I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, Lord Macaulay’s Critical and Historical Essays, published in the 1892 edition.
Does the man who wrote this of James the First of England and Sixth of Scotland, deserve to be remembered:
She [Elizabeth] died; and the kingdom passed to one who was, in his own opinion, the greatest master of king-craft that ever lived, but who was, in truth, one of those kings whom God seems to send for the express purpose of hastening revolutions?
Should we hold dear somewhere in our collective heart a man of whom it was written:
He combined so vivid an imagination with so solid a judgement, that if he had not been a great historian he might have passed down to posterity as a great poet; and whilst the amount of his intellectual welath would have overwhelmed a mind of less original power, with him it remained subordinate to the genius of the master?
Is there a place in the Zeitgeist for someone described, six years after his death, thus:
He was a classic who had come out of romanticism, and who used the fire of the romantic school not as a fire is used by an incendiary, but as it is used in a forge?
To which, of course, the answer is a resounding ‘Aye!’ As to the question does history owe a debt of honour to a man described by The Times in October 1839, following his promotion to the post of Minister for War, as Mr. Babbletongue; or, in the words of Henry Brougham, co-founder in 1802 of The Edinburgh Review:
…the greatest bore that ever yet appeared?
The answer is an equally resounding ‘Naw, it disnae!”
Buried in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey, at the feet of Thomas Addison, the Critical and Historical Essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, are no longer handed out as prizes as they were to the Plymouth shipwright apprentices in July, 1884. (Rear Admiral Herbert had scathing words for those apprentices who had not used their six years in the shipyards to prepare fully for their exams – as always it seemed to be the fault of a small group of idle students leading their companions astray. G.T.Chivers was not one of these. He walked away with British Battles (3 vols), Abbeys, Castles and Ancient Halls of England and Wales (3 vols) as well as Macaulay’s Essays)
Macaulay’s failure to stand the test of time rose, in part from being dead, but also from having written using, what was to be called by later historians, the Whig theory of history. The term was made famous by Herbert Butterfield in his 1931 essay The Whig Interpretation of History. Of the Whig historians, he wrote
It is part and parcel of the whig interpretation of history that it studies the past with reference to the present.
Macaulay is mentioned only twice in the essay but having written in his own Essays:
The history of England is emphatically the history of progress,
it is clear that from where he stood (a short, stout man he may as well have stayed sitting) in the England of first half of the nineteenth century, an unbroken line ran from the defenders of parliamentary rights in the reign of Charles 1st to, well, himself. From our viewpoint (sitting or standing) in the 21st century, our view obscured by world wars, industrial depression and financial crises, it is difficult perhaps to accept unquestioningly the use of that word “emphatically.”
But history is nothing if not ironic. A quick search of Ngram shows how much his fame has faded:
However, search for the Whig interpretation of history and hey presto:
Apart from a dip in the late 1930s when the British government’s policy of appeasement towards Hitler was emphatically not a sign of progress, the Whig interpretation of history continues to be studied and written about. But Macaulay, for all his wonderful prose, is not read. For that reason, the loneliness which comes with being among those that have read him, an equally lonely (5,8) is plotted.
Next time, Trollope, Framley Parsonage and interactive tithe maps. Oh yes.