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 from the family custody since the time when it had been used by Trevelyan. Reading these letters in their original form, I was interested to observe the subtle changes of text which Trevelyan had introduced. Such changes were justifiable by the editorial conventions, and perhaps by the necessities, of the time; but their cumulative effect was to confirm Trevelyan’s somewhat Olympian portrait. The reality was rather more abrasive, and suggested a less attractive, but perhaps more interesting, character.

I recall one particular passage. In Trevelyan’s printed text Macaulay is quoted as writing, “The article on the life of Moore is spiteful.” The real text is more forthright: “The article on Moore is Croker’s. It is dirty and spiteful; which is only saying in other words that it is Croker’s.” Croker, of course, was Macaulay’s bête noire. Trevelyan did not conceal the fact. But by repeated editorial expurgations and occasional unfair comments he contrived to reduce an apparently unprovoked and almost pathological hatred into a rational political and intellectual “disapproval” which has since “been confirmed by the public voice.” The real reason for Macaulay’s indecent vindictiveness against Croker is still mysterious. Mr. Pinney points out that it did not arise out of the debates on the Reform Bill. It is discernible at least as early as 1826. Perhaps, he suggests, Macaulay “saw and resented in Croker too many resemblances to himself: both were barristers who, without rank, had imposed themselves upon politics and society through their gifts as speakers and writers.” That is an observation which would not have occurred to Trevelyan.

But let us begin at the beginning. Trevelyan observed that, up to the age of thirty, Macaulay does not show much of his personality in his letters. There are reasons for this, to which we shall return. The first letter printed by Trevelyan was written when Macaulay was thirteen. Mr. Pinney can do better than that, and shows his hero at six, already a voracious reader: “I have read Homer, Virgil and Pindar…. I am reading Rollin”—that is, l’Histoire ancienne des Egyptiens—“the sixth volume.” A year later, we may remember, he began to write a compendium of universal history and a tract to convert to Christianity the Indians of Travancore. “The affection of the last generation of his relatives,” says Trevelyan, “has preserved all these pieces, but the piety of this generation will refrain from submitting them to public criticism.” There is much to be said for such piety. We could do without Macaulay’s undergraduate prize essay on William III, which he himself nearly burned, which Trevelyan improved by a summary paraphrase, and which the Times Literary Supplement uncharitably printed in full a few years ago.


In his childhood, as ever afterward, Macaulay was a confident critic, in literature as in politics. At fourteen, he dogmatizes on Napoleon, on Catholic Emancipation, and, of course, on the Slave Trade, his father’s great cause. In literature, he approves of the style, but not the character, of Cicero; deplores “the broad and shameless scepticism” of Hume; and finds Euripides “the vilest poet that ever put pen to paper.”

Most of Macaulay’s early letters are, naturally enough, to members of his family. Even after he had gone to Cambridge, there are few letters to outside friends. Indeed, in these two volumes, covering the first thirty-three years of his life, three-quarters of all the letters are within the family, and the remainder consist almost entirely of letters to his friend T. F. Ellis, with whom he exchanged reading lists of classical authors, and to Macvey Napier, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, concerning books to be noticed and essays to be written. Mr. Pinney laments the loss of Macaulay’s letters, over twenty-six years, to Francis Jeffrey, Napier’s predecessor as editor, and to Jeffrey’s son-in-law William Empson, in the 1820s, “when Macaulay was living in ambitious obscurity,” as also those to Sydney Smith and that other great social figure of the Holland House circle, Smith’s son-in-law, the fashionable physician Sir Henry Holland. All these letters, it seems, have been destroyed.

We may also lament the disappearance of any letters to his Cambridge contemporaries: particularly to Charles Austin, who converted him, while an undergraduate, to utilitarian radicalism, and who, according to Trevelyan, “was certainly the only man who ever succeeded in dominating Macaulay.” However, let us be content with what we have got. Family life, after all, as Mr. Clive has emphasized, meant much to Macaulay. Devoted though he would always remain to Cambridge, he was never in love with corporate college life. “I am no great admirer of this monastic life,” he wrote from Trinity college to Hannah More. “I love the cheerful blaze of a domestic hearth.” He would say the same, more eloquently and at greater length, in his essay on the London University eight years later.

What precisely, to Macaulay, was the charm of the domestic hearth? It did not, when he wrote these words, mean a peculiar devotion to his parents. His letters to his father and mother are dutiful rather than affectionate. Indeed, I would go further. Through his punctilious conformity (and he was always an outward conformist) we can discern a real rejection of the world of his parents. One sign of this is his attitude to the Quakers. On this subject he had, as is well known, almost an obsession, at least when he came to write his History. Trevelyan, as usual, slid gracefully over the subject. But these letters show that the obsession with the Quakers—like the obsession with Croker—was not the result of rational disagreement, of historical prejudice or error. It began very early. It probably began in the home.

