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.

It was still true in the early 1900s, when Raymond Asquith commented on it, that London was the only university available to British women, the only place (apart, perhaps, from Edinburgh) where they could compensate in some part for their lack of a formal, Classical education by having available to them a diversity of intellectual salons and circles, as well as a rich print culture and a range of lending libraries. London was the making of intellectual women as diverse as Hannah More, Mary Wollstonecraft and George Eliot. It also made Catharine Macaulay. Partly through her husband’s interests, and partly because her brother, John Sawbridge, was a radical City MP and alderman, she was drawn into the company of the so-called Real Whigs, dissenting intellectuals like Thomas Hollis, Richard Barron, Sylas Neville and Caleb Fleming. She also met and initially admired John Wilkes, whose radicalism took a far more activist form. It was – presumably – in discussions and arguments with men such as these that she hit upon the idea of undertaking ‘the laborious task of delineating the political history of this country’. More precisely, she decided to write a history of Stuart England that would celebrate those who had ‘set up the banners of liberty against ... tyranny’. This was to be an advanced Whig history of the 17th century that would challenge what she and her friends saw as the Tory version supplied by David Hume.

The first volume was an immediate bestseller when it appeared in 1763, and so to a lesser extent were its four successors which were all published before 1773. Insisting on and obtaining what was then the quite extraordinary sum of £1000 per volume, she was able to employ two liveried servants and entertain on a lavish scale even after she was widowed. Adulatory poems were written about her, Cipriani engraved her, Derby figurines were made of her, and foreign visitors of an advanced intellectual disposition sought to meet her. Then in the 1770s – the same decade in which the word ‘bluestocking’ first began to be applied specifically and contemptuously to studious women – things began to go wrong. Her history volumes were denounced as excessively partisan even by committed Whigs like Horace Walpole. Sales fell. And in 1774 she foolishly left London for Bath, living (chastely) with a radical and increasingly senile clergyman who fell embarrassingly in love with her. Obsessed with what remains an unknown illness, she fell under the influence of Dr James Graham, quack doctor and early sex therapist, and in 1778 she married his brother, who was a former ship’s steward twenty years her junior.

This act confirmed her eclipse in both fashionable and intellectual circles. Even John Wilkes affected to be shocked. But like her first marriage, this one proved both happy and good for her productivity. She completed the final three volumes of her history, taking the story up to 1688. She published pamphlets on the immutability of moral truth and on education. And having earlier written what, in his opinion, was the most powerful riposte to Edmund Burke’s Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, she published the year before her death a refutation of his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Yet she died, as Wollstonecraft noted, ‘without sufficient respect being paid to her memory’. Her books have, as far as I know, never been reprinted. And as Hill herself admits, ‘she is no longer read.’ But does she actually deserve anything better?

Any rescue work on a significant but long-forgotten women runs the risk of succumbing to a kind of perverse condescension. It is in practice all too easy to imitate Samuel Johnson’s frankly sexist response to the woman preacher, and to argue that since it was remarkable that she did what she did at all, how well she did it is immaterial. Yet, since Macaulay’s claim to fame is as the first British woman ever to write and publish history on a large scale, it is important to assess her quality as a historian. It is also difficult.

Part of the reason for this, as Hill shows, is that we have to scrape away the different kinds of prejudice that surrounded Macaulay as a woman writing history. Some of the criticisms were predictable enough. Before she became well-known, some denounced her as an unattractive spinster writing to ease her frustration. When it was discovered that she was both married and personally elegant, others suggested that her husband wrote her books for her, and complained that she painted too much. Relishing success and adulation as any sensible male historian did (and does), she was nonetheless accused of exhibiting a peculiar degree of vanity and silliness. But those who admired her in print also distorted her real calibre by the very nature of their flattery. She was Clio in the flesh, the ‘Fair Macaulay’, always the ‘female historian’, never judged by the same criteria as her male peers. (Though why Hill falls into a similar trap and borrows Burke’s put-down ‘the republican virago’ for the title of this book, I do not know.)

Yet prejudice is scarcely by itself sufficient to explain the sharp fluctuations in Macaulay’s fame and readership. Initially, after all, she received more acclaim than criticism, far more acclaim, indeed, than any novice and academic outsider, female or male, embarking on a multi-volume history of England today would be likely to encounter. And if many men and some envious women, like Hannah More, were scathing, thoughtful masculine assistance for her enterprise was also forthcoming. She was given free run of the manuscripts in the British Museum. Thomas Hollis supplied her with constant bibliographical aid, and made her gifts of rare 17th-century pamphlets. Both of her husbands seem to have been immensely supportive. And radical and Dissenting intellectuals proved willing to discuss political ideas with her as an equal to a remarkable degree. It helped of course that she was so exceptional. Unlike professional women today, she was never viewed as part of a growing army of female competitors for jobs and rewards. As far as England in the 1760s was concerned, she was simply unique: so there seemed no harm in having her stay and talk over past and present politics with the men over their port as she liked to do, because all the other women were prepared to leave the room after dinner in a decent and orderly fashion.

The real problem, then, lies not so much in her gender as in the nature of her ideology and its prominence in her writings, and not just to the degree that Hill herself analyses. She is right to argue that much of Macaulay’s early success was due to the fact that the times were propitious for her version of the 17th-century past. In 1762, just one year before the publication of her first volume, George III had carried out the so-called ‘massacre of the Pelhamite innocents’, dismissing from office groups of Whig politicians who had been in favour for decades. And in 1763, John Wilkes was hauled before the courts for libelling the Prime Minister, Lord Bute, and by implication his royal master. These acts alienated sections of Whig opinion on both sides of the Atlantic, raising inflated fears of a new kind of royal despotism. In these circumstances, and for these people, a history that unapologetically set out to celebrate Parliament’s crusade for liberty against the Stuart kings was timely.

