“Heavenly Monsters”: Horace Howard Furness, William Shak(e)spe(a)re, and the Furness Libraries

Written by Siel Agugliaro

Horace Howard Furness and his grandson, Wirt L. Thompson (from the Furness Theatrical Image Collections)

“You could not believe that he was true. He was as a picture, or as a character of imagination.” When author John Jay Chapman first met famous Shakespeare scholar Horace Howard Furness, he could hardly contain his astonishment. Claustrophobically surrounded by the books and Shakespeariana of his study in rural Wallingford, Pennsylvania, Furness appeared to Chapman as “the most picturesque old gentleman I have ever known.” His grey eyes, “large head,” “short and stout” figure, his “wonderful neatness and trimness… as if his clothes were made of bronze,” and above all his ear-trumpet – “more like… the ornament of a fairy king or goblin herald than a necessary instrument,” as Chapman saw it – made Furness nothing short of a “heavenly monster of picturesque bonhomie” in the eyes of his visitor.

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A typescript extract from John Jay Chapman’s memoirs, also including mention of Chapman’s visit to Furness in Lindenshade (H. H. Furness Memorial Library manuscript collection, MS. Coll. 1356, box 13, folder 12)
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Horace Howard Furness in his study at Lindenshade (Wallingford, Pennsylvania) (from the Furness Theatrical Image Collections)

Yet, that “monstrosity” – here intended by Chapman in the Latin sense of monstrum, used to indicate something that inspires awe and wonder – cost dear to Furness. In his youth, a growing deafness forced him to gradually abandon his career as a lawyer. Shakespeare became his main interest. In 1860, when he was only 27, Furness joined an organization of amateur Shakespearians based in Philadelphia. As often happens with fan-based societies, the passion of the members for the subject led them to a meticulous, and almost religious, approach to the works of the great English writer. For example, the organization consciously rejected the accepted spelling of Shakespeare’s name and named itself Philadelphia Shakspere Society, adopting the way the writer signed himself in his testament more than two hundred years earlier. Born in 1852 as an informal club of young male law practitioners, the Society would soon become a regular gathering of university professors and law professionals. As Furness’s biographer James M. Gibson has written in The Philadelphia Shakespeare Story, the humble crackers and cheese of the early meetings would be replaced by “superabundant oysters and profuse lobster salad,” while the toast “William Shakespeare, gentlemen” always resounded at some point during the night (60). The Shakspere Society – whose records also belong to the Penn collections  – has remained in continuing existence until the present and continues its activities in Philadelphia.

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Horace Howard Furness, Sr. (fourth from left) at a dinner in honor of Shakespeare’s birthday (H. H. Furness Memorial Library manuscript collection, MS. Coll. 1356, box 14, folder 4)

The main event of each meeting was represented by the reading of one act from Shakespeare’s plays, which was analyzed with the help of the rare editions and scholarly literature included in the library of the Society’s first dean, Furness’s colleague Asa I. Fish. After Furness himself became the secretary of the Society in 1862, he began to create his own working library of Shakespearian texts. In the meantime, the analysis of the Bard’s works became more structured. During the Society’s study sessions, the members compared different readings of the same passages, and even printed the minutes in between the meetings so that all the proposed readings and textual amendments could be preserved. It did not take long before Furness decided to work on his own series of critical editions of Shakespeare. His proactive attitude even sparked a brief quarrel with the editor of the prestigious Cambridge Shakespeare Edition, William Aldis Wright, who feared that all of the “hard work” of the Cambridge editors could be “deliberately appropriated” by Furness and his collaborators. Eventually, however, the new Variorum edition of Romeo and Juliet was published in the first months of 1871. The critical commentary included in the volume was the result of the collation of more than forty different editions of the play, from its first appearance on print in 1597 until its most recent editions from the second half of the 19thcentury.

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A few volumes of Furness’s new Variorum edition of Shakespeare, now at the Furness Shakespeare Library of the University of Pennsylvania

During his life, Furness published other 16 volumes of his Variorum edition of Shakespeare, gradually establishing himself as an authority in the field. He became a trustee of the University of Pennsylvania in 1880, and earned honorary degrees from many institutions, including Cambridge University, Columbia, Harvard, Yale, and the University of Gottingen in Germany.

