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  Frederick James Furnivall (1825–1910), by Charles Haslewood Shannon, 1901 Frederick James Furnivall (1825–1910), by Charles Haslewood Shannon, 1901
Furnivall, Frederick James (1825–1910), textual scholar and editor, was born on 4 February 1825 in Egham, Surrey, the eldest of the nine children of George Frederick Furnivall (1781–1865) and Sophia Hughes Barwell (1794–1879). Furnivall's father, descended from a family of Cheshire yeoman farmers, was trained at St Bartholomew's Hospital and briefly served as an assistant surgeon in the 14th foot but, at his mother's request, adopted a civil practice in Egham. George Frederick Furnivall attended Shelley's wife at Marlow in 1817 during her confinement (as his son often boasted in later years), married Sophia Barwell on 10 February 1825, and amassed a considerable fortune (some £200,000) through the founding of the Great Foster House Lunatic Asylum.

Early years and education

Frederick Furnivall attended private schools at Englefield Green, Turnham Green, and Hanwell. In his earliest diaries one catches glimpses of a conventionally religious adolescent (sitting through two or three services each Sunday, and faithful in his attendance at family prayers) who is remarkable only for his physical and intellectual restlessness: when he is not taking strenuous walks, he is reading Dickens, the Robin Hood tales, and Tennyson's ‘Morte d'Arthur’ (the latter of which kindled his lifelong interest in older literatures). He matriculated at University College, London, in 1841 and in October of the following year enrolled at Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

At Cambridge Furnivall spent much of his time on the river, and boating remained a passion throughout his life. He gained a place in the college eight, and in 1845 he built a sculling vessel, a 12-inch wager-boat, that brought him local fame. Furnivall (always a man of strong convictions) was persuaded of the superiority of sculling to rowing and publicly championed that view for many decades.

During his Cambridge years Furnivall also became a close friend of Daniel Macmillan, then the owner of a local bookshop. He later recalled that Macmillan opened his ‘boating mind’ and stimulated historical and literary interests, so that by the time he took his BA in 1846 (the MA followed in 1849), he asked his father for a few thousand pounds to go into partnership with Macmillan. George Furnivall firmly declined, and his son entered Lincoln's Inn in January 1846 and was called to the bar at Gray's Inn in January 1849. Somewhat unenthusiastically, he practised law as a conveyancer in London from 1850 until 1872.

Philological Society and Working Men's College

In 1847 Furnivall joined the Philological Society and in 1853 became its honorary secretary—a position he held until three weeks before his death—in which capacity he laid the foundations for the Oxford English Dictionary. The dictionary had a slow and convoluted genesis, and the editor who was chiefly responsible for its success was of course Sir James Murray; but, as Murray himself acknowledged, the conception of a completely new dictionary (rather than merely a supplement to Johnson's work), the initial organization, and much of the preliminary research had originated with Furnivall. At a meeting of the society in 1858 Furnivall presented a Proposal for the Publication of a New English Dictionary by the Philological Society, and he served on the committee that designed the basic format of the dictionary. Furnivall then organized an army of mostly amateur scholars to record instances of usage on slips of paper that in time found their way into the pigeon-holes of Murray's celebrated ‘scriptorium’ at Oxford. Clearly Furnivall did not possess Murray's organizational skill and iron self-discipline, and no doubt would have been incapable of bringing the work on the dictionary to fruition, but his contributions to its early development were more significant than any other person's.

