Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Black, William (1841-1898)

BLACK, WILLIAM (1841–1898), novelist, was born at Glasgow on 9 Nov. 1841. After receiving his education at various private schools he studied for a short time as an artist in the Glasgow school of art, but, becoming connected with the 'Glasgow Citizen,' gradually exchanged art for journalism. His contributions to the 'Citizen' included sketches of the most eminent literary men of the day. He came to London in 1864, and obtained some standing as a contributor to the magazines. In the same year he published his first novel, 'James Merle, an Autobiography,' which passed absolutely without notice from the literary journals. In 1865 he became connected with the 'Morning Star,' and in the following year went to Germany as correspondent for that paper in the Franco-Prussian war, with, as he himself admitted, no special qualification for the part but a very slight smattering of German. During most of the very short campaign he was under arrest on suspicion of being a spy, but the observations he made in the Black Forest aided the success of his excellent novel, 'In Silk Attire' (1869), part of the scene of which was laid there. He had already, in 1867, produced a good novel in 'Love or Marriage,' which missed popularity from its discussion of delicate social questions, and which he spoke of later as 'fortunately out of print.' The success of 'In Silk Attire' helped 'Kilmeny' (1870), a story equally delightful for its sketches of artistic life in London and its rural scenery, and 'A Monarch of Mincing Lane;' but the author's first real triumph was won by 'A Daughter of Heth' (1871). Here he was most fortunate in his subject, depicting the domestication of a lively Frenchwoman in a Scotch puritan family. 'The Strange Adventures of a Phaeton' (1872) was even more successful, and introduced what became Black's special characteristic — so thorough a combination of scenes of actual experience in travel and sport with fictitious adventures that the reader sometimes hardly knew whether he was reading a book of travel or a novel. In 1874 'A Princess of Thule' thoroughly confirmed his reputation. Both in this book and in 'Madcap Violet' (1876), as previously in 'A Daughter of Heth,' the delineation of female character was an especial charm. The certainty of meeting with an agreeable woman, and of details of travel and sport which, if not perfectly legitimate in their place, were sure to be entertaining,, continued to maintain his popularity to the end of an active career, although he never regained the level of the best work of his middle period. The most remarkable of his later novels were 'Green Pastures and Piccadilly' (1877), 'Macleod of Dare' (1878), 'White Wings' (1880), 'Sunrise' (1880), 'The Beautiful Wretch,' one of several stories of which the scene is laid in Brighton (1881), 'Judith Shakespeare' (1884), 'White Heather' (1885), and 'Stand fast, Craig Royston' (1890). He also wrote 'Goldsmith' in the 'English Men of Letters' series (1878). A collected edition of his works in twenty-six volumes appeared 1892-1894.

After the discontinuance of the 'Morning Star,' Black became connected with the 'Daily News,' and was for some time sub-editor, but retired from journalism upon gaining an assured position as a novelist. Easy in his circumstances, he spent much time in travelling and yachting, and his amusements helped to provide material for his novels. His permanent residence was Paston House, Brighton, where he exercised a liberal hospitality. Few men of letters were more widely known in literary circles, and none more generally esteemed and beloved. He died at Brighton, after a short illness, on 10 Dec. 1898. He was buried on 15 Dec. within a few yards of Sir Edward Burne-Jones in Rottingdean churchyard. He married, first, a German lady, whose death left him a widower at an early age; secondly, a daughter of George Wharton Simpson, who survived him with issue. A William Black memorial lighthouse tower, designed by Mr. William Leiper, R.S.A., and erected on Duart Point in the Sound of Mull, was lighted for the first time on 13 May 1901.

[Men of the Time; Times, 12 Dee. 1898; Justin McCarthy in Academy, 17 Dec. 1898 (portrait); Daily News, 12 and 16 Dec. 1898; Glasgow Herald, 12 Dec. 1898; Athenæum, 17 Dec.]

R. G.