My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

Wednesday 14 August 2019

Charlotte Brontë's Devotee - the published book

“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.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you to Philip Hamlyn Williams for transporting me back into the lives of my 3 x Great Grandfather, his 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 ancestors, some of their friends including, of course, Charlotte Brontë, 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 resesrch, attention to detail, entertaining and reader-friendly style, and honesty in reporting made it a wonderful read. I found the skillful connections that Phil made of events and people at a particular time to their appearances in previous or later chapters very helpful.

    An excellent read for anyone interested in literature, art, politics, social history, and world events of this period.