Walter Besant (1836-1901) was born on 14 August 1836 in Portsea (birthplace of Charles Dickens), becoming the fifth and penultimate child of a prosperous wine merchant. Besant’s early education mainly comprised reading through his father’s large and eclectic library, but in 1851 he was sent as a boarder to Stockwell grammar school in south London. He showed great academic promise, emerging with a clutch of prizes to enter King’s College, London. Although he found the atmosphere there unedifying and the teaching sloppy, Besant did see much of life as he walked the streets of the heaving metropolis, observing the teeming life that lurked within. Christ’s College, Cambridge proved more to his scholarly taste and provided the intellectual stimulation he craved.
A nascent career as a mathematics tutor in the midlands was interrupted by the more exotic prospect of a professorship in Mauritius. The posting was not without its problems, but the six-year stint gave Besant the opportunity to read widely and to hone his writing skills. In June 1868 Besant was appointed secretary to the Palestinian Exploration Fund, bringing him into the world inhabited by distinguished men of letters. More importantly, it provided him with a steady income while allowing him to pursue his writerly ambitions.
In 1874 Besant married Mary Garat Foster Barham, with whom he went on to have four children. The family was extended further when he took in his nephew Digby, son of his younger brother Frank and his estranged wife Annie Besant. Walter Besant took a dim view of his sister-in-law’s forthright views on women’s rights and was keen to distance himself from her. He started placing the stress on the first syllable of his surname to downplay their familial ties.
Between 1872 and 1882 Besant wrote nine novels with collaborator James Rice, enjoying impressive sales. Following Rice’s death in 1882, Besant embarked upon a solo career, becoming one of the first authors to employ a literary agent. His debut novel also became his most famous. First serialised in Belgravia in 1882, All Sorts and Conditions of Men went on to sell 250,000 copies. His story of two lovers united by their desire to improve the East End directly inspired the building of the People’s Palace on Mile End Road, opened by Queen Victoria on 14 May 1887.
Not content with such a visible testament to his literary achievements, Besant worked tirelessly for charities that sought to help London’s poor and was rewarded with a knighthood in 1895. Astonishingly, he somehow found time to help establish the Society of Authors, chairing the initial meeting on 28 September 1883 and establishing the society’s journal The Author in 1890. The Society’s main aims were to lobby for copyright reform and to elevate the status of the writing profession. Authors were encouraged to share contracts and publisher agreements in order to promote best practice within the industry. However, Besant’s tendency towards pomposity and his reluctance to admit women authors meant that his efforts were not always met with the recognition he would have wanted.
This occasional loftiness notwithstanding, Besant cared deeply about his many projects, often funding them out of his own pocket, and he left an impressive legacy. Although the People’s Palace has long since been absorbed by Queen Mary College, the Society of Authors is still an important institution (and even accepts women).
Besant died of Bright’s Disease at his home in Hampstead on 9 June 1901 and was buried nearby. His death came six months after that of Queen Victoria herself, and Besant epitomises the industry and philanthropy of the era she defined.
Victorian Secrets publishes All Sorts and Conditions of Men.