We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Talfourd, Sir Thomas Noon (1795–1854), writer, judge, and politician, was born at Reading, Berkshire, on 26 May 1795, the son of Edward Talfourd, a brewer, and his wife, Ann, the daughter of the Revd Thomas Noon. Both Talfourd's father and his paternal grandfather, a dissenting minister in Reading, were deeply religious; Talfourd himself as an adult became a practising Anglican. After studying with private tutors he was educated at the recently founded protestant dissenters' grammar school in Mill Hill, Middlesex (1808–10), before transferring to the grammar school at Reading (1810–12), where he became head boy. He was profoundly influenced there by the headmaster, Dr Richard Valpy. Valpy nurtured his pupil's enthusiasms for literature and for good causes, expressed in the precocious publication of Talfourd's Poems on Various Subjects (1811), including ‘The education of the poor’, and a tragedy, ‘The Offering of Isaac’, which was influenced by Hannah More's Sacred Dramas. As a schoolboy Talfourd became inspired by the theatre after watching Sarah Siddons and John Philip Kemble, and he discovered the love of Greek drama which was to inform his later play-writing.

Prevented by his family's poverty from attending university, Talfourd visited Henry Crabb Robinson on 23 February 1813 to discuss his future. On the advice of Lord Brougham he decided on a legal career. He spent the years between 1813 and 1817 in the chambers of Joseph Chitty in the Inner Temple, London, and took what business he could as a pleader between 1817 and his call to the bar in 1821. But during this period he also developed his interest in literature. In 1813 he published in The Pamphleteer, which was edited by Valpy's brother, ‘An attempt to estimate the poetical talent of the present age’, in which his appreciation of Shakespeare and Wordsworth is particularly apparent. In 1815 his farce, Freemasonry, or, More Secrets than One, was performed at the old theatre in Friar Street, Reading, and he made the acquaintance of Charles Lamb, whose letters he later edited in two separate volumes (1837, 1848). But he was simultaneously becoming involved with philanthropic causes, publishing a plea for the abolition of the pillory in The Pamphleteer (1815). He inaugurated his political career on 19 October 1819, when to thunderous applause at a meeting held at the town hall in Reading, he addressed a speech in defence of the right of public assembly, in protest against the Peterloo massacre.

In 1821 Talfourd was called to the bar by the Society of the Middle Temple, and he joined the Oxford circuit and Berkshire sessions. In 1822 he contracted a happy marriage to Rachel, eldest daughter of , a nonconformist minister. She was fiercely unfashionable and regarded as a lovable eccentric. They had several children; Talfourd was heartbroken in 1824 by the death in infancy of their first child, a son, and by the death of another son, Charles (named after Lamb), in 1837. But he was devoted to Mary and Kate, their daughters, and especially to , their surviving son. After his marriage, being unwilling to ask his father for financial support, he supplemented his income through journalistic work until the early 1830s. He reported on legal cases for The Times and contributed essays to the Law Magazine, including a graphic portrait of Lord Tenterden (February 1833). He also published prolifically on drama and literature in the Edinburgh Review, the New Monthly Magazine (for which he was drama critic from 1820 to 1831), the Retrospective Review, and the London Magazine. He contributed articles to the Encyclopædia Metropolitana on Homer, Greek history, the Greek lyric poets, and the Greek tragedians.

For unknown reasons Talfourd's application to become QC in 1832 was turned down. But in 1833 he accepted the rank of serjeant-at-law and was soon to become the most respected member of the Oxford circuit and a popular figure in London society. In the early 1830s he became famous for the dinner parties which he and his wife gave in their home at 56 Russell Square, London. His dinners were remembered for their informality, conviviality, swarming children, and numerous cats. Regular guests included Douglas William Jerrold, William Makepeace Thackeray, William Charles Macready, Daniel Maclise, John Forster, and Talfourd's old friend from Reading, Mary Russell Mitford. He was particularly loved by Charles Dickens and provided the archetype of the idealistic Tommy Traddles in David Copperfield; his children Frank and Kate gave their names to two youngsters in Dickens's Nicholas Nickleby. Dickens later wrote of him:
If there ever was a house … where every art was honoured for its own sake, and where every visitor was received for his own claims and merits, that house was his … Rendering all legitimate deference to rank and riches, there never was a man more composedly, unaffectedly, quietly, immovable by such considerations … On the other hand, nothing would have astonished him so much as the suggestion that he was anyone's patron. (Dickens, 117)
Talfourd's personal popularity was the result of outstanding charm and kindness, combined with winning humour and scintillating conversation, which he displayed at his favourite haunt, the Garrick Club. His sophisticated friends were disarmed by the confusing impression he gave of being simultaneously an idealist cosmopolitan and a provincial patriot: he was unashamed of being able to speak no foreign languages, was an enthusiast for English food and drink, and besides a brief visit on legal business to Lisbon in 1818, did not visit Europe until he was forty-six.

