FARJEON, Benjamin Leopold
Journalist, novelist, and minor playwright.
A new biography of Farjeon, Benjamin Leopold appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
Benjamin Leopold Farjeon was the second son of Jacob Farjeon, of a London Jewish family, and broughtup, principally by himself, in the purlieus of Whitechapel. He was a bird of passage as far as New Zealand was concerned, but he left an impression on the early literary scene in Otago. He was a printer's devil at 13, a budding poet at the same time, and an earnest seeker after knowledge and books in the night schools of London. At 16, religious differences with his parents sent him abroad and he arrived in Melbourne in 1854. He followed varied pursuits but always within the smell of printer's ink. He was responsible for a variety of short-lived newspaper publications in different parts of Victoria, but by 1861 he was on the move again, and turned up in Dunedin at the gold-rush era where he attached himself to the Otago Daily Times as manager and subeditor for Vogel, later Sir Julius Vogel. By 1864 he was in partnership with Vogel and had managed to collect a circle of artistic and literary friends who assisted him to introduce a Bohemian atmosphere into the staid and conservative Free Church settlement of Dunedin. He found a kindred spirit in Vogel at that time, and between them they built up a form of indigenous theatre that, surprisingly enough, flourished. He had several of his own plays produced and was instrumental in the formation of the Garrick Club in Dunedin. But his commercial journalism was always a kind of bread-and-butter business. He had a prolific pen, and a highly developed passion for Dickens. His first novels, Shadows on the Snow and Grif, were written with an eye on Dickens in London, and few of his friends were surprised when, having received some encouragement from Dickens, he decided to abandon newspaper management and return to London. He left Dunedin in 1867. Grif was published in 1870, and is credited with total sales of 300,000, which put it in the best-seller class. Whatever its actual success, it persuaded Farjeon that opportunity lay not in New Zealand but in London. He wrote a full score of novels, none of which ever achieved the popularity of Grif, and his plays included two or three that pleased the London critics. Actually most of them never saw London. Farjeon was a gregarious soul with a dramatic passion considerably in excess of his capabilities, but he was a keen observer of his times, and the best of his novels were faithful documentaries of the period with always a pungent flavour of the colonies.
In 1877 Farjeon married Margaret, daughter of Joseph Jefferson, the famous American comedian. Four of his children have also made names for thenselves in the London cultural world: Eleanor as a playwright; Herbert as a novelist; Joseph Jefferson as a writer of crime novels; and Harry (died 1948) as a composer. Farjeon died at 11 Lancaster Road, Belsize Park, Hampstead, on 23 July 1903.
by Ronald Jones, Journalist and Script Writer, New Zealand Broadcasting Corporation, Wellington.
- The Times (London), 24 Jul 1903 (Obit).