The other side of Frederick Furnivall: Tiny Teena

Maybe I painted old man Furnivall as too benign and saintly an old chap. He was not without what they might call ‘personal issues’ earlier in life. Firstly, as George Bernard Shaw wrote “He was a good sort, but his quarrels were outrageous…” When he fell out with poet Algernon Swinburne, he used his lexicographical prowess by addressing him by the pun ‘Pig-brook’

More tellingly perhaps, from April 1882, the 57-year-old Furnivall began an affair which would today evoke puritanical scandal with a person who would nowadays be described as an intern. The object of his affection was the 21-year old Mary Lilian ‘Teena’ Rochfort Smith.

Her connection to Furnivall was at first scholarly. The daughter of a planter, born in Calcutta and alumna of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, she was nicknamed teeny by her ayahs back in India for her small stature — and the name stuck.

She became Furnivall’s assistant, though more than that, she had her own ambitious academic project in philology. She was bravely setting out to digitise the study of Shakespeare 100 years before computers. With the indefatigability of youth and the feistiness that often counterpoints diminished stature, she planned and attempted to do what none before had done and set down on single pages the various competing quartos and folio versions of Shakespeare’s texts.

Teena in 1882

Teena in 1882

In Hamlet for example, was it “too, too solid…” or “too, too sullied flesh”? Both variants are legitimate. She prepared the parallel texts with such autistic precision in four colours, three different underlinings, so many fonts, citations and annotations etc that the typographers of the day found it impossible to set the type, picking as they had to, each letter from individual cases of a particular font and size.

Whether for Furnivall it was a passing infatuation or love it is impossible to say. The acceptable Victorian idyll of December and May marriages did work. Furnivall made no secret in saying that “Compared to the mere surface turquoise minds of so many girls, hers was as the sapphire depths of the infinite heaven, lit by multitudinous stars”. The still photograph de-constructs what in life must have been a delightfully animated and perhaps flirtatious young woman.

However the hurdle to the lovematch was Mrs Furnivall, his wife of 20 years. So he walked out on her. Furnivall compared himself to Charles Dickens who sought comfort with another woman Ellen Ternan partly due to his wife’s disinterest in his work. Furnivall’s biographer says that Mrs Furnivall was ‘indolent and dull’. By Christmas 1882 the affair was common knowledge. He moved Teena into his house in Primrose Hill by very early in the New Year 1883, even before his wife and his son had moved out. Divorce, remarriage and a long and happy life together were in prospect.

Furnivall in 1869 with his sour-faced son Percy, future world cycling champion and renowned surgeon

Furnivall in 1869 with his sour-faced son Percy, future world cycling champion and renowned surgeon

It was a terrible, but an all too frequent way to die. Open fires, gas lights, kerosene lamps, candles and full length dresses and skirts were a fatal combination. Ironically too, it was a male vanity that contributed to her agonised death.

Diminutive and somewhat frail Teena was sent from London that summer to an uncle in Goole in Yorkshire to recuperate from illness — or on instructions from her parents to remove her from her middle aged lover, who knows? In her bedroom on August 28 1883 she was burning letters, (whose letters we do not know, but one might suspect those of Furnivall). Teena struck a poorly-made match known as a ‘domestic’, the head flew off and landed on the antimacassar, a crocheted napkin draped on the back of a chair to mop up the copious amounts of Macassar oil that gentlemen would smear on their hair . As Macassar oil was mostly coconut or palm oil, the crocheted doily burnt quickly. Teena pulled it to the floor and attempted to stamp out the flames. In doing so she set her own petticoats alight along with the curtains. She tried unsuccessfully to put them out with a bedroom quilt before running downstairs engulfed in flame to her sister and eventually into the garden till the dress burnt itself out.

As the doctor reported to the coroner, it was easier to describe where Teena was not burnt than where she was, so extensive was the damage. She lasted, mostly in delirium, reciting poems of Browning and passages from the bible, for six and a half days, dying almost imperceptibly in a manner befitting a saintly Victorian maiden.

One can draw conclusions from the fact that even though her ‘friend’ as he styled himself, Furnivall hurried to Yorkshire, he was kept from her bedside and even forbidden to enter the house.

Furnivall the year that Teen died

Furnivall the year that Teena died

Furnivall did not reunite with his wife nor, at least to public knowledge form other relationships after Teena’s death. So that jovial old man on the Thames in 1910 had seen his share…

Interesting fact about Ms Rochfort Smith. It was she who tracked down for the OED the earliest use of the adjective ‘airtight’ in the English language — 1728 if you cared to know.

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