Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Simpson, John Palgrave

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SIMPSON, JOHN PALGRAVE (1807–1887), dramatist and novelist, was the second of the four sons of William Simpson, town clerk of the city of Norwich and treasurer of Norfolk, by his wife Katherine, daughter of William Palgrave of Coltishall. Both parents descended from old families long resident in the county. His younger brother Palgrave, a mercantile lawyer of Liverpool, was also a skilled musician and author of ‘A Bandmaster's Guide’ and ‘A Treatise on Harmony.’

John, who was born at Norwich on 13 June 1807, was educated first at home under private tutors, and afterwards at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. There he graduated B.A. in 1829, and three years later proceeded M.A. Upon quitting the university he declined to take holy orders in the church of England, as his parents desired, but travelled at leisure about Central Europe, residing principally, during the early part of his tour, in Germany. While at Munich, in 1842, Simpson became a Roman catholic, and Gregory XVI, to mark his approval of the step, enrolled him a knight of St. Gregory. Two years later, while Simpson was still abroad, a bank failure involved his father, and he turned to literature for a livelihood. In 1846 he published a novel called ‘Second Love,’ in 3 vols., in which were also included two minor tales, entitled respectively ‘Pauvrette’ and ‘The Maiden's Chamber.’ In 1847 his second work, an Hungarian romance, called ‘Gisella,’ also in 3 vols., was published. This was followed immediately by ‘Letters from the Danube,’ a book of travels in two volumes, brilliantly descriptive of the land of the Magyars. In the early spring of 1848 Simpson was an eye-witness at Paris of the revolution, and sent from day to day vivid descriptions of the stirring scenes to the ‘Times,’ to ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ or, under the signature of ‘The Flaneur,’ to ‘Bentley's Miscellany.’ These scattered accounts Simpson, in 1849, collected in two volumes entitled ‘Pictures from Revolutionary Paris.’ In the same year he brought out his third novel, in three volumes, under the title of ‘The Lily of Paris, or the King's Nurse,’ an historical romance relating to the half-witted Charles VI of France.

In 1850 Simpson settled permanently in London. He had already distinguished himself as an amateur actor, and had made himself familiar with English dramatic literature. He now devoted himself to writing plays, and supplied, within five years, four of the London theatres with eight one-act pieces, principally comediettas. In 1865 he prepared a ‘Life of Weber’ (2 vols.), an abbreviated translation of the German memoir written by the son of the composer. The last book published by Simpson was his fourth novel, ‘For Ever and Never’ (2 vols. 1884). He was popular in society, and was from 1854 a familiar figure at the Athenæum Club. He retained his vivacity to the last. He died unmarried at the age of eighty, on 19 Aug. 1887, at his London residence, 9 Alfred Place West, South Kensington, and was buried on 23 Aug. in St. Thomas's cemetery, Fulham.

Simpson's career as a playwright extended in all over a period of thirty-three years, during which he produced in London and the provinces upwards of sixty dramatic pieces, including comedies, melodramas, farces, operas, and extravaganzas. Several of them enjoyed a wide and long-sustained popularity. Some were effective adaptations from the French, like Sardou's ‘Pattes de Mouche,’ first produced under the name of ‘A Scrap of Paper’ at the St. James's Theatre 22 April 1861; others were clever adaptations from popular novels, such as ‘Lady Dedlock's Secret,’ from Dickens's ‘Bleak House,’ produced at the Opera Comique 26 March 1884. These became stock-pieces. Of the rest the better known are: 1. ‘Second Love,’ three acts, Haymarket, 23 July 1856. 2. ‘Daddy Hardacre,’ two acts, Olympic, 26 March 1857. 3. ‘The World and the Stage,’ three-act comedy, Haymarket, 12 March 1859. 4. ‘A School for Coquettes,’ Strand, 4 July 1859, with Ada Swanborough as Lady Amaranth (cf. Athenæum, 1859, ii. 58), printed in Lacy's ‘Acting Edition of Plays,’ vol. xli. 5. ‘Court Cards,’ two acts, Olympic, 25 Nov. 1861 (in collaboration with Herman Charles Merivale). 6. ‘Sybilla, or Step by Step,’ three-act comedy, Olympic, 29 Oct. 1864. 7. ‘Time and the Hour,’ three acts, Queen's, 29 June 1868. 8. ‘Alone,’ three-act comedy (in collaboration with Herman Charles Merivale), Court, 25 Oct. 1873. 9. ‘All for Her,’ adapted (in collaboration with Herman Charles Merivale) from Dickens's ‘Tale of Two Cities;’ it was first played at the Mirror Theatre, Holborn, on 18 Oct. 1875, with John Clayton as Hugh Trevor, and Rose Coghlan as Lady Marsden (cf. Athenæum, 1875, ii. 549; Era, 24 Oct. 1875).

[Personal recollection; private information; Times, 22 Aug. 1887; World, 24 Aug. in the same year; Era, 20 Aug. 1887; Tablet of the same month; Annual Register, 1887.]

C. K.