The Real Macaulay

The Letters of Macaulay Volumes I and II

edited by Thomas Pinney
Cambridge University Press, Vol. II, 383 pp., $31.50 each volume

Thomas Macaulay
Thomas Macaulay; drawing by David Levine

All the great Victorians are now emerging from their shrouds: from those heavy integuments, those discreet, laudatory, two-volume biographies, in which they were still piously wrapped when they were discovered and insulted by the nimble buzz-flies of Bloomsbury. Macaulay was sealed up for almost a century in the family vault of the Trevelyans in Northumberland, just as Gibbon had been sealed up, body as well as works, in the family vault of the earls of Sheffield in Sussex; and the profane world was allowed to see only so much of them as was thought good by three generations of these hereditary custodians. What was thought good, in the case of Macaulay, was contained in The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, published in 1876 by his nephew, Sir George Otto Trevelyan.

Trevelyan was a scholar, a gentleman, and a Whig, and he presented his uncle (a scholar who became a Whig—indeed who helped to create the Whig philosophy for his nephew to inherit), as far as possible, in his own terms. That is, he showed him as an almost mechanically perfect Whig statesman-historian, a devoted son, an affectionate brother, uncle, and friend. This portrait was based, first, on a mass of letters addressed to his own family, and second, on Macaulay’s diaries and other correspondence—which however was relatively thin, for Macaulay, it seems, systematically destroyed all the letters which he received, once he had answered them, and also all those of his own letters which happened to come back to him. Trevelyan’s political and intellectual portrait could of course be questioned at the time, from public sources: Macaulay, after all, was a public man and, being a strong partisan, had inevitably incurred public criticism. One of the best contemporary accounts of him was written, as a review of Trevelyan’s work, by his fellow statesman W. E. Gladstone.

Where Trevelyan’s account was protected from scrutiny was in what we may call the private sector, covered by the family papers. These were kept firmly from other investigators. When S. C. Roberts suggested to Trevelyan’s son, George Macaulay Trevelyan, that the diary might be published, that eminent historian surprised him by the vigor of his reaction: “I’m not going to have those Bloomsbury people laughing at my great-uncle!” However, since G. M. Trevelyan’s death in 1962, the Macaulay papers have been available to scholars in Trinity College, Cambridge, and fortunately “those Bloomsbury people” are now extinct. So John Clive was able to make use of the papers for his excellent account of Macaulay’s life up to his return from India. Now Mr. Clive’s new version of the Life has been followed by a fuller collection of the Letters edited by Mr. Thomas Pinney.

I have long looked forward to such a collection. Some ten years ago, in the Huntington Library in California, I came across a volume of Macaulay’s letters which had somehow escaped…

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