Macaulay and Son: Architects
of imperial Britain
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THE magisterial History of England by Thomas Babington
Macaulay became an instant bestseller when its first two volumes
were published in 1848. It has remained in print ever since, and is
still an immensely readable Victorian classic.
Less is known about the author than about the book. It is one of
the aims of Catherine Hall, Professor of History at University
College, London, to tell, in her brilliant joint biography, the
ways in which Tom Macaulay was influenced by his father, Zachary, a
leading opponent of slavery.
Zachary was a life-long champion of the "poor negro", whose
plight he had witnessed first in Jamaica and then in Sierra Leone.
A devout Evangelical, he was a member of the prestigious Clapham
Sect, and, after his return to England in 1799, he helped to set up
the Church Missionary Society. For the rest of his life, he
remained devoted to the abolitionist cause.
His son Tom, the future historian, soon emerged as a lad of
promise: from his earliest years, he showed an extraordinary
for words. He was also much admired ("worshipped", Hall says) by
his mother and siblings. Anyone who thinks of Tom as stern-faced
and unemotional, however, is in for a shock. Hall reveals him as
besotted in his affection for two of his sisters, Margaret and
Hannah. He never married, and these two sisters provided him with
emotional substitutes for a wife.
His feelings for them are astonishingly intimate. "The affection
I bear to you and Hannah", he told Margaret, "is the source of the
greatest enjoyment I have in the world.
It is my strongest feeling. It is that which will determine
the whole course of my life." Their relationship, Hall says,
"was apparently unsullied by fears of sexual conflict".
The news of Margaret's engagement came as a devastating blow to
Tom - writing to her, he could "scarcely see the paper for
weeping". Yet another blow came when Hannah, whom he had persuaded,
much against her will, to accompany him to India (where he was to
take up a post on the Supreme Council), also became engaged, soon
after her arrival in Calcutta. Although Tom went through the
motions of approving the match, he told Margaret that his soul was
"sorrowful even unto death". She never read the letter, having died
of scarlet fever before it arrived - one more affliction for poor
Tom to bear.
It was literature that saved him from going out of his mind. He
threw himself into his writing: his History, his numerous
essays, and his poetical Lays of Ancient Rome. There was
also his political career. He had first been elected an MP in 1830,
and had soon emerged as a rising light of the Whig government,
fully in favour of its proposed reforms. But, of course, it is the
History that has immortalised him.
His relations with his father were not always easy. He was never
an enthusiastic abolitionist like Zachary, although he had
impressed his audience with a powerful speech that he had made at a
public meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society in 1824.
Macaulay and Son is a fascinating account of two
masterful men who, in their very different ways, made their mark on
If the son is still remembered, and the father forgotten, at
least Hall has now put the latter on the literary map. His
Evangelical humanitarianism is fruitfully contrasted with his son's
liberal imperialism. And Hall's own narrative ability is fully
worthy of that son.
Dr Palmer is a former editor of the Church Times.