Baring his teeth

Peter Clarke

  • The Macmillans: The Story of a Dynasty by Richard Davenport-Hines
    Heinemann, 370 pp, £18.50, April 1992, ISBN 0 434 17502 1

On 10 January 1957 the momentous news reached the family publishing house in St Martin’s Lane. ‘Mr Macmillan has just been made prime minister,’ his elder brother Daniel was told by an excited secretary. ‘No, “Mr Macmillan” has not been made prime minister,’ the chairman corrected her. ‘ “Mr Harold” has.’ Here, in a nutshell, is the theme of Richard Davenport-Hines’s book. Its early chapters form a heroic chronicle of upward social mobility. We first encounter an earlier Daniel Macmillan as a mid 18th-century crofter, scratching a living from the desolate but sublime landscape of the Isle of Arran. Next comes his only son, Malcolm, born on the bonny banks of Lochranza, the beauty of which inspired Sir Walter Scott to the curmudgeonly reflection that ‘wake where’er he may, man wakes to care and toil.’ So it proved with the Macmillans. Malcolm prospered though hard work on his poor land, becoming a tacks man, a kulak among crofters, who served as an elder of the Church of Scotland. His son Duncan, claimed by the revivalist preaching of the Baptists, was also a hard-working man who, according to his own son, ‘cared for nothing but his family – that is, did not care what toil he endured for their sakes.’ This was just as well, for he and his wife Katherine had no fewer than 12 children, though four of their daughters died tragically young in an epidemic which finally induced the family to forsake Arran. Their two younger sons deservedly get chapters to themselves in The Macmillans.

Mr Daniel and Mr Alexander were the founders of the family firm. They made their way to London via Cambridge, that bookish city, and into publishing via bookselling. At the age of 20, Daniel was diagnosed as a victim of tuberculosis, which Victorians knew well enough as graveyard cough. ‘Of course I must die,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘and if I die with my sins unpardoned, I shall sink lower than the grave.’ Under sentence of death, he laboured on for thirty years, building up his business from nothing, and becoming the friend of Kingsley and Tennyson. On his deathbed Daniel told his wife: ‘You will see so much of me come out in the children, dear.’ The dynasty was consolidated under Mr Alexander, whose broad Scottish accent and egalitarian leanings did not prevent him from hobnobbing with ‘the best in the land’, as he proudly told a friend. ‘I was at the club the other night, where were Tennyson, Browning, Anthony Trollope, Lord Houghton, Lord Stanley, Tom Taylor, Fitzjames Stephen ... with all of whom I had a pleasant gossip.’ With all of them? But even on such a loquacious evening he still spared a thought for ‘how much better worthy of such company dear Daniel would have been.’ His own receptions, held over the shop in Covent Garden, drew four hundred people at a time, each of them risking the sort of heavy banter – ‘De’il take it mon; I shall have ta forgie ye, for ye’re sach a gude bay’ – which makes encounters with Scottish literary exiles such an egregious joy at London literary parties.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in