The Worlds of Florence Farr 1860-1917

Jane Spirit

It is more than ten years since I had my first encounter with Florence Farr. At the time I was compiling a volume which brought together recollections and insights into the life of Oscar Wilde offered by contemporaries and which was published by Pickering and Chatto in 2006.The process of selection for my volume was inevitably both a frustrating and rewarding one, given the wealth of materials available. I was particularly interested in Arthur Fish’s account of his time as sub-editor of the renamed Woman’s World under Wilde’s editorship from 1887 to1891. Whilst Fish recalled Wilde’s increasing disinterest in his editorial responsibilities, he also acknowledged in the 1913 Harper’s Weekly piece that his ‘editor secured a brilliant company of contributors which included the leaders of feminine thought and influence in every branch of work.’

Amongst the female contributors listed by Fish were spiritualists Margaret Mansfield (1827-1892) and Anna Kingsford (1846-1888) and contemporary theatre directors and managers, Marie Bancroft (1839-1921) and Janey Campbell (1845-1923) and Marie Bancroft as well as artists and craftswomen, political activists, academics and commentators on contemporary culture. Study of these women and of Wilde’s wide circle of acquaintances led to me to Florence Farr as producer of the first English production of Wilde’s Salomé in 1905 and on to an appreciation of the breadth of her creative, intellectual and spiritual interests.

It was Farr, for example, who in 1891 played the part of Rebecca in the first English performance of Ibsen’s Rosmersholm and who influenced the work of George Bernard Shaw and of W.B. Yeats with whom she collaborated in producing a ‘new art’ of speaking verse to music. This she termed the ‘bardic art’ in her 1909 pamphlet Music and Speech which she dedicated to Yeats and to Arnold Dolmetcsch who had created for her the ‘psaltery’ she played during performances. Alongside theatre direction and performances, Farr wrote about and practiced her esoteric interests. She, Annie Horniman and Yeats were all initiated into the Golden Dawn during 1890. Farr reached high office in the Order before resigning in 1902 and joining the Theosophical Society.

In 2013 I was fortunate enough to be able to include Farr’s 1894 fictional ‘Wildean’ satirical work, The Dancing Faun, in the second volume of another Pickering and Chatto book, The Women Aesthetes: British Writers 1870-1900 co-authored with Sue Asbee from the Open University and Mary Joannou and Claire Nicholson from Anglia Ruskin University. I became in turn fascinated by the theatrical references and themes of the novella and intrigued by its lack of overt esoteric references, given that in1893 when Florence was writing it she was preparing a lecture to the second order of the Golden Dawn on “Secrecy and Hermetic Love’. In the following year her commentary on the text A short enquiry concerning the hermetic art was published as well as the finished novel, the latter forming the second volume in John Lane’s ‘Keynotes’ series.

I was curious also about her decision to embark on an entirely new phase of life, leaving both the world of Edwardian theatre and of occult London to sail to Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1912 and to become principal of its first school for girls, Ramathan College. In doing so she was of course following in the footsteps of Helena Blavatsky and Henry Olcott whose time in Sri Lanka in1880 had led to the building of schools by the Buddhist Theosophical Society. Farr effectively reinvented herself as an educationalist and a translator of Tamil poetry into English and she was never to return to England.

Late In 2015, Sue Asbee and I found ourselves discussing Florence Farr over a coffee and identifying what we felt was the need for a re-consideration of Farr’s life, work and legacy. Our discussion was the impetus to organise a one day interdisciplinary conference to mark the centenary of Farr’s death and to encourage a rich and wide ranging discussion of Farr’s contribution to drama, fiction, poetry, music, theosophy, Feminism and education from the 1880s to the 1910s.

We are looking forward to welcoming both Patricia Pulham and Stephen Regan as our  key note speakers at the event in Cambridge on April 29th, speaking respectively on ‘Florence Farr: New Womanism and the Occult’ and on ‘The Trembling of the Veil: Florence Farr and W.B. Yeats’.

Places at the conference are free, but registrations must be made by February 21st. The call for papers deadline is also February 21st.

For further information see www.florencefarr2017.wordpress.com or e-mail Jane directly at jane.spirit@open.ac.uk.

 

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