Journalist. Received limited education; must have acquired knowledge of books by wide reading. J. A. Crowe (Reminiscences, p. 71) wrote of him as "well read in Shakespeare and the poets of the last two centuries". According to Vizetelly (Glances Back through Seventy Years, I, 247), was "brought up as a wood-engraver" in office of Vizetelly's father, then "drifted into literature". Contributed to Penny Magazine, Saturday Magazine, and other periodicals. Was on original staff of Punch; sometime dramatic critic for the periodical. In Edinburgh, 1842-1845, was assistant editor of Chambers's. Married Janet Chambers, sister of the Edinburgh publishers. Was on original staff of Daily News. From 1850 to 1869, connected with H.W. and A.Y.R. Author of The Law of the Land, produced at Surrey Theatre, 1837. Brought out an edition of the Sir Roger de Coverley papers, 1850; a selection of his H.W. contributions and a selection of his contributions to Chambers's; an anthology, Poets' Wit and Humour, 1861, in which he included two of his own pieces. According to Tinsley (Random Recollections, II, 290), was one "of the best known men of his time in the London literary world".
Wills sent at least two items to Bentley's Miscellany at the time that Dickens was editor of the periodical; Dickens accepted one, returned the other, and invited further contributions. In the latter months of 1845, Wills served as Dickens's secretary during Dickens's establishment of the Daily News; he was engaged by Dickens as a member of the staff and remained on the staff under Forster's editorship, after Dickens's resignation as editor. It was Forster who suggested to the engagement of Wills as assistant editor of H.W. In the partnership agreement under which H.W. was set up, Wills was, with Dickens, with the publishers Bradbury & Evans, and with Forster, one of the joint proprietors; he held an interest of one-eighth share. He was to serve as sub-editor at a salary of eight pounds a week. On Forster's relinquishing his one-eighth share in 1856, Dickens allotted half of that one-eighth to Wills. In the partnership agreement under which A.Y.R. was set up, Wills was, with Dickens, joint proprietor; he held an interest of one-fourth share. At a salary of £420 a year, he was to serve as sub-editor and also as general manager of "the Commercial Department" (Lehmann, ed., Charles Dickens As Editor, pp. 19, 195-197, 212, 261).
H.W. and A.Y.R. were Dickens's periodicals. Dickens wanted no brother near the editorial throne. Throughout the nineteen years during which Wills was his co-worker, Dickens accorded him no higher title than "subeditor". But in the public mind, Wills was as much a part of the two periodicals as was Dickens. Of H.W. (or at times of H.W. and A.Y.R. jointly), he was variously referred to as "acting editor" (Athenaeum, September 4 1880), "working editor" (Hollingshead, My Lifetime, I, 98), "assistant editor" (Lady Priestley, Story of a Lifetime, p. 95), "co-editor" (Athenaeum, October 29 1892), "editor" (W. J. Linton, Memories, p. 161). Patmore, writing of one of Allingham's poems that had been published at the time that Wills was Dickens's only editorial assistant, expressed his disgust at the way in which it had been treated "by the Editor (not Dickens) of 'Household Words'" (Champneys, Memoirs ... of Coventry Patmore, II, 175). Harriet Martineau, levelling her attack at "the editors"—"the proprietors"—of H.W. as philosophically and morally inadequate to their function, held Wills equally as responsible for editorial policy as she did Dickens (Autobiography, II, 91-95). Samuel Smiles (Autobiography, p. 261) called Wills "editor of All the Year Round". Commenting on the fact that Dickens's periodicals bore Dickens's name alone as editor, Tinsley wrote (Random Recollections,II, 290-291): "... I take the liberty to think that, when 'Household Words' and Charles Dickens's name is mentioned, the name and good work of William Henry Wills should not be forgotten".
Whatever literary career Wills might at one time have contemplated was put an end to by his acceptance of the sub-editorship. The book that he was writing in the later years of his life remained unfinished at his death. The subeditorship, in Dickens's understanding, was to engross all of Wills's time and energy. When Wills, in 1855, in order to increase his income, contemplated accepting the editorship of the Civil Service Gazette and carrying on the work concurrently with his work on H.W., Dickens flatly informed him that such an arrangement was out of the question. Wills immediately acquiesced in Dickens's decision. He wrote to Dickens that his "whole life" was bound up in H.W. "and in the connexion into which it brings me with you" (Lehmann, p. 166).
