Sir Walter Besant (1836-1901) was one of the most prolific and widely-read novelists, popular historians and social critics of the late Victorian era. He was also a philanthropist, antiquary, secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund, originator of the People's Palace in East London, and a vigorous campaigner for authors’ rights.
Besant was born in Portsea, an area of Portsmouth, located on Portsea Island, as the third son in a family of six sons and four daughters of a prosperous wine merchant and an avid book collector, William Besant, and his wife, Sarah Ediss, the daughter of an architect. Walter was first educated at home and in 1851 he attended as a boarder St. John's Grammar School in Southsea and Stockwell Grammar School in south London. Next, from 1854, he was educated at King’s College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge (image), with a view to taking holy orders. In 1859, he graduated as 18th wrangler (i.e. a candidate who obtained first-class honours). His elder brother William (1828-1917) became a famous Cambridge mathematician.
While at Cambridge, Besant made friends with the poet and university wit C. S. Calverley and the future historian John Seeley. Besant was an avid reader of Dickens's novels. In 1857, he won the first prize in Calverley's famous essay competition on The Pickwick Papers. Dickens himself admitted that would have failed it. The prize was a first edition of Dickens' famous novel. Later, in 1876, he wrote, with James Rice, a short story, “The Death of Samuel Pickwick.” (Patten 133) After graduation Besant taught mathematics at Rossall School, Fleetwood, Lancashire and at Leamington College. In 1860, he made a walking tour in Tyrol with a few of his university friends including Calverley. He finally rejected holy orders and spent the next six years as professor of mathematics at the Royal College, Mauritius, in 1861-67, but ill health compelled him to resign. In 1862, Besant became a freemason, having been initiated into the Lodge of Harmony in Mauritius and after his return to England he joined the Marquis of Dalhousie Lodge in London as Master Mason from 1873. In 1884, together with eight brethren he conceived the idea of a Masonic research lodge, the Quatuor Coronati Lodge (meaning Four Crowned Ones), of which he became first treasurer from 1886. He was also treasurer of the 'Atlantic Union', an association which sought to improve social relations between Britons and Americans. In 1867, he began to write articles on social topics for the Daily News, Macmillan Magazine and the British Quarterly Review. In 1871, he was admitted to Lincoln's Inn.
In the next year he published a collection of highly erudite literary essays, Studies in French Poetry. From 1868 to 1885, he was Acting Secretary to the Palestine Exploration Fund, which initiated and surveyed archaeological excavations in Palestine. Besant did not go to Palestine himself, but worked in the Fund's London office. In 1871, he coauthored with Edward Palmer the book Jerusalem: The City of Herod and Saladin. He continued writing critical and biographical works, including The French Humorists from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century (1873), Montaigne (1875), Rabelais (1879), Readings in Rabelais (1883). Besant vigorously popularised François Rabelais in England. In 1879, he founded the Rabelais Club for the discussion of the French writer's work. The club lasted ten years, and Besant was a major contributor to its journal Recreations (three volumes from 1881 to 1888).
In 1874, Besant married Mary Garat Foster Barham, daughter of Eustace Foster-Barham, of Bridgwater, with whom he had four children. For some time he took care of his sister-in-law Annie Besant, a prominent women’s rights activist, socialist, and theosophist. She separated from her clergyman husband, Frank Besant, Walter's younger brother, due to difference of views over religion and politics. Walter Besant felt intimidated by the emerging New Woman movement and distanced himself from his sister-in-law's controversial feminist views. However, like many late Victorians, he was concerned with the Woman Question, but his views were ambivalent.
Besant had a great passion for organising. In 1884, he founded the Society of Authors, the first successful organisation for writers in the United Kingdom, established for the protection of literary property. He called for the amendment of the laws of domestic copyright and the promotion of international copyright. He was its chairman until 1892 and the editor of its journal The Author. The Society, which functioned primarily as a professional association, with offices in Portugal Street, rendered great assistance to young authors by explaining the intricacies of the principles of copyright law and literary profit. It helped protect the interests of writers in their dealings with publishers and to establish the ownership of an author in his productions.
Besant was also a famous antiquarian. He served as the first President of the Hampstead Antiquarian Historical Society and Vice-President of the Hampstead Scientific Society and the Hampstead Arts Society. In 1884, together with the American folklorist Charles Leland he contributed to the foundation of the Home Arts Association, which established evening schools to promote handicrafts, such as such woodcarving, leatherwork, fretwork, weaving, and embroidery. In 1887, Besant was admitted to the prestigious Athenaeum Club in London, and in 1894, he became Fellow of the Society of Antiquities.
Besant was knighted in 1895 for his literary and humanitarian achievement, as well as his widely recognised intellectual authority. When he died after a fortnight's illness from influenza at his home at Frognal End, Hampstead, on June 9, 1901, his popularity in the English-speaking world reached its peak. He was buried in the burial ground in Church Row attached to the Hampstead parish church. Besant's Autobiography, published posthumously in 1902, is an informative source of his life and literary achievement.
