Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Turner, Sharon

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TURNER, SHARON (1768–1847), historian, was born in Pentonville on 24 Sept. 1768. Both his parents were natives of Yorkshire, and had emigrated to London on their marriage. Sharon was educated at Dr. James Davis's academy in Pentonville, and was articled in 1783 to an attorney in the Temple. His master died without an heir in 1789, but, with the support of some of the leading clients, Turner was enabled to carry on the business. In 1795 he married and removed to Red Lion Square. When still quite a boy, a translation of the 'Death Song of Ragnar Lodbrok,' which he had probably come across in Percy's 'Five Pieces of Runic Poetry' (1763), attracted his attention to the old northern literature, and he began the study of Icelandic and Anglo-Saxon. He was surprised at the backward state of the philology of these languages and at the neglect which all the ancient materials had experienced at the hands of previous historians, such as Hume (1761). He soon got into the habit of spending every hour he could spare from professional work at the British Museum, and he was the first to explore for historical purposes the Anglo-Saxon manuscripts in the Cottonian Library. Encumbered as he was by the wealth of new material, he kept a clearly defined purpose ever before him. As the result of sixteen years' study he produced in 1799 the first instalment of his 'History of England from the earliest period to the Norman Conquest,' of which the fourth volume appeared in 1805 (2nd ed. 2 vols. 4to, 1807; 5th ed. 3 vols. 8vo, 1828; Paris, 1840; Philadelphia, 1841; 7th ed., revised by the author's son, 1852). Almost as complete a revelation in its way as the discoveries of Layard, the work elicited from the omniscient Southey the opinion 'that so much information was probably never laid before the public in one historical publication' (Southey, Life and Correspondence, chap, xi.) It was also commended by Palgrave in the 'Edinburgh Review.' An assault upon the authenticity of some of the ancient British poems cited by Turner drew from him a 'Vindication of the genuineness of the Antient British Poems of Aneurin, Taliesin, Llywarch Hen, and Merdhin, with Specimens of the Poems' (London, 1803, 8vo).

Turner decided to continue his history upon the same lines of independent research among the original authorities, and produced between 1814 and 1823 his 'History of England from the Norman Conquest to 1509' (3 vols. 4to; 2nd ed. 5 vols. 1825; 5th ed. 1823). Lingard's 'History of England' appeared in eight volumes between 1819 and 1830, and, with the object of controverting some of Lingard's positions, Turner wrote the 'History of the Reign of Henry VIII; comprising the political history of the commencement of the English Reformation' (1826, 4to; 3rd ed. 1828). The work was in 1829 brought down to 1603 in the 'History of the Reigns of Edward VI, Mary, and Elizabeth,' and was finally issued in a uniform series as 'The History of England' from the earliest time to the death of Queen Elizabeth, in twelve octavo volumes, 1839. The later portion of the work failed to sustain Turner's reputation, and even the friendly Southey expressed with frankness the wish that the style had been less ambitious. Where the field was less new he had fewer advantages over previous writers; his views had little originality, and his treatment of his subject had no superior merit.

In 1829, intense application having considerably impaired his health, Turner retired from business and settled at Winchmore Hill. There he prepared and issued in 1832 the first volume of his 'Sacred History of the World as displayed in the Creation and subsequent events to the Deluge, attempted to be philosophically considered in a series of letters to a son' (London. 1832, 3 vols. 8vo; 8th ed. 1848). The work owed its popularity largely to the author's homiletic manner and devoutly orthodox attitude. After much searching of spirit Turner had risen superior to the sceptical suggestions of the school of Voltaire, and he now showed himself completely impervious to the new German criticism. He had been greatly shocked in 1830 by Milman's lax views as regards miracles in the ‘History of the Jews.’ Milman retorted that he should have valued Turner's opinion more highly twenty years ago.

