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Pfeiffer [née Davis], Emily Jane (1827–1890), poet, was born on 26 November 1827 in Montgomeryshire, Wales, eldest of the three daughters of (Thomas) Richard Davis, who was in his early years an army officer, and his wife, Emily, the youngest daughter of the Tilsley family of Milford Hall, Montgomeryshire. Davis once owned considerable property in Oxfordshire but lost his fortune when his father-in-law's bank, the chief banking institution in Montgomeryshire, failed in 1831. The family's straitened circumstances prevented Emily from receiving any regular education, but her father encouraged her to study and practise painting and poetry. Flower painting and embroidery were lifelong pastimes, and her first book, The Holly Branch, an Album for 1843, was published as early as 1842. A friend took her on tour to the Rhineland, and she spent a season in London before marrying Jurgen Edward Pfeiffer (d. 1889) on 26 January 1850. He was a German tea merchant resident in London, and the marriage, though childless, was a happy one. In 1858 they bought 2 acres on West Hill, just south of Richmond Road in Putney, London, and they built a house on it called Mayfield where they lived for the rest of their lives.

Throughout her life Pfeiffer suffered from bouts of ill health and insomnia, but she remained a prolific writer. Her first mature work, Valisneria (1857), prompted comparisons with Sara Coleridge. Conscious of the imperfection of her education, she worked hard at improving herself, and she did not publish again until 1873, when Gerard's Monument appeared. Thereafter she published a full-length work every two or three years throughout her life. Her writings varied widely in form and style, from collections of miscellaneous poems to the complex narrative structure of The Rhyme of the Lady of the Rock, and how it Grew (1884) and the full-length blank verse drama The Wynnes of Wynhavod (1881). The long prose work Flying Leaves from East and West (1885) is a narrative of her travels in 1884 in eastern Europe, Asia, and the United States and has been described as ‘a collection of political and artistic commentaries in travelogue form’ (Todd, 536). However, her sonnets were generally regarded as her best work and were praised by contemporary critics for their delicacy. Later, feminist critics highlighted the theme of female disempowerment which runs throughout her œuvre. Her contributions to the Cornhill Magazine and the Contemporary Review demonstrate her interest in the position of women in society. The essays collected in Women and Work (1887) assessed and attacked theories concerning women's inherent weakness: ironically, The Spectator commented of her case that ‘few men could have stated it more ably’ (p. 112).

Pfeiffer's husband died in January 1889 and she never recovered from the blow. She wrote and published Flowers of the Night later that year, but she survived him by only just over a year, dying of pneumonia at their home in Putney on 23 January 1890. She asked that her property be disposed of according to the wishes of her husband, as expressed in a letter of 1884 composed before a journey to the United States. Thus, although she left some money to her two sisters, most of her wealth went towards charity and education. Funds were provided to endow a school of dramatic art for women and to establish an orphanage. The remainder was left to trustees to further women's higher education: £2000 of this was used to build Aberdare Hall, the first dormitory for women at the University College of South Wales, Cardiff, which was opened in 1895.

Jessica Hinings

Sources  

J. Todd, ed., Dictionary of British women writers (1989) · Blain, Clements & Grundy, Feminist comp. · A. H. Japp, ‘Emily Pfeiffer, 1841–1890’, The poets and poetry of the century, ed. A. H. Miles, 7 (1892), 555–6; The poets and poetry of the nineteenth century, 9 (1907), 161–4 · The Athenaeum (1 Feb 1890), 80–81 · The Times (18 June 1831) · The Times (21 March 1890) · Western Mail [Cardiff] (8 Oct 1895) · E. C. Stedman, Victorian poets, 13th edn (1887) · The Spectator, xii/x, 112 · private information (1895) · B. Herbertson, The Pfeiffer bequest and the education of women: a centenary review (privately printed, Cambridge, 1993) · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

NL Scot., letters and poems to J. S. Blackie


Wealth at death  

£63,611 10s. 8d.: probate, 11 March 1890, CGPLA Eng. & Wales