W. S. Gilbert Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

William Schwenck Gilbert was born at 17 Southampton Street, Strand, London, on November 18, 1836, the son of a fairly well-to-do naval surgeon, who turned to a literary career at about the same time as young William did. At the age of two, while on holiday with his parents in Italy, Gilbert was kidnapped from his nurse and ransomed for twenty-five pounds. He later claimed to have a perfect recollection of the incident. At any rate, his plots frequently hinge on the removal of infants from their real parents.

Educated at Boulogne, France, and Great Ealing School, he then attended King’s College, London, hoping to obtain a commission in the Royal Artillery. The sudden end of the Crimean War made a military career less appealing, and he obtained, by competitive examination, a clerkship in the Education Department of the Privy Council Office, a post he occupied from 1857 to 1862. Coming into an unexpected sum of money, Gilbert was able to free himself from that “ill-organised and ill-governed office.” Having already entered the Inner Temple, Gilbert was called to the Bar in 1863. He did not thrive as a barrister, however, earning no more than seventy-five pounds in his first two years of practice. He never wholly abandoned either his military or his legal aspirations, for he held a commission in the Fifth West Yorkshire Militia, the Royal Aberdeen Highlanders, and, from 1893, was a justice of the peace for the county of Middlesex.

Gilbert’s career as a writer had been launched as early as 1857, when he accepted a commission to translate a French song for a theater program. His first play to be produced, Dulcamara, a travesty based on Gaetano Donizetti’s opera L’elisir d’amore (1832), was followed in succeeding years by similar treatments of operas by Donizetti, Vincenzo Bellini, Giacomo Meyerbeer, and others. In 1867, Gilbert was confident enough of his abilities to marry Lucy Blois Turner, a woman fourteen years his junior. Despite the example of the tempestuous marriage of Gilberts’ parents, his own irascibility, and his almost total absorption in his work, the union appears to have been a happy one. The 1860’s were also the years of the composition of...

(The entire section is 904 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

ph_0111205124-Gilbert_WS.jpg W. S. Gilbert Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Sir William Schwenck Gilbert has a name indissolubly linked with that of the British composer Sir Arthur Sullivan. Both men produced work individually—and Gilbert might be remembered for his Bab Ballads and Sullivan for his famous composition “The Lost Chord”—but the individual works of each man are eclipsed by what the two achieved together. They gave all who share in Anglo-Saxon culture a new set of phrases, characters, and melodies. The very existence of works like H.M.S. Pinafore and The Mikado gives the lie to a twentieth century stereotype of the Victorian Age as a time of hypocrisy and prudery. Gilbert and Sullivan were deadly critics of pomposity and emotional and intellectual dishonesty, and, as the popularity of the Savoy operettas shows, there was a large public that responded eagerly to satire and a far from gentle ridicule.{$S[A]Tomline, F;Gilbert, W. S.}

Gilbert was the son of William Gilbert, a retired naval surgeon. At the age of two, while traveling with his parents, he was kidnapped by brigands in Naples and returned for a ransom price of twenty-five pounds; the incident is reflected in the Savoy operettas, which are full of the confusions of identity that may overtake a young child. Gilbert’s first schooling was in France; his later education, interrupted by the Crimean War, was completed at King’s College, University of London, in 1857. He served for four years in the Education Department of the Privy Council until a small inheritance enabled him to resign and begin the practice of law, a profession he had been studying in his spare time. The young man thus had, in a comparatively short time, experience of the army, the civil service, and the law, three respected institutions that eventually became the target of his witty and satirical writing.

In 1867 Gilbert married Lucy Turner, a daughter of a captain of engineers. Gilbert was by now an established literary personage and a regular contributor of...

(The entire section is 809 words.)