He was born in Wakefield, Yorkshire, and won a scholarship to Owens College, the original University of Manchester. In 1876, he was convicted of theft and forced to leave the university; he spent a short time in prison. Afterwards, he emigrated to the USA, where he began his career as a writer, having some short stories published in the Chicago Tribune. On returning to Britain, he married an uneducated woman, Marianne Harrison, with whom he had little in common. Although he succeeded in having several novels published, he was forced to work as a teacher to make ends meet. When Marianne died, he re-married, to an equally unsuitable woman, from whom he was soon separated. He struck up a friendship with emancipator Clara Collet, but, while visiting Paris in 1898, he met Gabrielle Fleury, and went to live with her for the remainder of his life.