My article in Bronte Studies

My article in Bronte Studies
My article

Wednesday 23 December 2020

William’s brother and 19th century surgery

William Smith Williams’s elder brother was my great grandfather, Richard.

As boys they lived on London’s Strand, then a busy road in a crowded new urban area. Very nearly opposite their dwelling, above their father’s wax and tallow chandler business, were the premises of John Weiss, Surgical Instrument Makers.  

One of my treasured possessions is the signed cover of a copy of the catalogue of the Great Exhibition presented to my great-grandfather by the members of the Surgical and Anatomical Committee Class X, ‘as a slight token of the services rendered by him as Secretary’. Richard managed the business of John Weiss & Son, manufacturers of surgical instruments at 62 The Strand, and, I like to think, offered his services for the exhibition.

For the exhibition, John Weiss & Son 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 were taking up the challenge to keep pace. 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. Weiss & Son are still in business.  I imagine Richard’s son, Alfred my grandfather at age nineteen, visiting the exhibition and being inspired by all he saw. He would go on to register a number of patents during his varied career including that for a life raft for which he won a number of awards. It was an age of invention.

Richard Williams

Wednesday 21 October 2020

Charlotte Brontë’s Devotee by his great great nephew Philip Hamlyn Williams - Lincoln Civic Trust

“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.” 

Biographer, Rebecca Fraser, kindly wrote this on reading the draft of the book I had been working on for the last fourteen years and on which I had the pleasure of speak to the open meeting of the Civic Trust on 29 November 2019.

The book tells 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 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. Of interest to the citizens of Lincoln is a letter John Ruskin wrote to the then Mayor, WT Page, on 22 January 1883 the original of which is in the Lincolnshire Archives. We all know what Ruskin said about Lincoln Cathedral; well, it is in this letter:

‘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, and—roughly—worth any two other cathedrals we have got.’

He said rather more which may make us shudder:

‘The town of Lincoln is a lovely old English town, and I hope the Mayor and Common Council men won’t let any of it (not so much as a house corner) be pulled down to build an Institution or a Market—or a Penitentiary or a Gunpowder and Dynamite Mill—or a College—or a Gaol—or a Barracks—or any other modern luxury.’

But also set a challenge:

‘It might possibly make the upper students of the art classes look up a good many things that they would be the better for knowing, if the Town Council were to offer a prize for a design to be painted or frescoed in the Town Hall, of the most pathetic and significant scene in all British history—the first real “Union of Scotland and England”—in the funeral procession of Bishop Hugh—when the King of England (John), barefoot, bore the coffin, with three Archbishops, and the King of Scotland followed, weeping. The prize might be open to all students born between Lincoln and Holy Isle?—or better, perhaps, between Tweed and Trent?’ 

William Smith Williams was 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.

Charlotte Brontë’s Devotee may be found at Lindum Books on Bailgate. 

This article is reproduced from the Civic Trust annual report


Tuesday 22 September 2020

A wonderful review of Charlotte Brontë's Devotee in Brontë Studies

I couldn't be more thrilled than to read the review of Charlotte Bronte's Devotee in the autumn edition of Brontë Studies written by its editor, Amber Adams. In her editorial piece, she refers to him as 'that splendid man William Smith Williams'.

Bronte Society Members can access the review through the members area of the website. Otherwise, it is available to read through Taylor and Francis on-line.

Here is the opening paragraph of the review:

You can buy Charlotte Brontë’s Devotee by following this link 

Friday 24 July 2020

My William Smith Williams blog

I am so pleased that this blog continues to welcome a good number of visits each day. 
I have included in it my research into the life of William Smith Williams as it progressed over four years of exploring archives. The fruits of that research were gathered together, first, in the article I wrote for Brontë Studies, and this has been downloaded a gratifying number of times. 

There is then the book itself which has received some wonderful reviews, and is available in both paperback and Kindle editions. 
William’s home in Kensington where he and his family entertained Charlotte Brontë 

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.