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.