But as Hill also points out, Macaulay’s radicalism was too deeply ingrained to allow her to change with the times. As the appeal of radicalism receded and conventional patriotism increased with the war with America, her books continued along their uncompromising route and for many came to seem cranky and unpalatable. Particularly as she refused to confine herself to criticising the Stuarts. In her later volumes, she also attacked the iconic revolution of 1688, accusing William III – quite correctly – of enlarging executive power. Pace Hill, Macaulay was not the first to set out this kind of critique. Jacobites, Tories and Country Whigs had thrown out similar accusations throughout the century. But it was not an easy or a popular line to take, because it challenged so much national complacency.

The steadfastness with which Macaulay held to her ideas throughout her life is quite remarkable, yet just why she did so will probably always remain unclear. We know so little about her intellectual evolution – whether she was simply captivated by the Real Whig ideologues in London because they were the first serious purveyors of ideas she ever encountered, or whether her determination that ‘the invidious censures which may ensue from striking into a path of literature rarely trodden by my sex, will not ... keep me mute in the cause of liberty and virtue’ had been forged earlier than this, and independently. Whatever the answer, the rigidity of her ideas undoubtedly limited her achievement as a historian even as it prompted it. Narrow partisanship of any kind always in the end leads to boring and predictable history-writing. And Macaulay declined from popularity into an oblivion which persists today, less, I suspect, because she was a woman, than because she insisted on lecturing rather than entertaining and informing her readers. Eight large volumes of learned polemic is simply several too many.

This is not to deny her real historical virtues. She used manuscript sources in a way that Hume had never attempted to do, and she incorporated into her account contemporary pamphlets and ephemera of a kind rarely used by any scholar before. She tried, to a degree that can be painful to read, to do an element of justice to some individuals in the past, like Charles I and Archbishop Laud, for whom she had no sympathy. And her observations were often sharp. ‘A great statesman’, she once wrote, was a term commonly applied to men proficient only ‘in the narrow circle of ministerial juggling’. But she was not witty, and she was never brief. And she never made the allowances a sensitive historian needs to make for the constraints under which human beings are forced to act. As Horace Walpole remarked, she was ‘too prejudiced to dive into causes, she imputes everything to tyrannic views, nothing to passions, weakness, error, prejudice, and still less to what operates oftenest ... accident and little motives’.

Hill is right, then, to draw attention to Macaulay’s ‘importance in the development of English radicalism’, rather than to the quality of her history. Yet even in this respect, her ideological rigidity may have hampered her. To judge by her writings, Macaulay was a neo-Harringtonian of a particularly purist kind. She believed that the polity was constantly in danger from priestcraft, from unbridled executive power, and from venality and corruption. Only a virtuous and intolerant Protestantism, combined with short Parliaments, a rotation of offices, free elections, a militia rather than a standing army, and a responsible and moderately landed citizenry, could ensure the healthy running of the state. Generations of 18th-century intellectuals and reformers believed much the same. Unlike others, though, Macaulay failed to adjust her ideas to the changing nature of British society. By the 1770s, radicals like Wilkes and Major Cartwright were beginning to moderate their distaste for Catholicism, for example. She, by contrast, never did. More importantly, she persisted in idealising a simple agricultural society of smallholders, whereas most neo-Harringtonians had long since come to terms with the overwhelming importance of commerce in Britain’s economy and self-image. It may have been that her grandfather’s involvement in the South Sea Bubble encouraged her to think this way, leading her to see the only real security for political virtue as lying in the land. Whatever the cause, insisting on a necessary connection between land ownership and political rights made her something of a period piece as far as British radicalism was concerned long before her death.

It also meant that she could never make the step towards arguing for a female politics. She admitted at the end of her life that the only substantial difference between men and women was physical: but the nature of her ideology forbade her from envisioning a state in which women could play an equal part with men. Since the ideal neo-Harringtonian citizen was both landed and capable of taking up arms to defend the fatherland, women by definition could never be citizens. Macaulay even suggested at one stage tightening up the law so that women could not inherit landed estates from their fathers and husbands, or take them with them on marriage as dowries. The arguments of women of Wollstonecraft’s generation, that women’s familial and moral roles made them deserving of some kind of civic role, would to Macaulay have seemed quite alien.

What, then, was the nature of this brave and extraordinary woman’s achievement, given that both her political ideas and her history books became so swiftly dated? Hill suggests that she made a contribution to both American Revolutionary and French Revolutionary thought, and this was true to an extent. But it may turn out that her most durable legacy was the encouragement she supplied to other female historians. Her career certainly inspired Mercy Otis Warren in America. And, after her death, all sorts of women in Britain began to write and publish history, not good history in the main, but often very successful history in terms of readership and sales. Mrs Markham’s child’s history of England, for example, was a runaway Victorian best-seller. And it may not be a complete coincidence that she was a direct descendant of Major John Cartwright, who had been an admirer of Catharine Macaulay as well as a fellow radical. Markham, and other long-neglected female historians, merit our attention. For, as was so demonstrably the case with Macaulay, their insistence on the right to bear witness to times past tells us much about women’s growing assertiveness in their own time. Writing history became a way of making it.