Turner issued a couple of small pamphlets in 1813 advocating the modification of the Copyright Act of Anne, and in 1819 he published a volume of verse entitled ‘Prolusions on the present Greatness of Britain and on Modern Poetry’ (London, 12mo), which does honour to his patriotic sentiments. His remaining essay in verse, which he was busy in elaborating between 1792 and 1838, was a dismally long and half-hearted kind of apology for ‘Richard the Third,’ which was judiciously rejected by Murray, but eventually printed by Longman in 1845. The fact recorded by Jerdan that Turner was a constant friend and patron of the Rev. Robert Montgomery (best known as ‘Satan’ Montgomery) receives corroboration from this ‘epic.’

Of greater literary interest was Turner's intimate business association with John Murray (1778–1843) [q. v.] Murray consulted him frequently on legal questions touching literary property, and more particularly in connection with the literary outlaw ‘Don Juan,’ from whom it was feared the British law would withhold the protection of copyright. Turner's services as a solicitor were also of value in steering the newly launched ‘Quarterly’ into a safe channel and averting the perils of libel actions. He deprecated attempts to emulate the smart severity of the ‘Edinburgh,’ and enunciated the principle that ‘harmless inoffensive work’ should be compassionately treated. He himself contributed two or three articles to the early numbers. In 1843 Turner suffered a great blow from the loss of his wife, a lady whom John Murray met in 1807 with the reputation of being ‘one of the Godwin school.’ ‘If,’ he says, ‘they all be as beautiful, accomplished, and agreeable as this lady, they must be a deuced dangerous set indeed.’ Early in 1847 he returned to London, and he died under his son's roof in Red Lion Square on 13 Feb. 1847. Turner, who was an F.S.A. and an associate of the Royal Society of Literature, had been in receipt of a civil list pension (of 300l.) since 1835. His youngest son, Sydney, is briefly noticed below; his third daughter, Mary (d. 1870), married William Ellis (1800–1881) [q. v.] Turner was intimate with Isaac Disraeli, and godfather of his son Benjamin.

Turner's Anglo-Saxon work stands in something of the same relation to the revival of the study in history as Horace Walpole's ‘castle’ at Strawberry Hill to the later revival of Gothic architecture. His critical power was perhaps defective, but it must not be forgotten that his work first occupied a great field. He not only felt an enthusiasm for the subject, but had a genuine power of presentation (his weakness for the complicated sentence having been much exaggerated); and, in addition to the respect of scholars such as Hallam and Southey, he won the abiding interest of Scott, and later of Tennyson. Reference is sparingly made to his work at the present day, but it may well be doubted whether the advance which he made upon Hume was not greater than that made upon his ‘History’ in the works of Thorpe and Lappenberg, Palgrave and Kemble.

The historian's youngest son, Sydney Turner (1814–1879), born in 1814, was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, whence he graduated B.A. as eighteenth wrangler in 1836. He was ordained two years later by the bishop of Winchester, and held for some years the curacy of Christ Church, Southwark, after which he became head of the reformatory school of the Philanthropic Society at Red Hill. He rapidly identified himself with a zealous attempt to ameliorate the sternly repressive treatment meted out to juvenile offenders, and published in 1855 an optimistic pamphlet upon ‘Reformatory Schools’ which had a wide circulation. In 1857 he was appointed inspector of reformatories in England and Scotland, a position which he retained down to the close of 1875, when he was nominated dean of Ripon. He resigned this post within a year of his appointment, and retired to the rectory of Hempsted in Gloucestershire, where he died on 26 June 1879 (Ann. Register, 1879; Times, 3 July 1879).

[Gent. Mag. 1847, i. 434–6; Annual Register, 1847; Smiles's Memoir of John Murray, 1891, passim; Addit. MS. 15951 ff. 14 sq. (letters to H. Colburn); Jerdan's Men I have known, pp. 443–8 (with autograph facsimile); Pantheon of the Age, 1804; Britton's Autobiography, p. 8; Stephens's Life and Letters of Freeman, 1895, i. 114; Southey's Life and Correspondence; Prescott's Miscellanies, 1855, p. 101; Dibdin's Literary Companion, p. 246; Disraeli's Literary Character, ch. xxv.; Caroline Fox's Memories, 1882; Retrospective Review, vol. viii.; Allibone's Dict. of English Literature; English Cyclopædia—Biography; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.