Besant was the co-author or author of over forty novels, collections of short stories and the author of numerous biographies, historical books as well as essays and polemical articles. He enjoyed an enormous popularity, particularly in the 1890s, and “only Meredith and Hardy of the living novelists were ranked clearly above him.” (Boege 250). In 1869, Besant became acquainted with James Rice (1843-1882), the editor of Once a Week, and contributed to that magazine. In 1871, Besant and Rice began a literary collaboration and published a series of highly successful popular novels, short stories, and two plays. After Rice’s death in 1882, Besant continued to write his books alone.
Besant was one of the earliest British writers to hire a literary agent. He published most of his popular novels in three-volume sets, which were distributed by circulating libraries. Besant's later fiction, although well written, was of uneven artistic merit. His most successful popular three-volume novels were Dorothy Forster (1884) and Armorel of Lyonesse (1890). His novel, All in a Garden Fair (1882) inspired Rudyard Kipling to leave India and make a career as a writer (Kipling 39).
Soon after his death Besant's fame as a novelist began to wane. Today he is best remembered for his lecture, “The Art of Fiction,” delivered at the Royal Institution on April 25, 1884, because it started a vivid debate on the purpose of literary fiction, which included contributions by Andrew Lang, R. H. Hutton, Henry James, Robert Louis Stevenson, Thomas Hardy, Paul Bourget, Edmund Gosse, and Vernon Lee (Violet Paget). As a result, James published in Longman's Magazine on September 4, 1884, his famous essay “The Art of Fiction,” which was a polite rebuttal to Besant's arguments. In his lecture, Besant dealt with the professional development of an author. He complained that there were no training institutions for writers. Besant argued that fiction was a fine art and its rules and conventions should be studied by beginning authors who want to enter the profession. Unlike Henry James, Besant claimed that fiction has moral purpose which should raise a reader's social conscience.In 1882, Besant published All Sorts and Conditions of Men, which anticipated the emergence of slum fiction in the last decades of the Victorian era. The novel, which immediately became very popular and sold 250,000 copies, described the working-class inhabitants of London's East End slums who lived in a cultural void resulting in their almost total social exclusion. His next slum novel, Children of Gibeon (1886), recounted the miserable lives of three young girls working in an East End sweatshop. Besant also anticipated dystopian fiction in his two novels, The Revolt of Man (1882) and The Inner House (1888).
Journalistic Work About the East End
Apart from his slum novels, Besant wrote a number of articles about East End squalor and poverty. Some of them were reprinted in his book East London (1889). In the article “One of Two Millions in East London,” he described the predetermined fate of the semifictional character Liz, a worker in a jam factory.
There is apparently a choice of work. There are many industries which employ girls. There is the match-making, there is the bottle-washing, there is the box-making, there is the paper-sorting, there is the jam-making, the fancy confectionery, the cracker industry, the making of ornaments for wedding-cakes, stockings for Christmas, and many others. There are many kinds of sewing. Virtually, however, this child had no choice; her sisters were in the jam factory, her mother had been in the jam factory, she too went to the jam factory. 
Among his numerous vocations, Besant was also an amateur sociologist. He was concerned with the unbridgeable division of England into two nations: the rich and the poor. He called for a better understanding between the classes and even for some form of cross-class co-operation, but he was unable to propose the effective ways of remedying social exclusion of the urban poor and encourage cross-class mobility.
Historian of London
Besant was also the author, coauthor or editor of a number of books on the history and topography of London from prehistoric times until the nineteenth century, of which the most important was an unfinished exhaustive ten-volume Survey of London published after his death. His other books on London include London (1892), Westminster (1895), South London (1899). All these books provided fascinating insights into the past and present of London.
Walter Besant was a versatile and wide-ranging man of letters in late-Victorian England with diverse scholarly and literary interests and enduring social commitment. His popular novels written in partnership with James Rice and later alone brought him a great recognition and financial stability. Besant was also an important social critic whose two East End novels pioneered slum fiction in English literature. Although Besant's slum novels were largely paternalistic and melodramatic, they triggered a discourse about slum reform. Besides this, Besant also significantly contributed to the improvement of the status of a writer in Britain. As a scholar he popularised early French literature and the history and topography of London.
Besant, Walter. The Revolt of Man. London: William Blackwood and Sons, 1882.
___. The Art of Fiction. London: Chatto and Windus, 1884.
___. "The People's Palace," The North American Review, Vol. 147, 380 (1888), 56-63.
___. The Inner House. Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1889.
___. “One of Two Millions in East London,” The Century Magazine, 12, 1899, 225-242.
___. East London. New York: The Century, Co, 1901.
___. Autobiography of Sir Walter Besant. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1902.
Boege, Fred W. “Sir Walter Besant, Novelist.”Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 10 (1956): 249-280, and 11 (1956): 32-60.
Gnappi, Carla Maria. “Science and Technology in Victorian Utopias,” The Victorian Web.
Keating, P. J. The Working Classes in Victorian Fiction. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971.
Kipling, Rudyard. Something of Myself and Other Autobiographical Writings. Edited by Thomas Pinney. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.
Lee, Sidney, ed.Dictionary of National Biography. Second Supplement. Vol. I ABBEY EYRE. London: Oxford University Press, 1901
Patten, Robert L.Charles Dickens and 'Boz': The Birth of the Industrial-Age Author. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Spilka, Mark. “Henry James and Walter Besant: 'The Art of Fiction' Controversy,” Novel, 6 (1973): 101-119.
Last modified 30 December 2012