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. .... 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.
...In ... 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.....
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 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.” ....
Children of Gibeon (1886) is a novel intended to portray the lives of the poor, one of Besant's East End novels. Our excerpt is from a subplot. The hero, a medical doctor speaks to a friend who is departing the neighborhood:
" [B]efore you go, I should like you to know —just for the sake of knowing—not that it will do any good, but still you ought to be told—that there are two men in love with you."
"Oh! Why should you tell me that?" she answered, with a natural blush.
"They are not much to boast of—only Hoxton men; but still —men."
"Don't go on, doctor."
"I must, now. One of them is Randal Smith. He confessed it last night when I taxed him with it, after beating about the bush awhile. He's been in love with you, he says, for a long time. Of course, he can't look at things straight, and he pretends that it's out of gratitude to you for singing and talking with his blessed boys—the humbug! But he won't tell you, because he's got to be a celibate for the good of the Church— ho! ho!—and because you won't submit to discipline! That's what he calls confession, and penance, and Lent."
"Poor Mr. Smith! I shall always think the better of myself, because there never was a more unselfish man, I believe."
"As for the other man—will you guess who that other man is?"
She met his eyes with perfect frankness and without a blush.
"Do you mean—yourself?"
"Yes, I do. I don't at all understand why, but it is so."
"It is a part of the general pretence and unreality of life, perhaps."
"No, it is as real as—as neuralgia, and as difficult to shake off. I don't know who you are, but I know what you are. Smith doesn't want an answer. Have you, by any chance, got one for me?"
"Only, that a woman ought to be proud, to think that two such men like her. Will you go on liking me, both of you?" She offered him her hand, but he did not take it.
"I said love, not like," he replied, grimly. "Well, you've said what I knew you would say, only you've said it more kindly than I expected—or deserved, perhaps. Yet, I don't know. If a man loves a woman he can but tell her so, even if she's a royal princess." .......Now I'll go. Forgive me."
"There is nothing to forgive, believe me."
"I was bound to tell you, once, before you went away. I shall never speak of it again—you know it, and that is enough."
He looked in her face once more, from under his shaggy eyebrows, and pressed her hand. Then, as he left her and went his way, at the bottom of the stairs he tumbled over a couple of cats which were sleeping on the lowest step in the sun. I am sorry to say that he swore at those cats aloud. I have said that he was a rough and a rude young man. When he cursed those cats, he cursed his own fortune as well. Valentine heard the words and forgave them, understanding the cause. As for the cats, they knew the doctor very well, and retired with precipitation and wonder, asking each other what in the world could be the matter with a man whom they had known and respected since kittendom as a constant and tried friend of cats. There are a great many cats about Ivy Lane—cats have taken the place formerly occupied by oyster-shells in poor neighborhoods — but the doctor had never before kicked a single one of them. Therefore they were naturally hurt and surprised. One more illusion gone.
We return to the text of the Victorian Web, which is a great resource.
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.
We close with a little known detail about Besant's significance in literary history
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.