Meanwhile, Furnivall's religious attitudes were shifting in a Liberal direction. His first separate publication was a pamphlet entitled Association a Necessary Part of Christianity (1850). In London he fell into the company of John Malcolm Ludlow, F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and Thomas Hughes, and soon became involved in various Christian socialist schemes, particularly the founding of the Working Men's College in 1854. At the college's opening he arranged for the distribution of a private reprint of the chapter entitled ‘On the nature of Gothic’ from The Stones of Venice (1851–3) by John Ruskin, with whom he had become acquainted a few years earlier. ‘Ruskin was one of the most generous and honourable of men, with the most pretty manners and delightful ways’, Furnivall declared in old age, ‘and I retain of him recollections more pleasant than of any other man’; Ruskin, for his part, claimed that he learned what little he knew about philology from Furnivall (Munro, 20, xxiii). Furnivall—who by now thought of himself as a disciple of Ruskin and Maurice—was a popular teacher of English grammar and literature at the Working Men's College, served on the college council, and was informally put in charge of college social life. He summarized his experiences in these words: ‘We studied and took exercise together, we were comrades and friends, and helpt one another to live higher, happier, and healthier lives, free from all stupid and narrow class humbug’ (Davies, 60). Furnivall's personal religious views continued to evolve, however, and he soon found himself in conflict with Maurice over such questions as college dances and Sunday rural excursions. Furnivall loved his relaxed friendships with pupils and saw no possible objection to a weekend ramble or a trip on the river with them, but Maurice was offended by these practices and wrote a pamphlet entitled The Sabbath-Day: an Address to the Members of the Working Men's College (1856). Despite these differences, Furnivall never fully broke his connection with the Working Men's College and always in later years spoke of it with affection and respect, though inevitably he became less heavily involved in its day-to-day activities. Nevertheless, the college as Furnivall envisioned it—a jolly, classless community characterized by democratic comradery and a love of learning—is a key to understanding his subsequent life, for in all his later endeavours he was inspired by a conviction that scholarship could be pursued by quite ordinary people in a spirit of good-humoured enthusiasm.

Furnivall's father deplored this drift away from the legal profession. ‘Lawism, not Socialism, Schoolism, or any other ism, ought to be your End and Aim, your Duty, your Pleasure, and Pursuit’, he wrote to his son in 1851. ‘Don't play at Law and work at school teaching’ (Munro, xx). But despite parental pressure, Furnivall continued to move toward a literary and scholarly career.

Marriage and domestic life

In 1862 Furnivall married Eleanor Nickel Dalziel (1838?–1937), sister of W. A. Dalziel, one of Furnivall's students at the Working Men's College. It was rumoured that she had been a maid, but family tradition suggests a more conventional middle-class background. The Furnivalls had two children: Ena, who died in infancy in 1866, and Percy (1867–1938). One likely reason for his prolonged bachelorhood is that he lived in near-poverty for decades. He then lost his inheritance with the collapse of the Overend and Gurney Bank in 1867, and thereafter he was compelled to exist on what little money he could bring in by writing and editing.

Societies and controversy

Furnivall is probably most often remembered today as a founder of a series of literary and philological societies: the Early English Text Society (1864), the Chaucer Society, the Ballad Society (1868), the New Shakspere Society (1873), the Browning Society (1881, with Miss Emily Hickey), the Wyclif Society (1882), and the Shelley Society (1885). Some of them, at least, were created as a direct result of Furnivall's work on the Oxford English Dictionary, which had revealed to him the need for editing and publishing the primary documents of early English literature. He displayed a prodigious amount of energy in running these societies: he set up committees for them, chaired most of the public meetings, arranged for the production of concerts and plays (such as the first performance of Shelley's Cenci in 1886), recruited members, and above all organized ambitious programmes of publication (the Early English Text Society alone issued approximately 250 volumes during his lifetime, and it was estimated that he raised and expended more than £40,000 on printing). The Browning and Shelley societies had comparatively short lives, perhaps because Furnivall's formula was less successful for modern writers, but certainly also because their typically grandiose publishing schemes led to financial collapse.

Furnivall's societies were all weakened by exceptionally acrimonious controversies. E. A. Freeman—in the pages of the Saturday Review during the 1860s—attacked the editions of the Early English Text Society, provoking a characteristically aggressive response from Furnivall. The Browning Society became the scene of fierce debates about whether Browning was to be regarded as an essentially Christian poet; one member brought a libel suit against Furnivall. Furnivall complained publicly that Henry Bradshaw was hindering the work of the Chaucer Society. And when the committee of the Shelley Society declined to accept as a member the common-law husband of Karl Marx's daughter, William Michael Rossetti, the honorary secretary, threatened to resign, pointing out that on the same grounds the committee would have refused membership to Shelley himself.

Despite their extraordinarily contentious atmosphere, Furnivall's societies were primarily textual publishing ventures, and it is on this basis that their ultimate success or failure must be judged. Furnivall, unfortunately, placed ammunition in the hands of his enemies by his chatty, self-deprecating ‘Forewords’ (a word he much preferred to the latinate ‘Preface’) and by his public pose of breezy carelessness. In a foreword published in 1866, for example, he offered this typically pragmatic theory of textual editing:
the time that it takes to ascertain whether a poem has been printed or not, which is the best MS. of it, in what points the versions differ, &c., &c., is so great, that after some experience I find the shortest way for a man much engaged in other work, but wishing to give some time to the [Early English Text] Society, is to make himself a foolometer and book-possessor-ometer for the majority of his fellow members, and print whatever he either does not know, or cannot get at easily, leaving others with more leisure to print the best texts. He wants texts, and that at once. (Peterson, Browning's Trumpeter, xxvi)
All of Furnivall's societies operated on such oddly casual principles.

