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Farr, Florence (1860-1917)
by Scholes, Robert


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Florence Farr (1860-1917)

She died of cancer in 1917 but her memory is alive and well on the World Wide Web, thanks to her contributions to the New Age—not the magazine but the occult world of theosophy and spiritualism that hovered around the journal, especially in its early years. She was named after Florence Nightingale, who was a colleague of her father's. He was a well known physician and hygenist, whose last years were spent in London. Florence Farr was sent away to Cheltenham Ladies College in 1873, and in 1877 she entered Queens College, London, leaving in 1880, having decided that her education was mainly about passing exams and was “really damaging to the vital apparatus” (Johnson 18).

At that time she hoped that her beautiful speaking voice might lead to a career on the stage. She did indeed become an actress, but she was finally no more comfortable on the popular stage than in the schoolroom, though she had her moments of triumph in the avant garde plays of Ibsen, Shaw, and Yeats, briefly taking both the Irishmen as lovers and remaining their friend later. Before these triumphs, however, she made an unfortunate marriage with an actor named Edward Emery—unfortunate for both—which lasted officially until 1895 but ended well before that. She was not the marrying kind. Shaw, for example, said she had a “Leporello list” of conquests (Johnson 27), meaning a list like that of Don Giovanni in Mozart's opera.

She met Yeats in 1889 through their mutual association with a theosophical group: The Rosicrucian Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Performing in a mystical drama written by Yeats's friend John Todhunter, she caught the eye of Bernard Shaw who came to review the play. Shaw met her the following year in a socialist circle that carried on the tradition of William Morris. He later wrote that his Ibsenesque statement—“home is the girl's prison and the woman's workhouse”—won her good opinion (Greer 87).

In 1891 she had a considerable success in the role of Rebecca West in the first English production of Ibsen's Rosmersholm. This character, whose name was later appropriated by a writer of exceptional ability, became an emblem of the New Woman, and, for a time, Florence Farr seemed to carry that banner as well. She played the part of the minstrel Aleel in Yeats's Countess Cathleen and Louka, the servant who wins the hero in Shaw's Arms and the Man. But gradually, she distanced herself from Shaw and become more deeply immersed in Theosophy, having joined The Order of the Golden Dawn in 1890.

She took Theosophy very seriously, founded a new branch, "The Sphere Group," in 1898, and wrote pamphlets that are still in print on topics such as The Magic of a Symbol. After leaving the stage she gave frequent performances of poetry—especially the work of Yeats—which she accompanied by strumming on the psaltery, the instrument she is holding in the picture at the top of this note. It is in this mode that she is perhaps best remembered outside of Theosophical circles. In the early days of The New Age Shaw suggested to Orage that she might write for the journal, which she did, producing some very interesting essays on Ibsen's women and other topics. It is to be hoped that the chance to read her critical thinking in The New Age will allow us to have a fuller picture of her work and thought.

In 1912, she moved to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) to follow her Guru and teach in his newly founded College for Girls. After five years there she was diagnosed with cancer, had a breast and pectoral muscle removed, and wrote gallantly to Yeats about having thus become an Amazon, including a sketch of her post-operative body. She died shortly after the operation.

Ezra Pound put her brutally into Canto XXVIII:

And they wanted more from their women,
Wanted 'em jacked up a little
And sent over for teachers (Ceylon)
So Loica went out and died there
After her time in the post-Ibsen movement.

Pound used (and misspelled) the name of the character she played in Arms and the Man, but this is unmistakably a kind of epitaph for Florence Farr. She deserved better.

—Robert Scholes

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