Wills's position as H.W. subeditor was a responsible one. He handled the business transactions of the periodical. He had entire charge of the day-to-day management of the editorial office, carrying on correspondence, conferring with the printers and with contributors, delegating some of the assignments. He accepted and rejected contributions, referring to Dickens those that required Dickens's final decision. He kept, in the Office Book, a record of items published in H.W. numbers, with the amounts paid for contributed items - himself determin¬ing (roughly within the set payment
Wills's position as H.W. subeditor was a responsible one. He accepted and rejected contributions, referring to Dickens those that required Dickens's final decision. He kept, in the Office Book, a record of items published in H.W. numbers, with the amounts paid for contributed items—himself determining (roughly within the set payment scale) what the payment for any contribution should be. He set up—sometimes in consultation with Dickens, as frequently by himself—the numbers of the periodical, deciding on the contents and the order of items, then carried out Dickens's instructions for whatever changes Dickens wanted made. On his own initiative, as also at the direction of Dickens, Wills revised contributed items. (As Dickens's letters and as occasional memoranda in the Office Book indicate, Wills revised or made changes in more items than those of which he listed himself in the Office Book as reviser). He read and corrected proof. From the letters sent in by readers, he contrived "chips"; he did much of the hackwork of writing "chips" to correct typographical errors and misstatements in items that had appeared. Occasionally he accompanied Dickens to places or institutions and collaborated with him on articles based on the excursions. He wrote original material for the periodical (his original material was, until 1855, considered as paid for in his weekly salary). In addition, probably in 1854 on Forster's discontinuing his active participation in H.W. matters, Wills assumed "the labouring oar" in the Household Narrative of Current Events (Lehmann, p. 165).
Wills carried out his duties capably and conscientiously. Dickens could have had no better co-worker. "If there were only another Wills", said Thackeray on undertaking the editorship of Cornhill, "my fortune would be made!" (Lady Priestley, Story of a Lifetime, p. 143).
Dickens realized Wills's value to him. He mentioned Wills at times as his "fellow-workman", even as his "colleague" but also as his "factotum". In the business management of the periodical and its journalistic routine he relied on Wills completely; the responsibility that he gave him in editorial matters indicates that he thought Wills's literary ability at least competent; his letters indicate that he thought it little more. To Cunningham, he wrote (May 12 1850): "Wills is a capital fellow for his work, but decidedly of the Nutmeg-Grater, or Fancy-Bread-Rasper School you mention"; and to Bulwer Lytton (May 15 1861): "Wills has no genius, and is, in literary matters, sufficiently commonplace to represent a very large proportion of our readers". Representation of "a very large proportion of our readers" may not have seemed to Dickens a quality to be in all ways deplored.
Sending New Year's greetings to Wills on January 2 1862, Dickens mentioned their many years of association. "And I think," he wrote, "we can say that we doubt whether any two men can have gone on more happily and smoothly, or with greater trust and confidence in one another". The statement was true; yet Dickens was not an easy editor to work for, and, but for Wills's good nature, their association would not have been, for the most part, free from misunderstandings and arguments. Wills was obviously expected to exercise his own judgment in editorial matters; yet, when his judgment failed to coincide with Dickens's, it was Wills's judgment that was at fault. Dickens's criticisms were at times, particularly during the early years of H.W., so offensively phrased as to be humiliating to their recipient. Wills's setting up a certain item as a separate article, rather than as a "chip", Dickens termed "ridiculous". Of an article-title that Wills had suggested, Dickens wrote: "I don't think there could be a worse one within the range of the human understanding" (July 30 1854; July 12 1850). On this occasion Wills rose to his defence. He had given, he replied "a 'mild suggestion'" for a title, "for I think it useless to hint what may strike me as a defect without indicating a remedy"; the title might not be the best possible one, "but I am sure it is not the worst one within the range of human understanding". Replying to an objection concerning the manner in which he had handled a passage in another item, Wills sensibly explained his point, adding: "I did not suppose you would wish me to consult you upon so simple a matter of mechanical convenience" (Lehmann, pp. 30-32). In a letter to Dickens, October 17 1851, Wills wrote: "I have my own notions of what such a publication as Household Words should be; and, although I have good reason to suppose from the latitude of confidence you give me, that my notions square with your own generally, yet I cannot (less perhaps than many other men) be always right; and it would lift a great weight of responsibility from me if everything which passes into the columns of Household Words had the systematic benefit of another judgment before publication" (Lehmann, pp. 74-75). During Dickens's absences from London, much that appeared in H.W. did not have the benefit of Dickens's surveillance. The editorial work was Wills's.
Begun as a business relationship, the association of Wills and Dickens developed into friendship. Dickens in his later years, wrote Forster (Life, Book VI, sect. iv), "had no more intimate friend" than Wills. Dickens's letters—with their frank comments on friends, on family and personal matters—indicate this intimacy. Wills knew, of course, of the Ellen Ternan affair; he was acquainted with Miss Ternan. Wills was at various times in Dickens's company on social occasions, as was also Mrs. Wills. He was a member of Dickens's amateur company that staged a benefit performance for the actress Frances Kelly, January 3 1846 (playbill, Dickensian, xxxv, 241). He accompanied Dickens during a part of the theatrical tour undertaken in 1851 for the benefit of the Guild of Literature and Art; he served as secretary to the Guild. Dickens was instrumental in procuring for Wills the appointment as confidential secretary to, and as almoner for, Miss Burdett-Coutts. He proposed Wills for membership in the Garrick Club, and resigned from the Garrick on Wills's being blackballed. In 1864 Wills gave Dickens the present of a brougham. "It will always be dear to me ... ", wrote Dickens (November 30), "as a proof of your ever generous friendship and appreciation, and a memorial of a happy intercourse and a perfect confidence that have never had a break, and that surely never can have any break now (after all these years) but one".