Talfourd's family's local background helped him to win his first election to parliament at Reading on 7 January 1835. He was on the radical wing of the Liberals, supported universal male suffrage, and campaigned ardently for black emancipation. As member of parliament his rise in London society was rapid. Henry Crabb Robinson observed with surprised approval in his diary in 1836 that this provincial brewer's impoverished son was now dining with Lord Melbourne. Talfourd was re-elected on the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837 but kept out of parliament between 1841 and 1847, alienated by the factionalism of the Reading radicals, and in particular by his distrust of Chartism: he spoke in the prosecution of the Chartist Thomas Cooper at Stafford in 1842. But he was returned to parliament at the 1847 election and kept the seat until he became a judge in 1848.

As member of parliament Talfourd was responsible for two pieces of important legislation. The Infant Custody Act (1839) modified in mothers' favour the previously unlimited power fathers had exercised over their children, giving the court discretion to award custody of children under seven years of age to the mother in cases of separation or divorce, provided she was not guilty of adultery. In 1837, encouraged by Wordsworth, Talfourd delivered a brilliant speech introducing the Copyright Act. This was designed to enable the dependants of authors to profit from the sales of their writings after their deaths. Although it did not become law until 1842, when he was not in parliament, it was known as Talfourd's Act. Dickens applauded this initiative in the touching dedication to Talfourd of The Pickwick Papers (1837). Talfourd also campaigned for the repeal of the Theatrical Patents Act (1843).

Yet Talfourd's most important legacy was his poetic tragedy Ion, written after he was elected to parliament. Ion was an extraordinary success when first performed at Covent Garden Theatre, London, on his birthday, 26 May 1836. He had circulated the play privately to influential individuals, including Wordsworth, Robert Southey, and Gladstone, which ensured that the theatre was packed with the most distinguished audience contemporary reviewers could remember, including Dickens, Robert Browning, Walter Savage Landor, Pitt, Melbourne, Lord Chief Justice Denman, Lord Grey, and Lady Blessington. Ion caused a sensation and remained popular for many years. Written in blank verse, it is an idiosyncratic combination of Romantic utopian Hellenism derived from Shelley with nonconformist religiosity, especially articulated in the hero Ion's extreme altruism. Talfourd's advocacy of social reform was grounded in religious principles and presupposed moral and spiritual reform.

Ion was important to the regeneration of serious theatre in the early Victorian period because it directly inspired plays such as Browning's Strafford and Bulwer-Lytton's The Lady of Lyons (1839), the latter of which was dedicated to Talfourd. But Ion was also politically significant. Talfourd was united in opposing the lord chamberlain's prerogative of theatrical censorship with his friend Bulwer, on whose 1836 edition of Hazlitt he collaborated. They both believed that literature needed a reformist and propagandist voice. In Ion, Talfourd used Greek models to legitimize contemporary political developments, especially the Great Reform Act (1832), the abolition of slavery (1833), and the democratizing acts following the municipal corporations commission (1835). Ion imitates the tragedy of the same name by Euripides, and Sophocles' Oedipus tyrannus, in both of which a foundling discovers that he is the hereditary monarch of his country. But unlike his classical archetypes, Talfourd's Ion responds by reforming the judiciary and disbanding the army. He then makes his people promise never again to tolerate monarchy, and commits suicide. This conclusion was particularly politically charged, since the ancient Greek democracies were in 1836 still viewed by many with suspicion, and were associated with the dangerous radicalism of Thomas Paine and William Cobbett. The political impact of Ion was increased by the known republican sympathies of the actor in the leading role, William Charles Macready.

Ion was seen as a stage play of lasting stature. It was performed continuously for over a year and consistently revived in London until at least 1861. It was even more popular in the United States, where the transvestite actress Ellen Tree performed in it repeatedly. In the North American Review (1837) Cornelius C. Felton, professor of Greek literature at Harvard University, declared it a masterpiece, and it was often revived in the American commercial theatre until at least 1881. In his day Talfourd had the reputation of being a foremost dramatist; in A New Spirit of the Age (1844) Richard Hengist Horne included an extended discussion of Talfourd, thus implicitly equating him with Dickens, Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Carlyle. Ion was so popular among the reading public that it ran through two private editions and four public ones by 1837 (many more subsequently), in addition to German and American editions.

In The Athenian Captive, in which Macready starred at the Haymarket Theatre in 1838, Talfourd attacked slavery and once again portrayed an ancient Greek people's uprising against a tyrannical autocrat. But the republican tenor of Ion was replaced by a less constitutionally specific appeal for ‘liberty’, for in The Athenian Captive a corrupt old monarch is replaced by a virtuous young one, as if to echo the hopes of the British middle classes in respect to their youthful new Queen Victoria, who had ascended the throne in 1837.

