Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Those Historical Laurels Which Once Graced My Brow Are Now in Their Wane": Catharine Macaulay's Last Years and Legacy

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Those Historical Laurels Which Once Graced My Brow Are Now in Their Wane": Catharine Macaulay's Last Years and Legacy

Article excerpt

IN HER A VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN (1792), MARY Wollstonecraft praises her predecessor, Catharine Macaulay. Wollstonecraft deems Macaulay, who had died the previous year, "the woman of the greatest abilities" ever produced by Great Britain and expresses grief at her passing: "When I first thought of writing these strictures I anticipated Mrs. Macaulay's approbation, with a little of the sanguine ardour, which it has been the business of my life to depress; but soon heard with the sickly qualm of disappointed hope; and the still seriousness of regret--that she was no more!" (1) Angry that there has not been "sufficient respect ... paid to her memory," Wollstonecraft expresses confidence that where Macaulay is concerned, "posterity ... will be more just" (Vindication 105). Recent critics have made much of Wollstonecraft's prediction, particularly because for many years posterity was not just. Those who remembered Macaulay moved from excoriating her to lamenting her having been forgotten, a process that Wollstonecraft also endured.

Wollstonecraft, at least, has found justice. Her complete works were published a decade ago, and it is difficult to open any anthology or encyclopedia of the romantic period without locating extended reference to her life and writings. (2) Macaulay's re-emergence has been more belated, despite the fact that the two women had much in common. (3) Both espoused radical politics. Both published angry responses to Edmund Burke and treatises on women's education. Both led lives that engendered public scandal. Wollstonecraft's is famously filled with daring and disastrous events, tragically cut short, but Macaulay's, which also had its share of infamy, seems in comparison more stable and less pitiful. She wrote a history of England that reached 3,549 pages, and she reached 60 years of age, dying on 22 June 1791 after "a long and very painful illness." (4) Although she was frequently in poor health, she was apparently never poor. After her first husband's death, Macaulay surrounded herself with a band of toadies whose fulsome actions on her behalf are difficult to embrace. Her defying act of love was to marry again, at the age of 47. The surprising choice was William Graham, a 21-year-old surgeon's mate who was the younger brother of her quack doctor. The match was, by all indications, a happy one, but it has proved difficult for subsequent critics to package as a heroic act.

It might be argued that Macaulay's reemergence has been slower than Wollstonecraft's, not only because her life is less easily romanticized, but because she chose genres that have not traveled well across the centuries. Macaulay "lacked but one claim to a central position" in the period, according to Margaret Kirkham: "she was not a novelist." (5) Nor was she a poet. Her historiography--perhaps wrongly--has not been lauded for its literary merit or its formal innovation. Additionally, she did not survive far into the 1790s, a decade during which her political views, though they would have brought her a great deal of trouble, might also have placed her in circles now lionized and scrutinized by scholars of the romantic period. Macaulay was certainly a kind of foremother for Wollstonecraft.

Several important essays have been published considering the immense influence of Macaulay on Wollstonecraft, most examining their respective positions on women's rights. (6) The recent emergence of two formerly unknown letters between Wollstonecraft and Macaulay definitively establishes what many suspected--that the two women were in contact. (7) Wollstonecraft also favorably reviewed one of Macaulay's last works, Letters on Education (1790). (8) These connections suggest Macaulay's importance to the French Revolutionary era, despite the fact that her life did not extend very far into it. But as new evidence illustrates, at the end of her life Macaulay felt her authorial power slipping away and despaired of maintaining an audience. …

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