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Farr [married name Emery], Florence Beatrice [performing name Mary Lester]locked

  • Virginia Crosswhite Hyde

Florence Beatrice Farr (1860–1917)

by unknown photographer, c. 1905 [with her Dolmetsch psaltery]

courtesy of the National Library of Ireland

Farr [married name Emery], Florence Beatrice [performing name Mary Lester] (1860–1917), author and mystic, was born on 7 July 1860 at Southlands, Bromley, Kent, the last of the eight children of William Farr (1807–1883), medical statistician, honorary MD, and FRS, and his second wife, Mary Elizabeth (1817?–1876), daughter of Joseph Whittall. She attended Cheltenham Ladies' College in Gloucestershire from 1873 until 1876, entering Queen's College, Harley Street, London, the following year. There she studied until 1880 without pursuing a degree. After teaching briefly, she turned in 1882 to acting, studying with actor–manager J. L. Toole near Charing Cross. On 31 December 1884 she married Edward Emery (1861–1938), actor, at Chiswick, but he emigrated to America in 1888 and she received an uncontested divorce on 4 February 1895.

As an actress, she used the stage name Mary Lester briefly and, after divorce, appeared as both Florence Farr and Florence Emery. Some of her numerous works on theosophy were published under the initials S. S. D. D., for her secret motto in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn was (Sapientia sapienti dono data'Knowledge is a gift given to the wise'). Farr's book Modern Woman: her Intentions (1910), is still relevant to women's rights issues of a later age. Her first novel, The Dancing Faun (1904), with Aubrey Beardsley's frontispiece, features Wildean satire and discordant human relations, being in part based on her romance with George Bernard Shaw between 1900 and 1905. Her other novel, The Solemnization of Jacklin: some Adventures on the Search for Reality (1912), is both realistic and allegorical.

After her father's death in 1883 Farr received £50 a year and worked throughout her adult life to enhance her income, living in furnished London rooms, or occasionally with relatives in Bedford Park, before her decision in 1912 to leave England. The range of her artistic talents was extraordinary, and her administrative ability was marked. She profoundly influenced the dance plays of William Butler Yeats and early plays of George Bernard Shaw and affected (to some degree) the imagism of Ezra Pound, whom she met in 1909. In 1901, when she acted in John Todhunter's A Sicilian Idyll in Bedford Park, Farr's gift for poetic recitation attracted both Yeats and Shaw. While the two represented deeply different movements in theatre—Shaw as an Ibsenite favouring social realism, while Yeats as a symbolist increasingly preferred non-representational art—Florence became both the ‘new woman’ in Henrik Ibsen and Shaw's plays and an innovator in the ‘new art’ of music-based dramatic recitation and bare, suggestive, rather oriental stage sets pioneered by herself and Yeats.

In 1894 Farr produced a famous season of new plays at the Avenue Theatre, London, with the financial backing of Annie Horniman. For this venture, Yeats wrote The Land of Heart's Desire, launching his dramatic career; Shaw wrote Arms and the Man, his first public hit; and Todhunter contributed A Comedy of Sighs, for which Beardsley created one of his most celebrated posters. In 1899 Farr became stage manager for the new Irish Literary Theatre and was associated with Yeats as the Abbey Theatre developed. In 1905 she produced Oscar Wilde's Salomé for the first time in England, and in 1906 organized a short-lived poetic theatre with Sturge Moore and Charles Ricketts. She acted in historic productions, including the first English staging of Ibsen's Rosmersholm (1891) and Yeats's The Countess Cathleen (1899).

Two dramas of ancient Egypt, which Farr wrote with Olivia Shakespear, The Beloved of Hathor and The Shrine of the Golden Hawk (staged in 1902), struck Yeats as 'the ritual of a beautiful forgotten worship' (Yeats, Uncollected Prose) and the latter, with its ecstatic dance before a sacred hawk, looks forward to works of his own such as the Noh drama At the Hawk's Well (1917). In 1905 Farr's masque The Mystery of Time (1904) was presented. Ninety-one years after the first performance of the Egyptian plays, they were staged again on 21 August 1993 at Rudolf Steiner Theatre, Regent's Park, London, for charity.

Farr and Yeats developed a theory of the music inherent in words, and accordingly she often recited to a psaltery, usually the famous instrument created in 1901 by their collaborator, musician Arnold Dolmetsch. She assigned musical notations for the speaking voice, as she and Yeats demonstrated in lecture tours. In 1907 Farr lectured in America about this ‘new art’ and in 1909 published The Music of Speech. She composed music for numerous Yeats plays, including The King's Threshold (1905), and in 1904–6 for Euripides' Hippolytus and The Trojan Women, translated by Gilbert Murray.

Although brought up in the established church, Farr entered the Golden Dawn in 1890. She attained the society's highest offices in England, praemonstrator of the Isis-Urania Temple (in 1893) and chief adept (in 1897), but became involved in disruptive internal politics and in 1902 resigned, soon joining the Theosophical Society. In 1906 she reported an encounter with an ancient Egyptian adept in the British Museum and thereafter kept her portraits of this figure in a carved shrine. Her most enduring theosophical work is Egyptian Magic (1896, repr. 1982). In 1907–8, while reporting on theatre and social issues for the New Age and The Mint, she also wrote steadily for Occult Review and the Theosophical Review.