Though Furnivall's occasional attempts at literary criticism are mawkishly sentimental, his pioneering editorial achievements are so massive that they cannot be easily dismissed. To this day there is no universal agreement among scholars about his merits as an editor, but Donald C. Baker, who collated Furnivall's Six-Text Print of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales (1869) against some of the original manuscripts, offered this summary judgement:
He made all modern editions possible … Whether we condescend in our own day of supersophisticated (perhaps too sophisticated) concepts of editing even to admit Furnivall into our ranks, he is the giant upon whose shoulders we all stand—enthusiastic, genial, enormously hard-working, quick to judgment and quick to admit error, encouraging all who followed and criticized and bettered his own work. (Baker, 169)
Certainly the parallel text Canterbury Tales, which has some claim to being Furnivall's most important editorial achievement, represents him at his best: the use of multiple columns for printing the best surviving Chaucer manuscripts was a brilliant conception, Furnivall's transcriptions were full and accurate, and his work led directly to the later achievements of Skeat, Manly, and Rickert.

Much of the work published by his societies was carelessly done, either by Furnivall himself or by the untrained amateurs that he casually recruited. John Gross has remarked that Furnivall was ‘one of the great rock-blasting entrepreneurs of Victorian scholarship, the kind of man who if his energies had taken another turn might have covered a continent with railways’ (Gross, 169); when he became interested in a historical or philological subject, Furnivall threw himself into it with a ferocious intensity and rarely paid much attention to the nuances of scholarly technique. Alois Brandl observed that ‘he was not a philologist of thorough linguistic training: I should not even care to assert too positively that he could conjugate an Anglo-Saxon verb’ (Munro, 10). Furnivall himself cheerfully admitted his technical deficiencies: in 1910, near the end of his life, he declared that ‘I have never cared a bit for philology: my chief aim has been throughout to illustrate the social condition of the English people in the past’ (ibid., 43). Furnivall's work as a textual scholar, though impressive in its sheer bulk (a search under his name in the online version of the British Library catalogue produces 164 titles), must be regarded as decidedly uneven.

Furnivall also wrote a large number of pamphlets (‘on Rowing and kindred subjects’, as his bibliographer put it) and was a frequent contributor to journals such as The Athenaeum, The Academy, and Notes and Queries. His financial difficulties continued, however. ‘I go on as before’, he commented to a friend in 1876, ‘Chaucer & Early English—always busy, always earning nothing’ (Peterson, Browning's Trumpeter, xxvii). There were unsuccessful applications for the secretaryship of the Royal Academy (1873), the principalship of University College, Bristol (1877), and several librarianships.

The New Shakspere Society

It was within the New Shakspere Society that the most heated disputes developed. Furnivall at first alarmed his officers, members, and speakers by announcing that he wanted the society to focus its energies primarily on statistical analyses of metre and rhyme; then he raised the level of discord by entering into a public quarrel with Swinburne—an extraordinarily abrasive dispute even by Furnivall's usual standards—from which the society never fully recovered. ‘Shakspereans are touchier folk than I fancied’, he remarked in 1873. ‘Our friend A[lgernon] S[winburne] is regular powder barrel’ (Spevack, 133).

In 1876 Swinburne offered a satirical view of its activities entitled ‘The Newest Shakespere Society’ in The Examiner which infuriated Furnivall; then James O. Halliwell-Phillipps, an active member of the society, became the second target of Furnivall's wrath when he allowed Swinburne to dedicate A Study of Shakespeare (1879) to him. Furnivall regarded the pair as in collusion and published a scurrilous pamphlet, The ‘Co.’ of Pigsbrook & Co. (1881), thus translating Swinburne's name into Anglo-Saxon in the most insulting fashion possible. (The ‘Co.’ was Halliwell-Phillipps, whose name Furnivall always thereafter rendered as ‘Hell.-Phillipps.’.) Swinburne replied with his own grotesque translation of Furnivall's name (‘Brothelsdyke’), and for months the ugly exchange filled the columns of The Athenaeum. (A contemporary poem summed up the tone of the dispute by describing it as ‘Furnivallos Furioso! and “The Newest Shakespeare Society”’.)

