Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tom Taylor

So, three years back as part of an ongoing effort to build up my library in books needed for a long-term Tolkien project I had (and have) in mind, I picked up an 1865 copy of BALLADS & SONGS OF BRITTANY, translated by Tom Taylor from Vicomte Hersart de la Villemarque's BARSAZ-BREIZ, the source for Tolkien's "The Lay of Aotrou and Itroun". It's a fascinating little book, not least because it includes the original Breton tunes in the back, set to music by "Mrs. Tom Taylor" (i.e., Laura W. Taylor).

For years, this has been all I've known about Tom Taylor. Then this summer I came across a reference to him in Anthony Trollope's AUTOBIOGRAPHY, where he lists Taylor as one of the literary friends he made once he began to be successful as an author [circa 1864] and get invited to join the right clubs (in this case, the Cosmopolitan in Berlekey Square). This still did not tell me much about Taylor, but at least it gave me an idea about what circles he moved in.

Then in August (8/14-08) I was visiting the Lincoln Memorial in D.C. and found in their gift shop, of all things, a copy of the play Lincoln was watching the night he got shot: OUR AMERICAN COUSIN by Tom Taylor. I checked, and it is indeed the same Tom Taylor. It turns out that Taylor was a prolific playwright, writing more than a hundred plays, though this is the only one that lingers on in even a ghostly existence because of its accidental notoriety.

There's no entry on Taylor in my [1995] edition of THE ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA -- one of the things that balked my initial cursory research -- but he's well represented in the Ninth Edition (Vol. XXIII of the 1888 American edition, pages 95-96), which reveals the further surprising information that he was, for most of the 1870s the editor of PUNCH.

As for OUR AMERICAN COUSIN [1858] itself, no one would ever call it a good play, but it does have its points. Think of the Beverly Hillbillies meeting up with Bertie Wooster and you more or less have the gest of the thing. It is amusing to note that some of the peculiar Americanisms of the main character's speeches include such words and phrases as 'small potatoes' , 'a swap', 'barking up the wrong tree', 'take the pledge', 'get hitched', and 'doughnut', all of which the English aristocrats who make up most of the cast find baffling and quaint.
So: there it is; another unexpected connection.


*[Trollope also mentions getting to know a number of politicians at the same time and in the same way, mentioning among others Knatchbull Huguessen (Jane Austen's great nephew, and the author of "Puss-Cat Mew", a childhood favorite of Tolkien's). Another literary acquaintance, mentioned elsewhere in the volume, was the now forgotten Fitzjames Stephen, Virginia Woolf's uncle.]

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