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Norwich Heart, Heritage Economic & Regeneration Trust

William Taylor

William Taylor of Norwich 

William Taylor was born in Norwich in 1765 and died in 1836. He was among the most important writers of the Romantic Period. He contributed over 1800 articles and reviews to such influential national periodicals as the Monthly Review, the Critical Review, the Monthly Magazine and the Athenaeum.Most important however is the fact that he was the most influential intermediary between German literature and England, and he was also the first, yet he remains an almost unjustly neglected figure. His choice of subject was wide including 'The Jews in England', 'Songs of the Negroes of Madagascar' , 'Geology', 'English Hexameter' , Essays in bibilical criticism and theology', Historic Doubts concerning Joan of Arc' and 'an ode in Praise of Tea'.

His father, also William Taylor, was a merchant engaged in the export of Norwich Stuffs, and he sent his son abroad to complete his education. The Taylors lived in Surrey Street, in one of the best houses in Norwich.

William Taylor's parents regularly attended the Octagon Chapel. Frequent guests at the Taylor's house were Sir James Edward Smith, Founder of the Linnean Society, Dr Rigby, Founder of the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital, Dr Alderson and his daughter Emilia Opie, and Philip Martineau, Surgeon and uncle of Harriet Martineau. Another among Taylor's acquaintances was George Borrow. Taylor taught Borrow German.

Taylor's first visit abroad began in 1779. He visited the Netherlands, France and Italy. The intention was for William to learn languages and also about commerce. In January 1781 he returned to England. Only a few weeks later he left Norwich to visit Germany. He stayed in Detmold, where he studied German under Mr Roederer, who was a minister of the Protestant Church in that town. Mr Roederer had a strong taste for literature and personally knew  Goethe and other German writers. After a stay of twelve months, Taylor returned to England on the 17th November 1782. He was now seventeen.

At the age of twenty one William Taylor became a partner in his father's firm.  He was now an important and well known figure in the Norwich Community.  In 1791 Taylor persuaded his father to dissolve the business. Their joint property appeared to be sufficient to provide them with the comforts and elegance of private life. From this time William Taylor devoted himself exclusively to literature.

Taylor was one of the founder members of the "Norwich Revolutionary Society" in November 1789. Many Norwich Radicals had witnessed the French Revolution at first hand in 1789 and Taylor himself visited Paris in 1790 spending nine days in the French National Assembly and hearing almost all the eminent speakers. To Taylor the new French Constitution was a living model on which it was Britain's duty to improve.

By October 1792 membership of the Society was reported as being 2000.  The policy of the British government of that day was adverse to pro-revolutionary discussions and articles.   Severe measures were adopted to put down the societies in which they were entertained.     The Norwich Revolutionary Society was said to be on the proscribed list, and a warrant for the arrest of its leading members was daily expected. Dragoons, Lancers and Hussars were brought to Norwich and billeted in what is now Barrack Street, ready to quell any possible uprising. Although the anticipated consequences did not ensue, the danger at the time was thought to be real and imminent. On 2nd May 1794, the Norwich Revolutionary Society ceased, and from that time William Taylor appears to have taken no part in any political discussions.

In the world of the Reviews and of publishing, Taylor's reputation flourished. In 1793 Taylor published his translation of Goethe's "Iphigenie on Taurus". Goethe even got his own publisher to issue a special de luxe edition for the German market. Sir Walter Scott was greatly impressed by Taylor's translation of Burger's "Ballad of Lenore". This translation was followed by Taylor's translation of Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". In 1813 in the "Edinburgh Review", James Mackintosh selected what he considered to be the five outstanding translations from German. Three were by Taylor. Thomas Carlyle also praised Taylor's translations, but his review of Taylor's "Historic Survey of German Poetry" was severely critical. Many considered that Carlyle had used the review to discredit a rival. Unfortunately William Taylor's reputation has to this day been largely undermined by this vicious review, and is probably one of the reasons why he is not better known today.

Sources/Further Reading:

  • David Chandler, William Taylor of Norwich, George Borrow Bulletins nos 7-9 inclusive
  • C B Jewson, The Jacobin City, Blackie & Sons 1975
  • J W Roberts, A Memoir of the Life and Writings of William Taylor of Norwich, John Murray   1843
  • Eileen Bigland, In the Steps of George Borrow, London 19751
  • John Boening, William Taylor of Norwich (1765 - 1836) and the Reputation of Literature in England, Indiana University 1976
  • Chris Barringer(Ed), Norwich in the nineteenth century, Gliddon Books 1984
  • Ursula Priestley, The Fabric of Stuffs. Centre for East Anglian Studies, UEA 1990

Jim Marriage

July 2007