Meanwhile, Halliwell-Phillipps appealed to Robert Browning, the president of the society, to keep Furnivall's tongue under control. An embarrassed Browning protested that his leadership of the society was purely nominal, but he acknowledged privately that Furnivall was behaving with reckless abandon. Browning, in common with other friends, regarded Furnivall as a charming, good-natured man who from time to time made a complete fool of himself in public controversies. Browning, moreover, had reason to be grateful to Furnivall: ‘His peculiarities and defects are obvious—and some of his proceedings by no means to my taste’, he wrote: ‘but there can be no doubt of his exceeding desire to be of use to my poetry, and I must attribute a very great part indeed of the increase of care about it to his energetic trumpet-blowing’ (Collins, 38).

Furnivall, unusually pugnacious (contemporary reports indicate that he was just as vigorously self-assertive in a boat as in his scholarship), defended his aggressive tactics by appealing to a Victorian ideal of ‘manliness’, but his opponents were more inclined to interpret his behaviour as ill-tempered and malicious. ‘As to objectors, all I require of 'em is evidence of work, insight, and thought’, Furnivall wrote in 1887.
When I see imposters like … Swinburne, [and F. G.] Fleay, who know as much early English as my dog, & who fancy they can settle Chaucer difficulties as they blow their noses, then I ridicule or kick them. But earnest students I treat with respect, & am only too glad to learn from them. (Peterson, Browning's Trumpeter, xxvii)
He enjoyed many warm friendships—with German philologists in particular—and to younger scholars and to a handful of established writers (such as Browning and Ruskin), Furnivall was remarkably generous, but towards his numerous enemies he behaved with alarming ferocity.

Furnivall's great preoccupation in Shakespearian studies—as can be seen in his popular Leopold Shakespeare (1879)—was to establish the exact chronology of the plays in order to discover the personality of the playwright behind them. Although his suggestions about dating were often shrewd, few later scholars or critics have shared his enthusiasm for interpreting Shakespeare's writings as primarily autobiographical documents.

Later years

In June 1883 Furnivall and his wife were legally separated. ‘A wife's want of sympathy with her husband's work ruined Dickens's married life, mine, too, & hundreds of others besides’, Furnivall remarked later (Peterson, Browning's Trumpeter, xxviii), but the marriage probably collapsed because of his open relationship with Mary Lilian (‘Teena’) Rochfort-Smith, a young woman who was active in several of his societies. When Miss Rochfort-Smith died in 1883, Furnivall published an effusive tribute to her and announced her death to his societies, no doubt to the bewilderment of some of their members. He never remarried but managed to surround himself with attractive young women the rest of his life.

In his later years Furnivall supported himself primarily with a modest stipend associated with the trusteeship of a family estate and with the civil-list pension awarded him in 1884. Honours, on the other hand, came more readily: a PhD from the University of Berlin, a DLitt from Oxford University, and an honorary fellowship from Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

In 1896 Furnivall founded the Hammersmith Sculling Club, initially intended for working-class girls though it later admitted male members as well. Furnivall entered into its activities with his usual boyish enthusiasm, for it brought together two of his favourite activities: vigorous outdoor exercise and enjoyment of the company of young women.

Throughout most of his adult years Furnivall followed a highly regular daily schedule. He lived at 3 St George's Square, Primrose Hill, but he normally spent the greater part of the day in either the reading-room or the manuscripts department of the British Museum, with a long break for tea at his favourite ABC tea-shop on New Oxford Street, where, especially in the final decades of his life, he was likely to be surrounded by admirers and friends. With his bright pink neckties, baggy suits, and long, white beard, he was a familiar sight to both British and foreign scholars in Bloomsbury. On Sundays he sculled 14 miles with his working girls from Hammersmith to Richmond and back, usually punctuated with a leisurely picnic on an island near Richmond. Until a few months before his death in London on 2 July 1910, Furnivall retained his youthful vigour of mind and body. His editing activities never slackened until the end. His remains were cremated at Golders Green on 5 July 1910.

