The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 1. Sharon Turner

IN a comparison of English historical literature in the nineteenth with that in the eighteenth century, nothing is more striking than the advance and the expansion of the study of the national past. As was remarked in an earlier volume, Hume’s was the first history of England by a native historian worthy to be classed as literature; and, after him, the subject fell largely into the hands of professed political or ecclesiastical partisans. Robertson’s History of Scotland is not wholly exempt from such a charge; Smollett’s continuation of Hume is certainly open to it; and no other work in the field of national history can be said to have been produced in the course of the century which has survived it except as material for subsequent use. A reason for the unproductiveness, on this head, of the closing years of the eighteenth century, and the early years of its successor, might, of course, be sought in the great national struggle against the French revolution and the conquering power to which it gave birth. This struggle finds its counterpart in the endeavours of the romanticists to break up the literary and artistic solidarity of classicism, and to trace the diversity of actual life in the specific features presenting themselves in national, provincial or local institutions, forms of government, social ways and manners. Scott, more than any other writer in verse or prose, by his incomparable historical novels, taught English historians to reproduce in their works the atmosphere of the times and the colouring of the localities which they desired to recall. The lesson was reinforced by two different currents of studies and interests. The first was a result of the diligent enquiry into the origines of our national institutions and their effect upon our national life which formed part of the new movement of the new century—in other words, of the beginnings of historical criticism. In the study and literary treatment of the national history, this research concentrated itself in the labours of what has been called the Germanist school, whose adherents strove to show

  • “the extent to which modern constitutional ideas were connected with medieval facts, and the share that the German element has had in the development of institutions and classes,” and “succeeded in establishing the characteristically Germanic general aspect of English history, a result which does not exclude Roman influence, but has to be reckoned with in all attempts to establish definitely its bearing and strength.”
  • The second current, again, was one which affected England in common with all other western nations, but which acted upon her life and literature in a way peculiar to herself. In the period roughly circumscribed by the revolutionary years 1830 and 1848–9, social questions, concerned with the economic conditions of the people at large, assumed an unprecedented prominence; and these led to a study, very little followed before, of the economic influences under which nations arise and have their being. Other sciences were called upon to contribute towards an understanding of the foundations of popular life, the materials out of which it is formed and the reasons which determine its progress or decay. Historical research, animated by a living interest in the present, rather than by a romantic yearning for a revival of the past, thus came to demand, and find, new fields for its labours.

    The first name to be mentioned among writers of English history from the close of the eighteenth century onwards is, unmistakably, that of Sharon Turner. Born and educated in London, he was, as a boy, attracted to the study of northern literature through a version, in Percy’s Five Pieces of Runic Poetry, of that Death-Song of Ragnar Lodbrok which is held to have first suggested the study in England of Norse antiquity. He early abandoned the active pursuit of the legal profession, and, in 1795, settled for many years in the neighbourhood of the British Museum, long the constant resort of his strenuous leisure. Here, the Old English MSS. in the Cottonian library became his chief study, and it was on his researches in these and similar sources that was founded his History of England from the earliest period to the Norman Conquest, produced from 1799 to 1805, after sixteen years of preparatory labours. It was well received by Palgrave and other authorities, but was also subjected to unfavourable criticism, which, in one instance, called forth a vindication from the author. On the whole, the success of the work was such as to encourage him to produce, in steady sequence, a continuation from the Norman conquest to 1500, and a further continuation, covering the reign of Henry VIII, with a “political history of the commencement of the English Reformation,” which he afterwards carried on to the death of Elizabeth. The latter portions of the work, published in 1829, under the collective title The History of England failed to command a popularity equalling that of their predecessors. The reformation period, in particular, had, as we shall see, been recently treated by Lingard, some of whose ecclesiastical views, indeed, Sharon Turner was desirous of controverting. But his volumes dealing with Old English times, though they share his general characteristics of great amplitude and sententiousness of expression, have the distinctive note of original research both wide in range and assiduous; nor can he be refused the credit of having pointed the way in which Kemble and Thorpe followed, and thus made it possible for Palgrave and Freeman to construct their great works. It was in Sharon Turner that the interest was first awakened which led to the appointment (in 1800) of the first Record commission, whose composition, unfortunately, rendered its efforts of but little effect, till, mainly through the efforts of (Sir) Harris Nicolas, it was superseded (in 1846) by the new commission, of which Palgrave was the soul. Sharon Turner himself cannot rank as a great historian; and it might, perhaps, be questioned whether his proper place is among historians at all. His early volumes are marred by a cumbrous method, a tedious style and an antiquated philology; yet, a survey of their contents suffices to show the breadth of their author’s design and the indefatigable industry expended upon its execution. His place in literature he owes, not to service or circumstance, but to his courage and energy in research, which enabled him, first among English writers, to make his countrymen aware of the elements of future national greatness revealed in the life of our immigrant forefathers.