The Tragedy of Power

by Robert E. Sullivan

Harvard, 624 pp., $39.95

Here, in a nutshell, is the paradox of Thomas Babington Macaulay: Dip at random into this most fluent of historians, and no reader acquainted with the muddle and tragedy of human striving can believe that the past could be so schematic and colorful as he paints it—still less that the winners were so much more virtuous than the losers. Yet one is swept along, as if in a torrent, by the force and brilliance of the prose. And what is more, one is delighted!

No historian writing in English, with the possible exception of Edward Gibbon, has ever been more captivating, nor more annoying in his peculiarities. From the age of 24, when he won first acclaim with a powerful essay vindicating Milton’s Roundhead politics, Macaulay rarely failed to popularize what he touched. Students of English history and letters on both sides of the Atlantic long relished his History of England, a historical melodrama celebrating the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688: the supplanting of James II by the last Stuart king’s Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch consort, a foundation stone of the whig interpretation of history, the triumph of parliament over the crown.

An excerpt from his essay on Sir James Mackintosh, a forerunner in the writing of whiggish history, suggests the flavor:

Far be it from us to disturb with our doubts the repose of any Oxonian Bachelor of Divinity who conceives that the English prelates with their baronies and palaces, their purple and their fine linen, their mitred carriages and their sumptuous tables, are the true successors of those ancient bishops who lived by catching fish and mending tents. We say only that the Scotch .  .  . were not Episcopalians; that they could not be made Episcopalians .  .  . that the fullest instruction on the mysterious questions of the Apostolical succession and the imposition of hands had been imparted by the very logical process of putting the legs of the students into wooden boots, and driving two or more wedges between their knees .  .  . yet that .  .  . the covenanters were as obstinate as ever.

Here one finds the usual devices of Macaulay’s trickery, especially the binary tension between supposedly irreconcilable opposites (gaudy bishops versus humble fishermen!) and subtle but amusing sarcasm (the “logical process” of torture and coercion). Macaulay’s rhythms and doctrine insinuated themselves into the memory of his readers, although he is less read today, unfortunately. But by the mid-19th century his sales were hardly inferior to those of Dickens. He had kept his resolve to place histories alongside the three-decker novels on the reading tables of young ladies.

Writing before the craft of history became professionalized and academic, Macaulay earned his insights in the public arena. He was elected to Parliament from a pocket borough and starred in the debates over the 1832 Reform Bill. He later served, controversially, as a legal adviser, reformer, and administrator in British India. Macaulay has been lucky in his biographers. The first was his nephew, George Otto Trevelyan, a major historian in his own right who published a classic Victorian life and letters of Macaulay in 1875. He was followed a century later by the Harvard historian John Clive, who wrote brilliantly about the first half of Macaulay’s public life but covered only the years down to 1838 when the historian returned from four years in India. Among many secondary and critical works, Sir Charles Firth’s commentary on the History of England is notable.

In the biography under review, Robert E. Sullivan of Notre Dame claims to write as a Clive disciple. But his book offers an odd variation on Clive’s. Unless he writes with the iconoclastic genius of a Lytton Strachey, a biographer is well advised to be in sympathy with his subject, or at least reasonably respectful. Robert E. Sullivan is no Lytton Strachey, and at some point he clearly conceived a strong distaste for his subject and what he stood for, above all the imperialist ideology of Victorian England.

Sullivan is well informed, in his way, although some of his observations seem oddly gratuitous, even coarse: for instance, his dismissive observations about the Oxford Tractarians, who sought to reclaim catholicity for the Church of England. Macaulay himself sprang from an evangelical background, and according to Sullivan his own faith was mere formal pretense. Indeed, many of Macaulay’s observations on the 17th-century clergy are raw to the point of vulgarity. It is all rather understandable when one considers the hectoring he suffered from a bigoted, bullying, self-righteous father. But Sullivan carries dismissiveness rather far when, for instance, he refers to Cardinal Newman as “England’s most notorious ‘pervert’ [sic] to Catholicism.”

Sullivan’s subtitle, “the tragedy of power,” is likewise puzzling. It seems to spring from his view that Macaulay became, at least theoretically, an early apologist for genocide, when and if harsh measures became the price of ruling subordinate peoples. But fairly read, Macaulay’s long essay on Warren Hastings and his administration of British India refutes these charges of extraordinary inhumanity. Besides, whatever power Macaulay disposed lay in essays, parliamentary speeches, and such official papers as his “minute” on Indian education, favoring the English language and Western learning. He warred, when he warred, with words.

It seems to annoy Sullivan that, when Macaulay shipped off to India in the mid-1830s, he took along his favorite Greek authors and read them first thing every morning, presumably viewing administrative and cultural problems in India through imported Western lenses. A fair point, perhaps, but one that could be lodged against almost any representative of the imperial mindset. Then there is Sullivan’s intrusive use of Macaulay’s private journals, which for years were discreetly suppressed or censored by his family. Macaulay recorded passing moods and grudges with a candor surely grounded in the confidence that these pages would remain private. Sullivan gathers (he isn’t the first to do so) that Macaulay, a bachelor who doted on his family connections, loved his two youngest sisters with a fondness bordering on the erotic. He assures us, however, that while Macaulay appeared unconscious that “his relationship to his sisters”—quoting Thomas Pinney—“was latently incestuous,” he “was no Humbert Humbert,” no such voyeuristic pedophile as the antihero of Nabokov’s Lolita!

It is unusual to find a biographer so involved in prurient speculation—or at least it once was. It is hard to say just what Sullivan is implying in these exotic glosses of writings that have been read for a century-and-a-half, and more, without the discovery of this evil shadow self. He has, in sum, written an ill-tempered biographical caricature. But he does get one thing right: A late chapter is entitled “Praeceptor Gentis Anglorum,” mentor of the English people. Indeed, no historian was more influential in establishing the conventional outlook on the English past, reinforced as it was later on by the writing of his successor kin among the Trevelyans. That this outlook has been under assault for the better part of a century, notably by the great Sir Lewis Namier and his followers in the field of microhistory, is in its way a tribute to Macaulay’s enduring power to instruct and enchant, to entertain and persuade. And at times, to vex and infuriate.

Edwin M. Yoder Jr. is the author, most recently, of a historical novel, Lions at Lamb House, imagining a 1908 encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud.

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