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A portrait of Horace Howard Furness, Jr. (from the Furness Theatrical Image collection)

Other members of the Furness family shared Horace’s passion for Shakespeare. Furness’ wife Helen Kate (née Rogers), for example, published a volume on Shakespeare’s poems in 1875. Despite his studies in music and physics, Helen and Horace’s son Horace Howard Furness, Jr. also became a Shakespeare scholar, and even took up the edition of the Variorum series after his father’s death.

Upon the death of Horace Howard, Jr. (1930), his family’s collection of books, letters, and memorabilia was donated to the University of Pennsylvania, of which Horace Howard, Jr., like his father, was a trustee. This collection would become part of the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library, a reconstruction of Furness, Jr.’s study housed in a special area of Penn’s main library.

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The original Furness library room in the Frank Furness Building (from the Furness theatrical image collection)

Alongside its book collections, the Furness Library includes an impressive collection of correspondence, personal writings, playbills, and memorabilia documenting the many aspects and interests of the members of the Furness family. The H. H. Furness Memorial Library Manuscript Collection (MS. Coll. 1356) contains correspondence and writings from three generations of family members: Horace Howard Furness; Horace Howard Furness, Jr.; and the patriarch of the Furness family, the Unionist minister and abolitionist William Henry Furness (1802-1896). This collection, which was recently reorganized and made more easily accessible to researchers, includes letters from and to many notable figures who corresponded with the Furnesses over a century, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fanny Kemble, Edwin Booth, Henry W. Longfellow, Woodrow Wilson, and many others. Other manuscripts from the Furness Library can be found in the Furness Family Papers (MS. Coll. 481), which contain personal documents of Horace Howard and Horace Howard, Jr., along with notes and working materials relating with the many Variorum volumes that father and son edited during their career as Shakespeare scholars. The Furness collection also holds over three thousand theatrical playbills, a group of which was recently digitized.

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Yorick’s Skull (from the Furness Theatrical Image Collection)

Other items originally belonging to the Furness Memorial Library were catalogued separately because of their special preservation needs. Among them are a pair of gloves allegedly belonged to Shakespeare; a miniature replica of London’s Globe Theatre (now housed in the Furness Shakespeare Library); and Yorick’s Skull, a human skull used for several decades as a stage prop, and bearing on its crown the names of all the great Hamlets (Charlotte Cushman, William Macready, Edwin Forrest, Edwin Booth, Edmund Kean, among others) who used it during their performances at the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia.

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The West Philadelphia University of Pennsylvania campus as it appeared in 1891. The Furness University Library is the first building to the right (from the University Archives and Records Center)
The Furness Building, home of the Fisher Fine Arts Library, as it appears today.

It is only fitting that such a multi-format, and yet intellectually cohesive collection found originally home in what was the main library of the University of Pennsylvania. Designed by another Furness, Horace Howard’s brother Frank, the Furness Building – now home of the Fisher Fine Arts Library – strikes the eye for its aggressive, eccentric architectural style reminding of both European castles and late 19th-century Philadelphia factories. Although it was celebrated when it was opened in 1891, Furness’ style soon fell into disfavor, and the library became a “Victorian monster” in the eyes of Penn administration, which even considered demolishing the building around the middle of the new century.

A plaque remembers the former site of the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library on the outside of the Arthur Ross Gallery (Furness building).

In hindsight, Frank’s approach to architecture was the equivalent of his brother’s take on Shakespeare. As Daniel Traister has observed, Horace Howard applied in his work a rational, “scientific” methodology borrowed from contemporary industry, and put at the service of the glorification of Shakespeare, a symbol of Anglo-Saxon culture, at a time in which the primacy of that culture was threatened by the growing presence of ‘alien’ working-class immigrants from Central and Southern Europe. While that scholarly rationale is untenable today, Penn continues to honor with its very own buildings and collections the memory of this Shakespearian scholar and his family. First moved to Van Pelt Library in 1962, and more recently reconstructed at the Kislak Center for Special Collections (2013), the Horace Howard Furness Memorial Library is continuously expanded with the addition of new scholarly literature on Shak(e)spe(a)re and his world, and remains an essential resource for any scholar in the field.

The Furness Shakespeare Library on the 6th floor of the Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania


James M. Gibson, The Philadelphia Shakespeare Story: Horace Howard Furness and the New Variorum Shakespeare (New York: AMS Press, 1990).

Daniel Traister, “The Furness Memorial Library,” 60-79. In The Penn Library Collection at 250: From Franklin to the Web (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Library, 2000)

Roger W.  Moss, Historic Landmarks of Philadelphia (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

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