The Magazine

Historian of England

Lord Macaulay survives another academic assault.

Jun 7, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 36 • By EDWIN M. YODER JR.
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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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