Quakers were very close to the young Macaulay. His mother was the daughter of a Quaker bookseller and had Quaker relations. His father had Quaker friends: Quakers, like Clarkson and T. B. Forman, were prominent in the campaign against slavery. But every reference to Quakers in Macaulay’s private writings (and there are many) is clearly designed to ridicule the whole sect. Quakers in general are always figures of fun, who dress in drab and twirl their thumbs. Particular Quakers are always presented as absurd. James Cropper, the Quaker merchant and philanthropist of Liverpool, his father’s close friend and his brother’s employer, is always mentioned contemptuously as “the old Quaker.” Joseph Pease, the first Quaker member of Parliament, is held up to protracted ridicule and contempt as a sniveling hypocrite. When Macaulay’s sister Margaret married into the Cropper family, the bridegroom abandoned his Quakerism, and Macaulay’s letters to the bride seem designed to prevent, by ridicule, any danger of relapse. All this is long before the public historical libels on George Fox and William Penn which first exposed Macaulay as a hater of Quakers, and which now appear as the final eruption and rationalization of a long suppressed animosity against the whole tribe.


Macaulay’s hatred of the Quakers was a rejection of his mother’s world. He was equally hostile, as John Paget pointed out, in his devastating Examen (a work totally ignored by Trevelyan), to that of his father. Zachary Macaulay was a Scotch Highlander, an evangelical and a Tory, and the young Macaulay was brought up in a Tory evangelical circle. He was sent to a school recommended by the unctuous evangelical propagandist Charles Simeon. His companion there was the young William Wilberforce (see a delightful footnote in volume I, p. 14), who also afterward rebelled and became a Roman Catholic.

At first, Macaulay’s letters, naturally enough, exhale the atmosphere which he breathed. He read the History of the Church of Christ (five volumes) by his father’s evangelical friend James Milner. (Afterward he would refer to the author as “that stupid beast Milner.”) At fourteen he was appropriately shocked, not, as afterward, by the sophisticated Toryism, but by the “utter want of religious principle” in Hume’s History. Even at twenty-two he could write to his father in appropriate terms of cant (see a fine example in volume 1, p. 168). But soon all traces of the paternal inheritance would be discarded—except perhaps a missionary vehemence of style, which would be directed to a very different purpose. For the mature Macaulay would be a materialist in philosophy, utterly irreligious (however his conformity deceived his nephew), no great lover of “negrophils,” “the lampooner of the Highlands” (as Paget called him), and not even a Scotchman. At least, when writing to his sister from Paris, he could remark that “Lord Haddington was the only other Englishman besides myself.” Lord Haddington, of course, was also a Scotchman.

Altogether, the more we read of Macaulay’s uncensored private letters, the less we can accept the calm, Olympian, Whig portrait painted and exhibited by the Trevelyan family. Macaulay was a man not only of strong political prejudices but also of strong emotional hatreds—and loves. His love was concentrated, above all, on two of his sisters, Hannah and Margaret. Hannah was ten years, Margaret twelve years younger than he. It was to them that he wrote his best and warmest letters. These two volumes contain nearly two hundred letters to them, jointly or severally. The bulk of them are addressed to Hannah who, at that time, was still unmarried and who would afterward accompany him to India. These are the most quoted letters of Macaulay: those vivid letters in which he gives day-by-day accounts of his political and social success: the political excitement of the struggle for Reform and the splendid evenings at Holland House. They are vivid because they are love letters: the love letters of an extrovert who wishes those whom he loves to share his external triumphs. This, I suggest, is the explanation of the fact noticed by Trevelyan, that Macaulay’s letters do not show much personality before the age of thirty. It is only from that time that this reserved man opened his heart in the flow of letters to Hannah and Margaret.

The passionate nature of Macaulay’s affection for his two younger sisters was, naturally enough, concealed by Trevelyan, who was Hannah’s son. It has been set out, persuasively, by Mr. Clive, who of course made use of these documents. A distinguished English reviewer of Mr. Clive’s book pushed his argument aside rather brusquely. Macaulay’s grief on Margaret’s death in 1834 was, he suggested, merely conventional and needed no psychological interpretation. Such a view cannot survive the evidence here presented. Once again, it is interesting to note Trevelyan’s textual emendations. Where Macaulay wrote “Dearest Nancy,” “my dearest girl,” and “dearest love,” Trevelyan substituted “Dear Hannah” and “My dear sister.”

It is fair to say that Trevelyan’s selection and adjustment of Macaulay’s text does not conceal, from a careful reader, the true character of the man. Mr. A. O. J. Cockshut has shown this in the admirable essay on “Trevelyan’s Macaulay,” which he included in his study of nineteenth-century biography, Truth to Life. But these letters make the facts explicit, and in so doing they subtly transform Macaulay’s career. Instead of the effortless progress of a man of remarkable natural ability through English politics and Indian administration to spectacular success as a historian, we see a life which is at once more emotionally disturbed and more interesting. Macaulay’s relations with his parents and his sisters, his social success, his literary studies, his political ideals, all appear less smooth, less automatic, in this naked presentation, than under the bland, continuous narrative of the nephew who, far more than the uncle, was “born a Whig.”

When these two volumes end, Macaulay was preparing to sail for India. His literary and political triumphs—his early essays in the Edinburgh Review, his parliamentary speeches on the Reform Bill—were behind him. His career as administrator and historian was still to come. Thus the letters illustrate the period of ascent—and also the perplexities which accompanied that ascent: perplexities which were both social and intellectual.

