Manly Voices

Bernard Porter

  • Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain by Catherine Hall
    Yale, 389 pp, £35.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 16023 9

Thomas Babington Macaulay – later Lord Macaulay, and ‘Tom’ to Catherine Hall – was the most influential of all British historians. Sales of the first two volumes of his great History of England, published in 1848, rivalled those of Scott and Dickens. The main reason for his popularity, apart from his literary style, was that he flattered the English by crediting them with a unique history of evolving ‘freedom’. Hall thinks – what might at first glance appear paradoxical – that he also reconciled them to their empire. Thus bolstered, they strode out into the world, confident both of their own national virtue and in their mission to spread it globally. It’s in this sense that Tom Macaulay and his father, Zachary, can be regarded as ‘architects of imperial Britain’.

George Scharf, ‘The Funeral of Thomas Babington Macaulay’ (1860). Image: National Portrait Gallery.
George Scharf, ‘The Funeral of Thomas Babington Macaulay’ (1860). Image: National Portrait Gallery.

That is one of the two main themes of Hall’s unusual joint biography. The other is the way the great historian’s views were influenced by his family life, and in particular by his parents and two of his sisters. (He never married.) This aspect of the lives of ‘great men’ is often ignored, marginalised or clichéd away. Here, building on Family Fortunes, her groundbreaking book of 1987 (written with Leonore Davidoff), Hall describes Macaulay’s family context at some length, analyses it sensitively, and relates it convincingly to his career and work. (It’s the reason, I think, and a good one, for her calling him Tom, as his family did.) The result is the most rounded and fascinating biography of a political figure (let alone two) that it has ever been my pleasure to read. It also got me wondering about the effects of my own family background, and curious to know about Hall’s.

Tom’s wouldn’t have suited me at all. Sent away to boarding school at the age of 13 – not to one of the great public schools: much too immoral – he was desperately unhappy, as his tear-stained letters to his parents attest. He was unathletic, and couldn’t see the point of his schoolmates’ childish games. ‘Tom will play at Homer,’ his sister Margaret remembered one of them complaining; and ‘I can’t play at Homer.’ Zachary was a hard taskmaster, burdening his precocious eldest son with huge expectations – he hoped that, with proper application, ‘a being might be formed who could regenerate the world’ – yet never encouraging him with any praise. ‘Fathers have flinty hearts,’ Tom was to observe later. The particular brand of Christianity that motivated the anti-slavery efforts for which Zachary is best known was also personally oppressive, with its image of a judgmental God overlooking our every move. The only affection Tom ever got was from his mother and sisters. When his mother and Margaret died he was bereft, but his sisters’ marriages upset him even more: he wrote a cruel letter to Margaret when she left him to become Mrs Cropper; and when she died of scarlet fever told his other favourite sister, Hannah, that he found Margaret’s ‘death a less trial than the living death of marriage’.

As an adult Tom was opinionated, boring in conversation – lecturing rather than discussing – and sometimes viciously insulting in his writing. He was not physically prepossessing: ‘a little man of small voice, and affected utterance’, as one contemporary described him, ‘clipping his words and hissing like a serpent’. It seems remarkable that he became so renowned as a parliamentary orator, but it must have been purely – rather like Churchill, perhaps – because of the literary quality of his speeches. Two of these, on parliamentary reform (2 March and 5 July 1831), are classics of the genre. He went on to become a famous essayist, usually hanging his own themes on the books he was supposed to be reviewing (but aren’t we all guilty of that?); something of a poet; and then – surprisingly – a legislator in India, with a clearly defined view of what would ‘improve’ the Indians, and some influence in this direction. That was before he decided to leave active politics and write his second great history book. (He’d already written ‘a compendium of Universal History’ at the age of eight.) One of his reasons may have been to escape from the traumas, as he saw them, of family life. The past was all done, finished, secure; it couldn’t let him down like his mother and siblings had. ‘In the dead there is no change.’ And it couldn’t answer back. (Surely there are signs of clinical depression here. Macaulay used to refer to his ‘blue devils’, which sound a bit like Churchill’s ‘black dog’.) Hence his immersion in the History of England: only a very short stretch of that history, as it happens, from 1685 to 1702, though with a substantial introduction dealing with ‘events leading up to’, and lots of obvious lessons for his own century.

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