Macaulay, Thackeray, and Trollope.

Andrew Sanders

The most persuasive and influential Victorian advocate of gradual political evolution, firmly rooted in national history, was Thomas Babbington Macaulay (1800-59), created Baron Macaulay in 1857. Macaulay first made his reputation through the essays on literature, history, and politics published in the Edinburgh Review between 1825 and 1844. These essays reveal a probing mind, with clearly defined tastes and antipathies. The same qualities mark the five volumes of his monumental History of England published between 1848 and 1861. The History had an immediate popular impact, selling three thousand copies of its first two volumes within ten days of their publication and thirteen thousand in four months. Its title has always been recognized as a misnomer, for Macaulay skims over medieval and Tudor history as a mere prelude to his real subject, the revolutions of the seventeenth century and, in particular, the origins and constitutional effects of the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688. Perhaps as a result of the impact of the Waverley Novels (which Macaulay saw as having ‘appropriated’ something of the province of the historian) his volumes are as much concerned with the affairs of Scotland and Ireland as they are with England. The Scott whom Macaulay so jealously admired also influenced the manner in which grand evocations of ‘local colour’, sweeping setpiece description, and careful character analysis are redirected back into non-fictional narrative, or, as many readers might still have seen it, into the ‘higher’ art of history writing. As a narrative The History of England is compelling; its heroes and its villains are placed and defined and the larger life of the nation, working and creating beyond the court and the power brokers, is steadily adumbrated. Macaulay’s pellucid style, balancing long clausal sentences with punchy short ones and rhetorically inviting reader participation in the explicatory process, demands assent to his overarching argument. That argument, which insists that the history of England was ‘emphatically the history of progress ... the history of a constant movement of the public mind, of a constant change in the institutions of a great society’, powerfully served to reassure liberal Victorian England, and by extension, Scotland and Ireland, of the rightness of their historic evolution and of their constitutional singularity.