The Athenaeum obituary on Wills (September 4 1880) stated that no man "left behind him fewer enemies and more friends" than did he. With his editorial assistants, Wills's personal relationship was friendly. The friction that developed between him and Horne resulted from Wills's conviction that Horne was not doing sufficient writing for H.W. to justify his salary; but personally, wrote Wills, he had "a liking for Horne" (Lehmann, p. 36). Morley called Wills "my dear friend" (Early Papers and Some Memories, p. 30); Collins showed his partisanship of Wills by resigning from the Garrick in protest against the Club's blackballing of Wills. Of persons associated with H.W., only Forster disliked Wills—or, rather, came to dislike him, for he must have had a reasonably amicable attitude toward him and some appreciation of his abilities when he suggested him to Dickens as assistant editor of H.W. With contributors, Wills's personal relationship was also friendly, though some writers resented his editorial alteration of their contributions. H.W. contributors who expressed their regard for him by dedicating to him a book were Murray, Payn (joint dedication to Ritchie and Wills), Percy Fitzgerald, Duthie, and Eliza Lynn Linton (joint dedication to Wills and his wife).
Wills wrote twenty-eight full-length items for the first volume of H.W., but increasingly fewer for the following volumes; for some of the later volumes he wrote none. As he explained in 1855, at the time that his accepting the editorship of the Civil Service Gazette was under discussion, he left the writing mainly to others, once a corps of contributors had been established. Since Wills had contemplated the Gazette editorship as a means of increasing his earnings, Dickens, in ruling it out of the question, suggested, instead, that Wills be paid for H. W. articles in the writing of which he had a substantial share. Wills interpreted this to mean articles that he wrote by himself; in the Office Book he recorded payment for seven such articles and one story.
Of the eighteen articles or sections of articles that Wills recorded in the Office Book as jointly by him and Dickens, some were actual collaborations of the two writers. One—the first section of "The Doom of English Wills"—Dickens mentioned in a letter to Wills (September 8 1850) as "our joint article". Other of the articles Dickens merely revised or added material to. (For suggestion as to the revision and additions, see Stone, ed., Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words). Reprinting certain of the articles in Old Leaves: Gathered from Household Words—which he dedicated to Dickens Wills wrote that they owed "their brightest tints" to Dickens's "masterly touches". Included in Old Leaves was "A Plated Article", which Dickens had reprinted as his writing. Wills's Office Book ascription of the item to Dickens and to himself is more authoritative as to its authorship than is Dickens's reprinting.
Dickens suggested the title for Wills's "The Great Bar in the Harbour of London". He thought Wills's "Review of a Popular Publication" and "To Clergymen in Difficulties" very good, as he did Wills's autobiographical article in A.Y.R. (April 8 1865), "Forty Years in London" (to Wills, July 17 1851; July 12 1850; March 9 1851: MS Huntington Library; March 26 1865). In a long letter to Wills, April 13 1855, Dickens analysed one of Wills's stories (not published in H.W.), pointing out what he saw as its defects, but mentioning also its merits.
Of the items reprinted, "Railway Waifs and Strays" and "The Tyrant of Minnigissengen" appeared in Old Leaves without acknowledgment of the joint authorship that Wills had recorded for them in the Office Book. "A Suburban Romance", recorded in the Office Book as by "W.H.W. (suggested by Mrs. Hoare)", with payment to Mrs. Hoare for the suggestion, appeared without acknowledgment of Mrs. Hoare's suggestion. "To Clergymen in Difficulties", recorded in the Office Book as by Wills, with payment to the man (name unclear) "who furnished the idea", appeared with acknowledgment that the facts on which the account was based were "derived from a correspondent".
Nine of Wills's H.W. articles (including "A Plated Article" claimed by both Wills and Dickens) were reprinted in whole or part in Harper's, four of them acknowledged to H.W. (In addition, one of Wills's articles—"The Private History of the Palace of Glass"—may have served in part as the basis of "The Crystal Palace", Harper's, April 1851). Three of Wills's articles were included in the Putnam volumes of selections from H.W.: Home and Social Philosophy, 1st and 2nd series, and The World Here and There. "The Ghost of the Late Mr. James Barber" was included in Choice Stories from Dickens' Household Words, published Auburn, N.Y., 1854. "A Suburban Romance", credited to Dickens, was included by Alice and Phoebe Cary in their Josephine Gallery, 1859. "A Curious Dance round a Curious Tree", credited to Dickens, was twice issued in 1860 as a promotional pamphlet by St. Luke's Hospital for Lunatics (Eckel, First Editions of the Writings of Charles Dickens). Three paragraphs from "Post Office Money-Orders", acknowledged to H.W., were quoted in an anonymous pamphlet, Methods of Employment, 1852 (Stone, ed., Charles Dickens' Uncollected Writings from Household Words).
Author: Anne Lohrli; © University of Toronto Press, 1971.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography