Macaulay's History of England and the Dilemmas of Liberal Epic

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This essay surveys Macaulay's early literary and cultural ambitions as he outlined them in the 1820s and then his later successes of the 1850s. It focuses primarily upon his efforts to recast neoclassical epic narrative and ideology for a modern liberal readership and to challenge the growing dominance of the novel. After establishing the cultural context for Macaulay's literary and historical plans, efforts, and final achievements, the argument turns to the tension between, on the one hand, his history's mid-Victorian, progressive, and liberal ideology and, on the other, its traditional epic presumptions--in particular, his history's need to preserve the ideal of heroic individual agency and to celebrate the war victories of its central actor, William III. Finally, as a detailed case study of the workings of this basic tension, the essay takes up a reading of chapter 12 of the history: its sources, its rhetoric, and its representative relation to the larger history. Widely regarded as one of the finest of Macaulay's chapters, one that he labored over with particular care, chapter 12 typifies the basic unit of his narrative art, even as it offers up a deeply vexed account of the liberal conquest of Ireland.

I. Macaulay's Greatness in Theory

Woodstock, as we have seen, placed upwards of 8,000 pounds in the hands of Sir Walter's creditors. The Napoleon (first and second editions) produced for them a sum which it startles me to mention 18,000 pounds. (2:576)

J.G. Lockhart, The Life of Sir Walter Scott (1838)

December 12, 1848.--Longman called. A new edition of 3,000 copies is preparing as fast as they can work. I have reason to be pleased. Of [Scott's] Lay of the Last Minstrel two thousand two hundred and fifty copies were sold in the first year; of Marmion two thousand copies in the first month; of my book three thousand copies in the first ten days. Black says there has been no such sale since the days of Waverley. (2:161)

November 11, 1857.--Huzza! Good news! Lucknow relieved. Delhi ours. The old dotard a prisoner. God be praised! Another letter from Longman. They have already sold 7,600 copies. This is near 6,000 pounds, as I reckon, in my pocket. But it gratified me, I am glad to be able to say with truth, far, very far, less than the Indian news. I could hardly eat my dinner for joy. (2:284)

G.O. Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (1876)

Macaulay' s History of England (1848-61) was and remains one of the most spectacular tales of bestsellerdom in publishing history. (1) Sometimes said to have been outsold in America only by the Bible--a curious mythical status it now seems to share with the Da Vinci Code--The History of England's unprecedented numbers remain a substantial fact (Plumb 255). (2) It is probably the one thing about it (other than that its 2,000+ pages, divided into twenty-five chapters and spread over five volumes, really tell the narrower history of the reigns of James II and William III, of the events leading up to and following from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, of the struggle for freedom first against the Stuarts within England and then against Louis XIV's France in Europe) still well known--but, of course, only then to serious students of English literature. When another, nearly as momentous publishing event, Edward Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-88), burst upon the literary and historical scene, Gibbon cautiously insinuated himself into a triumvirate of historians along with David Hume and William Robertson (Gibbon 114). For Gibbon, this new tradition demonstrated that British literature could at last boast of historian-writers worthy of comparison with the best from other major European and Classical literatures in a genre that vied with epic and tragedy in the highest ranks of the classical literary hierarchy. In short, to be a great historian was to stand at the summit of literary and cultural achievement. …