Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Towneley, John

TOWNELEY, JOHN (1697–1782), translator of ‘Hudibras’ into French, was the second son of Charles Towneley of Towneley Hall, Lancashire, by Ursula, daughter of Richard Fermor of Tusmore, Oxfordshire, and was brother of Francis Towneley [q. v.] Born in 1697, in 1715 he entered Gray's Inn (Foster, Gray's Inn Admissions), and studied law under William Salkeld [q. v.], serjeant-at-law. Having an allowance of only 60l. a year under his father's will of 1711 (Estcourt, English Catholic Non-Jurors), he went about 1728 to Paris, where since 1683 female members of his family had been pupils or nuns. He is represented by some as having been tutor to the old, and by others to the young, Pretender; but the former was his senior, and there is no evidence of Towneley having visited Italy, where Charles Edward resided till 1744. In 1731 he entered Rothes's Franco-Irish infantry regiment as lieutenant; he distinguished himself at the siege of Phillipsburg in 1734, and became a captain in 1735. In 1745 his regiment, or a detachment of it, was sent to Scotland to assist the young Pretender, and Towneley was doubtless present at the battle of Falkirk. The Marquis d'Éguilles, the French envoy, in a despatch to Argenson, wrote from Blair Athol on 20 Feb. 1746: ‘M. Towneley, who will have the honour of delivering my despatches to you, is the man of most intelligence and prudence amongst those here with the prince. You may question him on all subjects.’ Towneley reached Paris on 22 March, and Argenson, replying to Éguilles on 6 April, mentions that Towneley had given him information on the prospects of the rising (Annales de l'École Libre des Sciences Politiques, January 1888). In the autumn of 1746 Towneley, with forty-two other Jacobite officers, received a grant of money from Louis XV, his share being 1,200 livres (Michel, Les Écossais en France), and in December he received the order of St. Louis. He must have been charged by Éguilles with messages to Madame Doublet de Breuilpont, of whose salon or so-called ‘parish’ in Paris Éguilles was a member, and must himself have then been admitted a ‘parishioner,’ for his grand-nephew Charles states that he frequented ‘Madame Dublay's’ society.

Towneley was a great admirer of ‘Hudibras,’ and, piqued by Voltaire's description of it as untranslatable except in the fashion in which he himself compressed four hundred lines into eighty, he began translating passages from it for the amusement of his fellow ‘parishioners.’ He was probably aware that ‘Hudibras’ had been turned into German verse in 1737, and in 1755 Jacques Fleury published the first canto in French prose, offering to issue the remainder if the public wished for it. John Turberville Needham [q. v.], his grand-nephew's tutor, ultimately induced Towneley to complete the translation, and it was published anonymously in 1757, ostensibly at London to avoid the censorship, but really at Paris. The English original was given on parallel pages, Hogarth's engravings being reproduced, and Towneley writing a preface, while Needham appended explanatory notes. The translation has been extravagantly praised by Horace Walpole, and more recently by Dean Milman; but Towneley himself disclaimed ability to give the spirit and humour of the original, and the ‘Nouvelle Bibliothèque d'un Homme de Goût’ (1777) taxed it with bad rhymes and faulty French; while Suard, in the ‘Biographie Universelle’ (art. ‘Butler’), though acknowledging its fidelity, pronounces the diction poor and the verses unpoetical, ‘the work of a foreigner familiar with French but unable to write it with elegance.’ It certainly lacks the swing and the burlesque rhymes of the original. Rousseau would seem to have read it, for in ‘L'Ami des Muses’ (1759) are verses by him entitled ‘L'Allée de Sylvie,’ which borrow the couplet on compounding for sins, but apparently from Towneley's English text, for his French rendering is here very feeble:

    ‘Ce qui leur plaît est légitime,
    Et ce qui leur déplaît un crime,’

whereas Rousseau writes:

    ‘Et souvent blâmer par envie
    Les plaisirs que je n'aurai plus.’

Charles Towneley presented the British Museum with a copy of it containing Skelton's portrait of the translator, dated in 1797. This, which was reproduced in Baldwyn's English edition of ‘Hudibras,’ may have been engraved from the portrait which must have been possessed by Madame Doublet, for at her daily gathering of wits and quidnuncs in an annexe of the Filles St.-Thomas convent, each guest sat under his own portrait, the hostess herself having painted some of them. Another portrait of Towneley, painted by Peronneau, belonged in 1868 to Mr. Charles Towneley. Towneley died at Chiswick, at the residence of his nephew and namesake, early in 1782, and was buried in Chiswick churchyard.

A second edition of his translation of ‘Hudibras,’ with the English text revised by Sir John Byerly and the French spelling modernised, was painted by Firmin-Didot at Paris in 1819. Some fragmentary manuscripts in his handwriting were included in the sale of the Towneley library in 1883. A catalogue of the library was printed in 1814–15 under the title ‘Bibliotheca Towneleiana’ (2 parts, London, 8vo). He possessed a considerable collection of Wenceslaus Hollar's prints, which were sold by auction on 26–29 May 1818 (cf. Cat. Towneley Collection of Hollars, 1818).

[Gent. Mag. April 1782; European Mag. 1802, i. 22; Whitaker's Hist. of Whalley; Cottin's Protégé de Bachaumont (this and other French authorities confuse John with Francis Towneley); Palatine Notebook, 1881–3; Grimm's Correspondence Littéraire; Revue Rétrospective, 1885.]

J. G. A.