In 1912 Farr surprised her friends by leaving England to become the principal of the new Ramanathan College, the first girls' school in Jaffna, Ceylon. The post was offered by Sir Ponnambalam Ramanathan, a Hindu spiritual teacher and influential MP in Ceylon. She gave away most of her possessions—including her psaltery (to Yeats) and her Egyptian shrine (to Dorothea Hunter); both are still in the Yeats and Hunter families. Farr proved an efficient, beloved founder principal, and also college bursar in 1916. Having learned the Tamil language, literature, music, and spiritual beliefs about the soul's journey (which had long concerned her), she sent Yeats striking lyrical adaptations of Tamil poetry, often amounting to original creations. On 29 April 1917, not yet fifty-seven, she died in hospital in Colombo, Ceylon, of breast cancer, with heart failure, and was cremated in Hindu rites.

Farr appears in Yeats's poem 'All Souls' Night' (1920) and Pound's 'Portrait d'une femme' (1912), and in the latter's Canto XXVIII (1930) as ‘Loica’, or Louka, the character Shaw wrote for her in Arms and the Man. Yeats praised her 'tranquil beauty' and 'Demeter-like face' (Autobiographies, 121, 280) and Shaw her 'large eyes, and crescent eyebrows' (Bax, 15). She is depicted with her elegant bearing in Walter Crane's frontispiece drawing for Todhunter's A Sicilian Idyll: a Pastoral Play in Two Acts (1890) and is believed by many to be one of the models in Sir Edward Burne-Jones's The Golden Stairs (1880), in the Tate collection. Previously undervalued, Farr is beginning to be acknowledged not only as a strong influence upon the great authors she knew, but as a collaborator with Yeats, an original voice in her own right, and a versatile, dedicated social critic and spiritual seeker.


  • J. Johnson, Florence Farr: Bernard Shaw's ‘new woman’ (1975)
  • ‘Florence Farr: letters to Yeats, 1912–17’, ed. J. Johnson, Yeats Annual, 9: Yeats and women (1992), 216–54
  • C. Bax, ed., Florence Farr, Bernard Shaw and W. B. Yeats (1941)
  • The Times (14 July 1917)
  • J. Padmanabha, ‘In memoriam Florence Farr Emery’, Ceylon Daily News (30 April 1947)
  • M. K. Greer, Women of the Golden Dawn: rebels and priestesses (1995)
  • W. B. Yeats, Autobiographies (1955), 121, 280
  • W. B. Yeats, Uncollected prose, ed. J. P. Frayne, 2 vols. (1970–75), vol. 2, p. 266
  • J. Johnson, ‘The making of a feminist: Shaw and Florence Farr’, Fabian feminist: Bernard Shaw and women, ed. R. Weintraub (1977)
  • R. S. Schuchard, ‘“As regards rhythm”: Yeats and the imagists’, Yeats: An Annual of Critical and Textual Studies, 2 (1984), 209–26
  • R. S. Schuchard, ‘W. B. Yeats and the London theatre societies, 1901–04’, Review of English Studies, new ser., 29 (1978), 415–66
  • W. Gould, ‘“The music of heaven”: Dorothea Hunter’, Yeats Annual, 9: Yeats and women (1992), 132–88
  • M. Holroyd, Bernard Shaw, 1 (1988)
  • N. A. Humphreys, ‘Biographical sketch’, in Vital statistics: a memorial volume of selections from the reports and writings of William Farr, ed. N. A. Humphreys (1885), vii-xxiv
  • ‘Farr, William’, DNB
  • private information (2004)
  • b. cert.


  • LUL, corresp.
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, essays and letters
  • Bodl. Oxf., Gilbert Murray MSS
  • NYPL, Berg collection, letters
  • V&A, Enthoven collection, theatre memorabilia
  • Warburg Institute, Yorke collection, Golden Dawn MSS


  • E. Burne-Jones, oils, 1880 (The golden stairs of Farr?), Tate collection
  • photograph, 1890, repro. in Holroyd, Search for love
  • photograph, 1905, NL Ire. [see illus.]
  • drawings, repro. in Johnson, ed., Florence Farr
  • drawings, repro. in Greer, Women of the Golden Dawn
  • engraving (after photograph by C. P. Small), repro. in Saturday Evening Post (20 April 1907)
  • engraving (after ink drawing by W. Crane), repro. in J. Todhunter, A Sicilian idyll: a pastoral play in two scenes (1890)
  • photographs, repro. in Johnson, Florence Farr
  • photographs, repro. in Greer, Women of the Golden Dawn

Wealth at Death

little but personal effects; no real property; gave away most possessions in 1912: ‘Florence Farr’, ed. Johnson; Greer, Women; Gould ‘ “Music of heaven”’

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)