My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

Sunday 21 August 2022

Charlotte Bronte and the Great Exhibition of 1851

 A Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, celebrating industrial advances, had been promoted from July 1949 by Prince Albert and Sir Henry Cole, the same man who had encouraged William Smith Williams in his paper on lithography. It went through many and long arguments. Some people, such as Ruskin, had serious reservations about the benefit of industry. Others were writing about its very clear disadvantages in terms of urban poverty. All strands of industry from both Great Britain and elsewhere were to exhibit their wares. In the early part of 1851 Richard Williams, William’s brother, was acting as Secretary to the group of Surgical Instrument makers preparing their displays for the Great Exhibition. He was running the office of Weiss & Co at 62 The Strand. For the exhibition, Weiss had produced a most marvellous instrument comprising 1,851 knives. This was clearly a bit of showing off. Yet, behind the scenes, advances were being made in surgery with the work of Lister and others and the makers of instruments took up the challenge to keep pace. 

Charlotte Brontë’s relationship with the Exhibition was perhaps characteristic. On 17 April 1851 she wrote to George Smith’s mother to say, ‘I was nursing a comfortable and complacent conviction that I had quite made up my mind not to go to London this year: the Great Exhibition was nothing – only a series of bazaars under a magnified hothouse.’   She did though go, as she wrote to her father on 31 May 1851

Yesterday we went to the Crystal Palace – the exterior has a strange and elegant but somewhat unsubstantial effect – The interior is like a mighty Vanity Fair  - the brightest colours blaze on all sides – and ware of all kinds – from diamonds to spinning jennies and Printing Presses are there to be seen – It was very fine – gorgeous – animated – bewildering… 

The Great Exhibition drew both great praise and harsh criticism. A wonderful series of lithographs were produced by Lowes Dickinson’s firm and this is available for us to see on the British Library website. Lowes Dickinson later married William Smith Williams's eldest daughter.

The blade cross produced by Weiss whose image this is.

I explored the catalogue of the Great Exhibition for my book How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World published by and available from Pen & Sword.

Sunday 22 May 2022

William's brother - the manufacturer

Richard, William's brother, exhibited at the Great Exhibition of 1851. He managed the business of Weiss & Son at 62 The Strand, just over the road from where he was born.

Weiss made surgical instruments. Lindsey FitzHarris has written a fascinating book on 19th surgery entitled The Butchering Art, and I draw on this to paint a picture of the world Richard Williams sought to serve. When he started out, surgery was largely a matter of dexterity. There were no anaesthetics, and so speed in operation was of the essence. There were no antiseptics and experience had also taught surgeons that the only operations, where the patient had any real chance of survival, were those as least invasive as possible, and, even then, the patient was more likely to die than live. Richard would have witnessed the opening of the Charing Cross Hospital, not far from Weiss’s premises. He may have witnessed operations, which were often public spectacles with a great deal of blood and gore. He would have been aware of the great strides made in anaesthetics in the 1840s in Edinburgh which saved patients the agony of experiencing the knife. It was a world that was progressing on many fronts and only a few years later antiseptics would begin to be used. 

I have looked through the catalogue of the Great Exhibition to write my latest book, How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World. It is to be published by Pen & Sword in June 2022. 

Bronte lovers will know what Charlotte thought of the Great Exhibition, as she wrote to her father on 31 May 1851:

‘Yesterday we went to the Crystal Palace – the exterior has a strange and elegant but somewhat unsubstantial effect – The interior is like a mighty Vanity Fair  - the brightest colours blaze on all sides – and wares of all kinds – from diamonds to spinning jennies and Printing Presses are there to be seen – It was very fine – gorgeous – animated – bewildering…'

Sunday 27 February 2022

Charlotte Bronte's Devotee - by chapter


I explore William Smith Williams's family background, which I share, and then what we know of his childhood above his father's business on London's strand


William's father and mother had died before his was fourteen, but his father provided for an apprenticeship for him and his brother, my great grandfather. William was apprenticed to a small publishing house who published Keats among others. William was clearly much impressed by Keats for one of the few pieces of his writing is poem in praise of the poet. He made lifelong friends with 

Hullmandel Years

On completing his apprenticeship, William went to work for the pioneering Lithographer, Charles Hullmandel in London's Soho. He clearly gained a deep understanding of the technique but also the artists who used it, for another of his surviving pieces of writing is a remarkable paper he presented to the Society of Arts in 1847. William also wrote on art and theatre for a number of magazines. I quote examples of his writing.

The House of Smith, Elder

William was to move from Hullmandel to another publishing house and I tell of its history. 

The Bronte Years – Jane Eyre

William is best known as the Reader at Smith, Elder who recognised the potential Charlotte Bronte showed in The Professor and then the genius in Jane Eyre.

The Bronte Years - Friendship

William and Charlotte became friends, as is clear from letters she wrote to him and which he kept. Sadly his letters to Charlotte have not been discovered. Much of the correspondence concerns William's concerns about his daughters. I write of William's modern attitude to women. The family lived in Kensington with George Lewis as their neighbour. Lewes would become the lifelong companion of George Eliot.

The Bronte Years – Art and Tragedy

William's passion for art is shared with Charlotte but she suffers the tragedy of the death of her siblings.

The Bronte Years – Cornhill Parcels

Charlotte is conscious that her knowledge of the world falls short of many of her contemporary authors. William seeks to address this by sending parcels of carefully chosen books, in effect a course in humanities.

The Bronte Years - Cooling

Charlotte's books, Shirley and Villette are published but the correspondence between Charlotte and William display a cooling in their relationship which comes to an end with Charlotte's marriage and, of course, then her death.

The Cornhill

A new challenge for William is in support of Thackeray as editor of the Cornhill Magazine, Smith Elder's answer to the periodicals being published by competitors.

The Ruskin Years

William had quite probably met John Ruskin when he worked for Hullmandel. Smith, Elder had published Ruskin's works on art and architecture. William takes up the Ruskin relationship when the latter turned his skills to political economy. I explore these books and William's contributions.

Home Life

William retired months before his death at age 75. I write of his family relationships and his final publishing project for his friend from their early twenties, poet Charles Wells.

You can buy Charlotte Bronte's Devotee in paper back or on Kindle