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Whig family-history double act

by
23 November 2012

Bernard Palmer reads a new book about the Macaulays

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Macaulay and Son: Architects of imperial Britain
Catherine Hall
Yale £35
(978-0-300-16023-9)
Church Times Bookshop £31.50 (Use code CT517 )

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 capacity

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 British society.

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.

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