These theatrical productions represent a remarkable moment in the history of British Hellenism's manifestation in the theatre because they constitute the last significant uses of Greek tragedy on the professional stage for a radical political purpose until Gilbert Murray's stagings of Euripides in the Edwardian era. Although Talfourd later produced two further tragedies, Glencoe (1840), set in Scotland, and The Castilian (a Spanish tragedy published posthumously in 1853), neither was to prove as successful as his plays on Greek themes. He diversified into travel writing, including Recollection of a First Visit to the Alps in August and September 1841 (1842), and Vacation Rambles (1845). As a literary celebrity he was also engaged in public speaking, delivering a famous oration, The Importance of Literature to Men of Business (1852) to a meeting of the Manchester Athenaeum in October 1845.

But in his last fifteen years Talfourd focused on his legal career. There is no record of most of his forensic speeches because he often extemporized with such rapidity that reporters and shorthand writers could preserve only the outline. He had an intuitive and unshakeable sense of right and wrong, and spoke with conviction and passion if not always to the point. On 23 June 1841 he defended Edward Moxon, a bookseller who had been prosecuted for blasphemously publishing works of Shelley. The speech, which Talfourd published in 1841, is a rhapsodical appreciation of poetry and defence of poetic freedom. In July 1849 he was raised to the bench of the common pleas and received the customary honour of the knighthood. Although not an outstanding judge, he is said to have exercised his responsibilities and duties with good humour, sound judgement, and unimpeachable integrity. His later life was blighted by anxieties caused by his son Frank's debts, failure to take his degree at Christ Church, Oxford, and half-hearted attempts to make a career in law. But Frank later redeemed himself by writing successful extravaganzas for the popular theatre, beginning in 1850 with a burlesque of Euripides' Alcestis, which brought his father great pleasure.

Talfourd was struck by an apoplectic seizure as he was addressing the grand jury, on the issue of the regrettable estrangement of the social classes, from his judge's seat at Stafford on 13 March 1854. He died a few hours later at his lodgings in that town. The moment of the seizure, when his son Frank rushed to attend him, was represented in a life-size plaster cast donated to the Reading Museum by his daughter Mary. Talfourd was buried in Norwood cemetery, Surrey.

Edith Hall

Sources  

‘A memoir of Mr Justice Talfourd’, Law Magazine, 51 (1854), 298–326 · ‘Life and writings of the late Mr Justice Talfourd’, North British Review, 25 (1856) · R. S. Newdick, ‘Sir Thomas Noon Talfourd’, Reading Public Library · R. S. Newdick, ‘Talfourd as dramatist’, Reading Public Library · T. N. Talfourd, preface, Tragedies: to which are added a few sonnets and verses (1844) · J. Brain, ‘An evening with Thomas Noon Talfourd’, Berkshire ballads (1904) · ILN (28 July 1849), 52 · Diary, reminiscences, and correspondence of Henry Crabb Robinson, ed. T. Sadler, 3rd edn, 2 vols. (1872) · The diaries of William Charles Macready, 1833–1851, ed. W. Toynbee, 2 vols. (1912) · W. Maginn and D. Maclise, A gallery of illustrious literary characters, 1830–1838, ed. W. Bates (1873), pp. 194–7, no. 73 · C. Clark, Dickens and Talfourd (1919) · The modern British essayists, 7 (1850) · [C. Dickens], ‘The late Mr Justice Talfourd’, Household Words (25 March 1854), 117 · DNB · IGI

Archives  

Berks. RO, legal and personal papers incl. calendar of cases · Essex RO, Chelmsford, family papers · Hunt. L., corresp.; literary MSS · Reading Central Library, corresp., diaries, and papers |  BL, letters to Leigh Hunt and Marianne Hunt, Add. MSS 38109–38111 · BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, loan 96 · BL, letters to T. J. Serle, MS 52476 · JRL, corresp. with Mary Russell Mitford · NL Scot., corresp. with Robert Cadell


Likenesses  

W. Holl, stipple, 1840 (after K. Meadows), BM, NPG; repro. in Saunders, Political reformers (1840) · engraving, 1849, repro. in ILN, 15 (1849), 52 · J. G. Lough, bust, 1855, crown court, Stafford · D. Maclise, caricature, 1873, repro. in W. Bates, ed., Gallery of illustrious literary characters, no. 73 · J. C. Armytage, stipple, NPG · J. Lucas, oils, Garr. Club · H. W. Pickersgill, oils, NPG; on loan to Law Courts · H. W. Pickersgill, oils, Middle Temple, London · Roffe, stipple (after B. R. Haydon), BM, NPG · drawing, repro. in Toynbee, ed., Diaries of William Charles Macready, vol. 1, p. 328 · oils, Harvard U., law school · portrait, council chamber, Reading