Herstory

Linda Colley

  • The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay by Bridget Hill
    Oxford, 263 pp, £30.00, March 1992, ISBN 0 19 812978 5

‘It tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me. The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all.’ So runs the bright but ingenuous Catherine Moreland’s famous dismissal of the relevance and attractiveness of history. Less well-known, but more revealing, however, is the comment that Jane Austen was careful to insert not just before but after these irreverent lines in Northanger Abbey. ‘I am fond of history’ is Eleanor Tilney’s quiet but repeated rebuke: and since she is older than Catherine as well as wiser, much better-educated and socially far more elevated, a landowner’s daughter and the future wife of a viscount, the intelligent reader is clearly intended to identify with and endorse her judgment. Properly viewed, we are meant to conclude, history is herstory too.

This particular fictional exchange reflected Austen’s own considerable though never uncritical fascination with historical writing (a spoof History of England is among her juvenilia), but it was also part of a much wider debate. By the late 18th century, almost all Western writers on polite female education and its reform tended to lay stress on the importance of the study of history. At the self-same period in which some present-day women’s historians have detected a widening gulf between the private sphere of middle and upper-class women, and the public role of their menfolk, women from precisely these social backgrounds were being urged to read about the public past of the nations in which they lived. Moreover – and as in Austen’s case – a minority of women were beginning to write history, not women’s history, but something which, in the circumstances, was far more challenging. Mercy Otis Warren and Hannah Adams in America, and Catharine Macaulay in Britain, all addressed themselves to political and patriotic history. Unenfranchised and excluded from all public office, they nonetheless insisted in a quite unprecedented way on their right to pass judgment on the deeds of important dead white males, and to tell and publish the story of the polities that they lived in.

Bridget Hill neglects this broader intellectual context for a more narrowly biographical approach in this study of Catharine Macaulay, but hers is still a considerable achievement and a fascinating work of detection. No full-length work has been devoted to Macaulay before now – in part, because so few of her papers have survived. How she lived and what she thought before the publication of the first of the eight volumes of her History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line in 1763 still remains largely unknown, as does the way she endured the social and intellectual obscurity that lasted from her controversial second marriage in 1778 to her death in a small Berkshire village in 1791. She had been born some sixty years before, the granddaughter of a banker and MP who had ploughed some of his possibly ill-gotten gains from the South Sea Company into a pleasant landed estate in Kent. Motherless from an early age, self-educated and apparently lonely, she seems to have become caught up in the attractions of history during what – by the standards of her day – was a protracted spinsterhood. But it was marriage at the age of 29 to a Scottish doctor much older than herself, George Macaulay, that launched her career because it meant that she moved to London.

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