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High Victorian Eye

On reading Lord Macaulay's 'Literary Essays'

Nov 3, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 08 • By MICHAEL DIRDA
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While many of Macaulay's essays are strongly biographical, aiming to bring his historical subjects to dramatic and blazing life, that on "Mr. Robert Montgomery's Poems" stands as the classic attack on literary "puffery," the artificial inflation of a writer's merit by his friends, minions, and publishers. The exaggerated dust jacket blurb is nothing new. Long ago Macaulay noted that "Some times the praise is laid on thick for simple-minded people. 'Pathetic,' 'sublime,' 'splendid,' 'graceful,' 'brilliant wit,' 'exquisite humor,' and other phrases equally flattering fall in a shower as thick and as sweet as the sugar-plums at a Roman carnival." Work after work is pronounced an immortal masterpiece, yet "how many 'profound views of human nature,' and 'vernal and sunny, and refreshing thoughts,' and .  .  . 'harmonies which dissolve the soul in a passionate sense of loveliness and divinity' the world has contrived to forget."

To my mind, the portrait of Madame D'Arblay--Frances Burney--displays Macaulay at his very finest, offering insightful appreciation of the early novels (especially Evelina), followed by criticism of the author's later prose (a natural style insidiously ruined by Johnsonese) and a scathing portrait of Burney's five years as a maid-in-waiting to the queen. By accepting this royal favor, the literary toast of London gradually dwindled into a sickly drudge:

Weak, feverish, hardly able to stand, Frances had still to rise before seven, in order to dress the sweet Queen, and to sit up till midnight in order to undress the sweet Queen. The indisposition of the handmaid could not, and did not, escape the notice of her royal mistress. But the established doctrine of the Court was, that all sickness was to be considered as a pretence until it proved fatal. The only way in which the invalid could clear herself from the suspicion of malingering, as it is called in the army, was to go on
lacing and unlacing, till she fell down dead at the royal feet.

Readers attracted to these wide-ranging and wonderfully entertaining essays should at least dip into George Otto Trevelyan's Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. This is one of the great Victorian biographies, with telling details about the man behind the legend: One evening, we are told, Macaulay made 200 puns in a little over two hours. He had a weakness for the era's cheap romantic fiction, vaunted his ability to learn languages in a few months, and while in India took his pay from the Edinburgh Review in new books.

Best of all, we learn that the august Thomas Babington Macaulay was as vainly pleased as any modern author that his History of England was "something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies."

Michael Dirda, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism, is the author, most recently, of Classics for Pleasure.