Tuesday 3 September 2019

Review: Charlotte Bronte's Devotee

One of the funniest parts of the Harry Potter Studio Tour is when you see a video of the (then) very junior assistant at Warner Bros talk about taking home the novel of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and coming back in all buzzing about this book which she felt would be massive.  And it was.  Well, imagine the publishing assistant who came in the morning after with the manuscript from Charlotte Bronte clutched in their hot little hand? Say hello to William Smith Williams...

I had the very great pleasure to meet Philip Hamlyn Williams at the Lincoln  Literary Festival and heard how he was writing a biography of his great, great uncle William Smith Williams.  The result is Charlotte Bronte's Devotee, a thoroughly researched and entertainingly written book about one of the best-connected men in mid Victorian Britain.  I struggle to think of anyone who wouldn't be interested in this story because so many people seem to be connected to him.  Do you have an interest in the Bronte family? Ruskin? Rossetti? Thackeray? Lawrence Alma-Tadema? George Eliot? Mrs Gaskell? All crop up in this tale of publishing and friendships, with a healthy dose of sudden death and dodgy marriages thrown in to boot.

Thomas Carlyle
I love how much detail there is in here.  I was tickled by the fact that in the early years of the nineteenth century, the road between Westminster and London was beset with highwaymen so MPs had to travel in groups for their own safety.  From the first, Williams was a man of connections, counting John Keats as a schoolmate and from his first foray into publishing could count Thomas Carlyle amongst his friends with correspondence from Dickens.
Charlotte Bronte (unknown date) J H Thompson

Of course, it's for his friendship with Currer Bell (or Charlotte Bronte, as she is more usually known) that we acknowledge Williams today.  His recognition and encouragement of Charlotte's talent from the first builds a close and lasting friendship.  Reading her letters to him (treasured and preserved by the family) are a treat and make you wish that his letters had also been kept.  Indeed, the one we have reminded me of the treatment of the one letter from Fanny Cornforth quoted in Paull F. Baum's book of Rossetti's letter to Fanny.  The Bronte Encyclopedia suggested that this letter from Williams to Charlotte showed Williams to have 'no great skill in writing and that the ambitions which frustrated him so were based more on fantasy than fact' which is a sweeping statement for one letter, especially one written on the occasion of Emily Bronte's death.  It is obvious from Charlotte's responses to his other letters over many years that his letters brought her joy.

One of the unexpected joys of the book are Charlotte's comments on being a woman at the time, many of them offered while Williams still (on the face of it) believed he was corresponding with a gentleman.  On the subject of female further education, Charlotte was enthusiastic - 'Whenever I have seen families of daughters sitting waiting to be married, I have pitied them from my heart.'  I absolutely loved the comments she got back from Poet Laureate Robert Southey after sending him some of her poems - 'Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life, and it ought not to be ... the daydreams in which you habitually indulge are likely to induce a distempered state of mind.' Well, he's a keeper.

This is an easy read because the tone of the narrative is so friendly and conversational from a writer who obviously loves his subject and wants you to love it too.  I feel I know figures in literary history just that bit better after reading this and my opinion of Charlotte Bronte has risen greatly.  I knew pretty much nothing of Williams beyond his part in Bronte's publishing life but found his achievements as fascinating as his personal life.  The friendship he shared with Charlotte was not all plain sailing especially with Mrs Williams (at least in the perception of Charlotte) and one quote from Charlotte on friendship really struck a chord with me:
'In the matter of friendship I have observed that disappointment here arises chiefly - not from liking our friend too well - or thinking of them too highly - but rather from an over-estimate of their liking for and opinion of us.'
In these times of on-line, written friendships, I find that to be unfortunately true and wise words indeed.

I cannot recommend this book enough as it is a treat and a gem.  Autumn is when we should be gathering books to see us through the winter months and let this be one of them.  Charlotte Bronte's Devotee by Philip Hamlyn Williams is available from Amazon UK (here) and US (here).

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