, but always gave good, sound reasons and sufficient cause for all he thought. Among the many pregnant phrases that fell to my lot was one of extraordinary value as a check to the exuberance of youth. “You need,” he said, “restraint – not that which checks, but that which guides the literary faculty.”’

He edited the 1861 Selections of the Writings of John Ruskin and then supported Ruskin in the publication of his works on political economy. He is buried in Kensal Green cemetery with his wife, one son and two daughters and son in law celebrated portrait painter, Cato Lowes Dickinson under a memorial designed by AC Gill. His daughter, Anna, was a celebrated concert soprano. One grandson, Sir Arthur Lowes Dickinson, was a founding partner of Price Waterhouse in the USA, another, Goldie Lowes Dickinson, was one of the thinkers behind the League of Nations.

About the author

Following a career with Price Waterhouse and in the charity sector, I was awarded a First Class Degree in Humanities by Exeter University and then an MA in Professional Writing by University College Falmouth. My first two books were published by The History Press and a third is in progress. An article on his research into William Smith Williams was published by Brontë Studies in April 2019.

The book

The book is available from Amazon by following this link and also  from the Brontë Society. I would also be happy to supply the book direct.

Saturday, 3 August 2019

The printer’s proof

To handle the proof copy of a book is a surprise and a delight. All those years of research, thought and composition finding a material form. This book, though, is self-published, since, whilst a number of publishers and indeed competition judges liked it, they did not think it sufficiently commercial. We shall see! 

Self-publishing has necessitated paying a proof reader, happily a very good one; and, as I say in the introduction, any errors are mine alone. Self-publishing has also meant that I could not see the overall design until now. I am pleasantly surprised. I hope you are.
It has been a long time in the making. It was 2006 when Norman Penty contacted me because my name appeared in the family tree he had researched of William Smith Williams's family. Over the intervening years, I explored the family further. It was in Paris, in a hotel near the Pantheon where I read the chapters on William Smith Williams in Juliet Barker's The Brontës, when I began to realise just how little was known about this significant man in the Brontë story. This spurred me on.

I researched further and, as I say in the introduction, found his brother-in-law Robert Hill's letter telling of the obituaries of William. I loved my visits to the archives at Haworth, Lancaster and Edinburgh, finding in each the sort of gem that makes you want to shout out - not something approved of in archives. I made contact with William’s relatives in Australia and New Zealand and they let me have family letters and photographs. Brontë biographer and former chair of The Brontë Society, Rebecca Fraser, read, liked and offered helpful suggestions to improve my draft. I was invited to write a paper on my research for Brontë Studies, and thoroughly enjoyed my correspondence with its wonderful editor Amber Adams.

I will be speaking about Charlotte Brontë’s Devotee at the Lincoln Book Festival in September.

The book is now available to buy on Amazon in paperback and Kindle edition.

Saturday, 4 May 2019

William Smith Williams and Music

William’s youngest daughter, Anna, was born in Campden Hill Terrace in 1845. Many years later she spoke in an interview of the Smith Williams family household. She had by then become a celebrated concert soprano.

Her interviewer wrote that, ‘Mr Smith Williams was a man of an extreme romantic and artistic temperament. In the evening the small petted Anna would sit on a stool at his knee while he said to the older ones - “Now, girls, shall we have some Mozart?”

“I don’t like Mozart!” the little maiden would say. “Can’t we have some operatic music instead?” But Mozart invariably carried the day.’
Anna Williams age 18 from family photographs

Saturday, 23 March 2019

William Smith Williams and John Ruskin

William Smith Williams is best known as the reader at Smith, Elder and Company who discovered and mentored Charlotte Brontë.

Less familiar is his relationship with John Ruskin. He edited the 1861 Selections of Ruskin’s Writings and then handled the publishing of Ruskin’s works on political economy until his retirement, after which Ruskin moved his publishing to George Allen.

Ruskin was of course best known for his writing on art; William’s passion for art was perhaps as great as that for literature. He wrote extensively on the subject, including a masterly paper which he, in collaboration with Sir Henry Cole, presented to the Society of Arts, entitled On Lithography.

William and Ruskin possibly first met when the former worked for lithographer, Charles Hulmandell and the latter with his father visited their Marlborough Street premises to collect a subscriber edition of Samuel Prout’s Sketches in Flanders and Germany.

When next they met it not clear. On 3 February 1844 a lengthy review of Modern Painters by a 'Graduate of Oxford' appeared in the Athenaeum. It was scathing. Who was this young pup saying such modern nonsense? William was, certainly in 1843, a regular contributor to the Athenaeum magazine; I have found some eight art and theatre reviews which he wrote that year. It is clear that William certainly would not have agreed with the scathing review. He shared with Ruskin a love of Turner, especially early Turner landscapes which they both felt followed the path set out by water-colourist, Samuel Prout whom they both admired.

William would later send a copy of Modern Painters to Charlotte Bronte to assist with the broadening of her mind.

Once William had joined Smith Elder, I feel sure they would have been in contact as Smith, Elder published Ruskin’s works on art and architecture. They became more closely connected after 1860 when Ruskin fell out with George Smith over the publication of articles on political economy in The Cornhill.

The University of Lancaster is home to a wonderful archive of John Ruskin's work. I spent some time there looking at his diaries and some of the other manuscripts he left.

To me of greatest interest was the 1861 first edition of Selections from the writing of John Ruskin edited by William Smith Williams. It is an Aladdin's cave. It shows the breadth of his interest, from fine art, through architecture to political economy. William had followed Ruskin from the beginning and so was in the perfect position to make the Selections.

The Smith Elder archive at the National Library of Scotland contains some fascinating further material.

In the 1860s, Ruskin turned his attention to political economy and wrote a series of articles, together under the title Unto the Last for the Cornhill magazine, published by Smith, Elder. He then wrote further lectures which came together in a number of books. In the archive there are personal letters from Ruskin to William concerning the publication of these.

Ruskin wrote to WT Page, Mayor of Lincoln, that "I have always held (and am prepared against all comers to maintain my holding) that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British islands,1 and—roughly—worth any two other cathedrals we have got."

An article on my research was published in Brontë Studies in April 2019 and shows that William Smith Williams was very much a Renaissance man who attracted both friendship and respect from many of the nineteenth century’s leading writers, artists and thinkers. He knew Carlyle, Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot, Ford Maddox Brown and the Rossetti’s among many others. He is buried in Kensal Green Cemetery with his friend and son in law Cato Lowes Dickinson, under a monument designed by AC Gill. Lowes Dickinson taught with Ruskin at the Working Men’s College.
With thanks to the Ruskin archive