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Tuesday 7 November 2006

Genealogy and W S Williams

Norman E Penty writes:

The Discovery of Charlotte Brontë

by William Smith Williams (1800-1875)

Charlotte Brontë may have remained in obscurity if it had not been for the faith, foresight and fortitude of William Smith Williams, the literary editor of Smith Elder who first recognised her talent when, using the pseudonym Currer Bell, and after a number of rejections, she forlornly sent them a copy of The Professor. Even though this manuscript was initially rejected it was done in such a positive and encouraging manner that Charlotte shortly sent Williams a draft of Jane Eyre which was soon published to great acclaim.

Little has hitherto been known of Williams and the background of this unassuming and quiet man. Most of what we know about Williams' character has been gleaned from the large volume of letters written to him by Charlotte. Unfortunately, most of those written by him to her have disappeared. However, the extant correspondence shows that Charlotte not only leant on Williams for support and advice, using him as her mentor, but that it was a two-way affair inasmuch she keenly offered him advice on the care and education of his children, drawing on her own experience as governess and teacher. Their friendship was not just confined to a professional relationship, but one which spilled over into their personal lives when on several occasions Charlotte visited the Williams' home and was entertained by his family and friends.

My research into discovering more about this fascinating man concentrated on parish records, census returns, and wills, etc., all of which enabled me to trace the origins of his family back to 1690 in Oxfordshire; his birth in the parish of St Martin-in-the- Fields; his marriage at Broxbourne, Herts; the births of his eight children and what happened to them; and finally his death and burial at Kensal Green. My quest identified his apprenticeship with the Fleet Street publishers, Taylor & Hessey, where he was in the small party bidding a final farewell to John Keats as he left for Rome and immortality; his subsequent miserable existence as a bookkeeper, which he disliked and which encouraged him to supplement his income by writing literary articles in his leisure time and then his eventual employment as literary editor at Smith Elder.

At Smith Elder he was held in high esteem, not only by his employer and colleagues but by many literary luminaries such as Thackeray, the Leigh Hunts, Hazlitt and Mrs Gaskell. It was commented that he “cherished from boyhood a genuine love of literature and received much kindly notice from eminent writers” and that “he was by nature too modest to gain any wide recognition”.

Although it appears Williams was a close family man, a modest man, about whom no misdemeanour can be found, he was very tolerant of the more colourful characters with whom he associated and became his friends including George Henry Lewes and his wife Agnes, Thornton Hunt and George Eliot, all of whom scandalised Victorian society with their so-called progressive views on marriage.

Besides his greatest legacy in ensuring that the name and talents of Charlotte Bronte became universally recognised, his children and their descendants became highly regarded as singers, musicians, artists, lawyers and accountants both in the UK and overseas.

The above titled forty five-page booklet can be viewed at The Parsonage Museum or at The Society of Genealogists, London.

Photo of W S Williams

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