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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Sir Walter Besant (1836–1901)
Critical and Biographical Introduction
 
WALTER BESANT, born in Portsmouth, England, did not begin his career as a novelist till he was thirty years old. His preparation for the works that possess so certain a maturity of execution, with as certain an ideal of performance, was made at King’s College, London, and afterwards at Christ’s College, Cambridge, where he took mathematical honors. Abandoning his idea of entering the Church, he taught for seven years in the Royal College of Mauritius. Ill health compelled his return to England, and he then took up literature as a profession. His first novel he had the courage to burn when the first publisher to whom he showed it refused it.  1
  But the succeeding years brought forth ‘Studies in Early French Poetry,’ a delicate and scholarly series of essays; an edition of Rabelais, of whom he is the biographer and disciple, and, with Professor Palmer, a ‘History of Jerusalem,’ a work for which he had equipped himself when secretary of the Palestine Exploration Fund.  2
  Young Besant was also a student in another special field. He knew his Dickens as no other undergraduate in the University knew that branch of polite literature, and passed an examination on the ‘Pickwick Papers’ which the author declared that he himself would have failed in. By these processes Mr. Besant fitted himself mentally and socially for the task of story-telling. The relations of a man of letters to the rest of the world are comprehensively revealed in the long list of his novels.  3
  From the beginning he was one who comes with a tale “which holdeth children from play and old men from the chimney corner”; nor is the charm lessened by the sense of a living and kindly voice addressing the hearer. His novels are easy reading, and do not contain an obscure sentence. As art is an expression of the artist’s mind, and not a rigid ecclesiastical canon, it may be expressed in as many formulas as there are artists. Therefore, while to few readers life casts the rosy reflection that we have learned to call Besantine, one would not wish it to disappear nor to be discredited.  4
  It was in the year 1869 that Walter Besant, by a happy chance, made the acquaintance of James Rice, the editor of Once a Week, and became a contributor to that magazine. In 1871 that literary partnership between them began, which is interesting in the history of collaboration. Mr. Rice had been a barrister, and added legal lore to Mr. Besant’s varied and accurate literary equipment. The brilliant series of novels that followed includes ‘Ready-Money Mortiboy,’ ‘My Little Girl,’ ‘With Harp and Crown,’ ‘The Golden Butterfly,’ ‘The Seamy Side,’ and ‘The Chaplain of the Fleet.’ The latter story, that of an innocent young country girl left to the guardianship of her uncle, chaplain of the Fleet prison, by the death of her father, is delicately and surprisingly original. The influence of Dickens is felt in the structure of the story, and the faithful, almost photographic fidelity to locality betrays in whose footsteps the authors have followed; but the chaplain, though he belongs to a family whose features are familiar to the readers of ‘Little Dorrit’ and ‘Great Expectations,’ has not existed until he appears in these pages,—pompous, clever, and without principle, but not lacking in natural affection. The young girl whose guileless belief in everybody forces the worst people to assume the characters her purity and innocence endows them with, is to the foul prison what Picciola was to Charney. Nor will the moralist find fault with the author whose kind heart teaches him to include misfortune in his catalogue of virtues.  5
  Mr. Rice died in 1882, and ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men,’ Mr. Besant’s first independent novel, appeared the same year. It is a novel with a purpose, and accomplished its purpose because an artist’s hand was necessary to paint the picture of East London that met with such a response as the People’s Palace. The appeal to philanthropy was a new one. It was a plea for a little more of the pleasures and graces of life for the two million of people who inhabit the east end of the great city. It is not a picture of life in the lowest phases, where the scenes are as dramatic as in the highest social world, but a story of human life; the nobility, the meanness, the pathos of it in hopelessly commonplace surroundings, where the fight is not a hand-to-hand struggle with bitter poverty or crime, but with dullness and monotony. The characters in ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men’ are possibly more typical than real, but one hesitates to question either characters or situation. The “impossible story” has become true, and the vision that the enthusiastic young hero and heroine dream has materialized into a lovely reality.  6
  ‘The Children of Gibeon’ (1884) and ‘The World Went Very Well Then’ (1885) are written with the same philanthropic purpose; but if Sir Walter Besant were not first of all a story-teller, the possessor of a living voice that holds one spellbound till he has finished his tale, the reader would be more sensible of the wide knowledge of the novelist, and his familiarity with life in its varied forms.  7
  Here are about thirty novels, displaying an intimate knowledge of many crafts, trades, and professions, the ways of landsman and voyager, of country and town, of the new world and the old, of modern charlatanism as shown in ‘Herr Paulus,’ of the “woman question” among London Jews as in the ‘Rebel Queen,’ and the suggestion of the repose and sufficiency of life’s simple needs as told in ‘Call Her Mine’ and ‘Celia’s Arbor.’  8
  In the ‘Ivory Gate’ the hero is the victim of a remarkable hallucination; in the story of ‘The Inner House’ the plummet of suggestion plunges into depths not sounded before, and the soul’s regeneration is unfolded in the loveliest of parables.  9
  The range of Sir Walter Besant reaches from the somewhat conventionalized ‘Dorothy Forster’ to ‘St. Katharine’s Tower,’ where deep tragedy approaches the melodramatic, or from the fascination of ‘The Master Craftsman’ to the ‘Wapping Idyll’ of the heaps of miser’s treasure. There is largeness of stroke in this list, and a wide prospect. His humor is of the cheerful outdoor kind, and the laugh is at foibles rather than weakness. He pays little attention to fashion in literature, except to give a good-natured nod to a passing fad.  10
  It would be difficult to classify him under any school. His stories are not analytical, nor is one conscious of that painstaking fidelity to art which is no longer classed among the minor virtues. When he fights, it is with wrong and oppression and the cheerless monotony of the lives of the poor; but he fights classes rather than individuals, although certain characters like Fielding the plagiarist, in ‘Armorel of Lyonesse,’ are studied from life. The village of bankrupts in ‘All in a Garden Fair’ is a whimsical conceit, like the disguise of Angela in ‘All Sorts and Conditions of Men,’ and the double identity of Edmund Gray in ‘The Ivory Gate.’ In reading Besant we are constantly reminded that humanity is wider than the world; and though its simplest facts are its greatest, there is both interest and edification in eccentricities.  11
  In 1895 he was made a baronet, and is president of the Society of Authors, of whom he has been a gallant champion against the publishers.  12
  The last years of his life were given to a monumental series of descriptions of London from the earliest times to the end of the nineteenth century, begun by him in 1892, and carried to completion by other hands after his death.  13
 
 
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