Furnivall's achievements

Frederick Furnivall was a man of diverse causes, all based on passionately held beliefs: vegetarianism, sculling, spelling reform, atheism (in his later years), socialism, egalitarianism, teetotalism, and above all the supreme importance of editing historic and literary texts that could shed light on the cultural and social life of England's past. He was an occasionally annoying and irascible figure, prone to carelessness in his scholarship, often outrageous in his personal behaviour, but he never wavered in his lifelong devotion to the cause of preserving and editing English written records. He must also be seen as one of a small group of Victorian scholars who persuasively made the case for the investigation of English literature in an academic setting; the rise of English studies in the universities coincided with his lifetime, and that is more than a chronological accident.

William S. Peterson


J. Munro, ed., Frederick James Furnivall: a volume of personal record (1911) · W. S. Peterson, ed., Browning's trumpeter: the correspondence of Robert Browning and Frederick J. Furnivall, 1872–1889 (1979) · W. S. Peterson, Interrogating the oracle: a history of the London Browning Society (1969) · W. Benzie, Dr F. J. Furnivall: Victorian scholar adventurer (1983) · DNB · An English miscellany presented to Dr Furnivall in honour of his seventy-fifth birthday (1901) [includes a bibliography of his writings by H. Littlehales] · The Times (4 July 1910), 12 · genealogical information in Furnivall family Bible, King's Lond., library · T. J. Collins, ed., ‘Letters from Robert Browning to the Rev. J. D. Williams, 1874–1889’, Browning Institute Studies, 4 (1976), 1–56 [editor assisted by W. J. Pickering] · D. C. Baker, ‘Frederick James Furnivall’, Editing Chaucer: the great tradition, ed. P. G. Ruggiers (1984), 157–79 · J. L. Davies, ed., The Working Men's College, 1854–1904 (1904) · K. M. E. Murray, Caught in the web of words: James A. H. Murray and the ‘Oxford English dictionary’ (1977) · M. Spevack, ‘James Orchard Halliwell and friends: X. Frederick James Furnivall; XI. William Aldis Wright and William George Clark’, The Library, 6th ser., 20 (1998), 126–44 · J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps, A letter from Mr J. O. Halliwell-Phillipps to the members of the New Shakspere Society (1881) · J. Gross, The rise and fall of the man of letters: aspects of English literary life since 1800 (1969) · Selected correspondence of William Michael Rossetti, ed. R. W. Peattie (1990) · private information (2004) · B. J. Myers, ‘F. J. Furnivall. Lexicographer, philanthropist, oarsman’, Journal of the William Morris Society, 9 (1992) · S. M. Naiman, ‘Frederick James Furnivall’, Nineteenth-century British book-collectors and bibliographers, ed. W. Baker and K. Womack, DLitB, 184 (1997), 121–37 · Furnivall family Bible, King's Lond., library


Baylor University, Waco, Texas, corresp. relating to the Browning Society · BL, corresp., Add. MSS 34813, 43798 · Bodl. Oxf., diaries · Hunt. L., corresp., papers · King's Lond., corresp. and papers, personal library |  BL, letters to W. H. Griffin, Add. MSS 45563–45564 · BL, letters to W. C. Hazlitt, Add. MSS 38898–38913, passim · Bodl. Oxf., letters to A. S. Napier · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Sir Thomas Phillipps · Folger, corresp. relating to the New Shakespeare Society · Harvard U., Houghton L., postcards to G. L. Kittredge · King's AC Cam., letter to Oscar Browning · U. Edin. L., corresp. with James O. Halliwell-Phillipps · U. Edin. L., letters to David Laing · University of Illinois, Chicago, corresp. with Edith Rickert, MS 64–152 · University of Lancaster, Ruskin Library, papers relating to John Ruskin


photograph, 1862, repro. in Benzie, Dr F. J. Furnivall · photograph, 1876, repro. in Peterson, ed., Browning's trumpeter · N. K. Munday, photograph, c.1890, repro. in Munro, ed., Frederick James Furnivall · W. Rothenstein, pencil drawing, 1901, NPG · C. H. Shannon, pencil and chalk drawing, 1901, NPG [see illus.] · G. C. Beresford, photograph, NPG · C. W. Carey, photograph, NPG · Elliott & Fry, photograph, NPG · H. Furniss, pen-and-ink caricature, NPG · W. Rothenstein, oils, Trinity Hall, Cambridge · A. A. Wolmark, oils, Working Men's College, London · heliogravure print (aged sixty-four; after photograph), BM · photograph, NPG · platinotype print (aged sixty-four; after photograph), BM · platinotype print (aged seventy-six; after photograph), BM

Wealth at death  

£796 19s. 2d.: probate, 15 July 1910, CGPLA Eng. & Wales