BESANT, SIR WALTER (1836–1901), English author, was born at Portsmouth, on the 14th of August 1836, third son of William Besant of that town. He was educated at King’s College, London, and Christ’s College, Cambridge, of which he was a scholar. He graduated in 1859 as 18th wrangler, and from 1861 to 1867 was senior professor of the Royal College, Mauritius. From 1868 to 1885 he acted as secretary to the Palestine Exploration Fund. In 1884 he was mainly instrumental in establishing the Society of Authors, a trade-union of writers designed for the protection of literary property, which has rendered great assistance to inexperienced authors by explaining the principles of literary profit. Of this society he was chairman from its foundation in 1884 till 1892. He married Mary, daughter of Mr Eustace Foster-Barham of Bridgwater, and was knighted in 1895. He died at Hampstead, on the 9th of June 1901. Sir Walter Besant practised many branches of literary art with success, but he is most widely known for his long succession of novels, many of which have enjoyed remarkable popularity. His first stories were written in collaboration with James Rice (q.v.). Two at least of these, The Golden Butterfly (1876) and Ready-Money Mortiboy (1872), are among the most vigorous and most characteristic of his works. Though not without exaggeration and eccentricity, attributable to the influence of Dickens, they are full of rich humour, shrewd observation and sound common-sense, and contain characters which have taken their place in the long gallery of British fiction. After Rice’s death, Sir Walter Besant wrote alone, and in All Sorts and Conditions of Men (1882) produced a stirring story of East End life in London, which set on foot the movement that culminated in the establishment of the People’s Palace in the Mile End Road. Though not himself a pioneer in the effort made by Canon Barnett and others to alleviate the social evils of the East End by the personal contact of educated men and women of a superior social class, his books rendered immense service to the movement by popularizing it. His sympathy with the poor was shown in another attempt to stir public opinion, this time against the evils of the sweating system, in The Children of Gibeon (1886).
Other popular novels by him were Dorothy Forster (1884), Armorel of Lyonesse (1890), and Beyond the Dreams of Avarice (1895). He also wrote critical and biographical works, including The French Humorists (1873), Rabelais (1879), and lives of Coligny, Whittington, Captain Cook and Richard Jefferies. Besant undertook a series of important historical and archaeological volumes, dealing with the associations and development of the various districts of London—of which the most important was A Survey of London, unfortunately left unfinished, which was intended to do for modern London what Stow did for the Elizabethan city. Other books on London (1892), Westminster (1895) and South London (1899) showed that his mind was full of his subject. No man of his time evinced a keener interest in the professional side of literary work, and the improved conditions of the literary career in England were largely due to his energetic and capable exposition of the commercial value of authorship and to the unselfish efforts which Sir Walter constantly made on behalf of his fellow-workers in the field of letters.
See also Autobiography of Sir Walter Besant (1902), with a prefatory note by S. S. Sprigge; the preface to the library edition (1887) of Ready-Money Mortiboy contains a history of the literary partnership of Besant and Rice.