Public Talk: The Portsmouth of Walter Besant, in his novel By Celia’s Arbour.
By Celia’s Arbour by Walter Besant and James Rice is an extraordinarily vivid Victorian novel set in Portsmouth in the 1840s and 1850s. Born in Portsmouth in 1836, Besant grew up in the old walled town before the ancient fortifications were pulled down, and his precise descriptions of Portsea, Portsmouth and the old Dockyard bear testimony to his intimate knowledge of his hometown.
In his talk on The Portsmouth of Walter Besant, Matt Wingett describes the life of Walter Besant, who grew up in the shadow of St George’s Church in St George’s Square, Portsea, and the insights he provides on the Victorian town. From the rows of old sailors sitting on the The Common Hard with their peg legs, to the debauchery in the town, the vibrant Polish population and the deep sense of history in which the town is steeped. Besant makes the Portsmouth of the 1840s jump to life.
Matt Wingett celebrates the town as it once was, and gives a description of the ancient fortifications, revealing how Portsmouth was once the most heavily fortified settlement in Northern Europe.
Above, Matt Wingett talks about his 2016 launch of Sir Walter Besant’s By Celia’s Arbour
He also delves into Besant’s rich descriptions to evoke not only the town as it once was, but the fields and massive millpond that surrounded it, and further off, the heathland of Southsea Common, that grew wild around Southsea Castle.
Besant himself was a fascinating figure. A prolific author and co-author of more than 40 novels, he was highly regarded in his day. He was cited by two fellow Portsmouth-associated writers as an inspiration – namely Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He founded the Society of Authors and was knighted for his charitable work. This talk opens a doorway into the wonderful characters and vibrant world evoked by Besant, and reveals, finally, the position of the romantically named bastion in the fortifications where the reader first encounters the book’s protagonists: Celia’s Arbour, or the Queen’s Bastion.