Macaulay’s social success, in those years, had indeed been phenomenal. Created by his essays, confirmed by his speeches, it was sealed, in July 1831, by his entry into the citadel of the Whig political and intellectual elite, Holland House. Macaulay had first met the formidable Lady Holland two months earlier, at the use of Lord Lansdowne. Lansdowne was a Whig grandee who was also a disciple of Bentham and, as an abolitionist, a friend of Zachary Macaulay. He had provided the young Macaulay with his first parliamentary seat, his own pocket-borough of Calne, and it was as member for Calne that Macaulay had made the speech which brought him fame and opened all doors to him.

Lady Holland began with some reservations: Macaulay, she remarked, was ugly and rather plebeian, and of course he was the son of a well-known abolitionist (Lady Holland could not forget that she was herself a West India slave owner). However, as a greedy political hostess, she could not afford to overlook this young lion, and after the meeting at Lansdowne House, the invitation soon followed. Macaulay, of course, was delighted by it, and his letters to his sisters glow with that delight: “Well, I have been to Holland House…. I took a glass coach and arrived, through a fine avenue of elms, at the great entrance, towards seven o’clock”; and again, “I dined yesterday at Holland House: all Lords except myself.”

Holland House made Macaulay socially. He became a favorite of the family. But he did not lose his head. Publicly, he paid the necessary homage; but in his private letters he painted a candid portrait of Lady Holland. She was tough and unfeminine, “a violent, weak, imperious woman,” commanding her husband, humiliating her guests and toadies, flying into rages. Macaulay had to put up with several such scenes—scenes when he did not toe the party line as dictated, scenes when he abandoned London for Calcutta. That was the price of a social success which brought him, at a bound, into the grandest Whig circle.

It also made possible his literary success. From the point of view of Holland House, Macaulay was not only a valuable political ally: he was also the long-sought man of letters, the successor to Sir James Mackintosh. For Mackintosh had also been a habitué of Holland House, and had been groomed as the historian of the Whig party. He had never completed his History; but he had made a vast and precious collection of transcripts from original state papers, and it was through Lady Holland that Macaulay would afterward obtain access to those papers. Holland House also contained the transcripts made by Lord Holland’s uncle, Charles James Fox, from the French archives. But for his attendance at Holland House, Macaulay might never have written his History. It was worth eating delicious dinners in the best Whig society, and flattering a tyrannical hostess, for that.

It was also worth making a few sacrifices of historical integrity. Henry Fox, first Lord Holland, the father of Charles James Fox and grandfather of Macaulay’s host, had been a notoriously corrupt politician in the reign of George II. In his essay on Horace Walpole, Macaulay could not avoid touching upon him. He was not sure, he told his sister, that Lord and Lady Holland would be pleased, but he hoped that they would recognize his courtesy in refraining, for their sake, from telling the truth about “that old rogue.” Alas, his courtesy gained him nothing: Lady Holland was “in a violent rage” about it. Later, he would be equally tactful about the Hollands’ obsequious and ostentatious cult of Napoleon, whom they visited and courted in his greatness and cosseted after his fall. They sent him parcels of linen, wine, eau de Cologne, to St. Helena. Lord Holland kept a bust of him at Holland House, with an appropriate inscription from Homer, chosen by himself; and to Lady Holland Napoleon would bequeath an inscribed silver snuff box. All this was gracefully concealed by Macaulay under two words: “imprudently generous.” Even so, the essay was not appreciated by the family: it was held to be “lukewarm, and in singularly poor taste.”

By that time, Macaulay perhaps did not mind; for we are now outside the range of these first two volumes, and by then he had chosen his own aim in life. It was to be in literature, not in politics or society. Indeed, Macaulay’s intoxication with high society was commendably brief. Already in the summer of 1833, after two years of such success as would have turned the strongest head, he was telling his sister that high life no longer charmed him, that political ambition was now dead in him, and that now he had no need of “these luxuries.” “I remember that, two years ago, I used to fill my letters with accounts of the people with whom I dined. High life was new to me then.” Now “my pen is sufficient for my support, and my Nancy is sufficient for my happiness”; and again,

the tories are quite welcome to take everything, if they will only leave me my pen and my books, a warm fireside, and my Nancy chattering beside it. This sort of philosophy I have learned where most people unlearn all their philosophy, in crowded senates and fine drawing-rooms. I will say for myself that I am the only parvenu I ever heard of who, after being courted into splendid circles, and after having succeeded beyond expectation in political life, acquired in a few months a profound contempt for rank, fashion, power, popularity and money—for all pleasures, in short, but those which arise from the exercise of the intellect and the affections.

That theme would recur in later letters: it represents the true Macaulay, and redeems everything.

This is a beautiful edition, a model for all editors. The introduction tells us all that we need to know; the notes are economical, informative, and pungent; the format elegant. It is a pleasure to handle and to read. I fear that I have been late to read it. I hope that this will enable me to read straight on into volumes III and IV—the letters from India.

This Issue

October 16, 1975