Victorian Literature Thomas Babington Macaulay
by
Edward Adams
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0176

Introduction

Thomas Babington Macaulay (b. 1800–d. 1859) accumulated an unprecedented series of successes—both in sales and critical acclaim—as an English poet, essayist, orator, and, most triumphantly, historian. In addition, he presided over important though controversial reforms in education and law in India and served as a leading politician at home in Parliament and an influential figure abroad for the British East India Company. Like his contemporary and antithesis Thomas Carlyle, to whom he is often contrasted, Macaulay has suffered an equally remarkable descent. In the twenty-first century, much of the shrinking scholarly attention has turned frankly judgmental, especially regarding his role in first helping build and then loudly celebrating a liberal capitalist Britain and British Empire as the then acme (in his eyes) of Western progressive civilization. The question of the reasons for Macaulay’s lifetime successes and posthumous reversals runs through much Macaulay scholarship. The 20th-century turn against grand or totalizing historical narratives, particularly of progress, has produced a context in which Macaulay’s championing of this narrative, indeed his nationalist embodiment of it, has steadily worked against not for him. Considerable scholarly work, moreover, has explored his famously clear, highly rhetorical, and smoothly narrative style—popularizing qualities that originally elevated his fame but soon helped consign him to a sub-canonical status. As his career developed from his essays (mostly novella-length biographies of English literary and political figures), his influential speeches (above all, in support of the First Reform Bill), and his popular historical ballads and thence toward his systematic planning for a long epic history, Macaulay’s aspiration was to join the select club of great narrative historians. The ancient Greek Thucydides emerged as his favorite, and Macaulay seemed poised to become the English Thucydides of the Napoleonic Wars abroad and political reform at home—for both of which he had been an observer and participant. Instead, he designed a far more ambitious project. His History of England, whose sales broke records in England and then America, would sweep from the 17th-century Glorious Revolution to the 19th-century Reform Bill. Such Humean or Gibbonian grandeur combined with cutting-edge novelistic detailing enabled by his archival work proved impossibly ambitious. But here, too, his history’s unfinished state and the story of its evolution have become subjects of fascinating inquiry into Macaulay’s central lifework.

Editions

Macaulay’s decline from immense popularity, critical attention, and canonicity appears most vividly in the dearth of modern critical editions. Important exceptions to this rule are the excellent (and relatively recent) editions of his letters and journals, which will therefore be treated separately under Letters and Journals. In contrast to historiographical rivals in English literature such as Edward Gibbon, whose Decline and Fall boasts several magnificent critical editions (and important translations) from the early nineteenth century through the late twentieth, or Thomas Carlyle, whose French Revolution is available in a 21st-century critical edition from Oxford, Macaulay’s history, essays, poems, and speeches—once they appeared in Macaulay 1866, a collected (but hardly complete) edition overseen by his sister Hannah More (Lady Trevelyan) after his death—have been neglected, only reappearing in school editions, severely selected editions, or, in the case of his History of England, one illustrated and one annotated edition, both of which are now long dated and out of print and, more to the point, based on Lady Trevelyan’s original—thus nothing approaching updated critical edition status. To stress a key takeaway: scholars of Gibbon’s history should always begin with and cite David Womersley’s definitive critical edition of 1996, even as there is still much worthy of close consultation in the 19th-century critical editions by the leading scholar-historians Henry Hart Milman in 1838 and then J. B. Bury in 1898, while students of Macaulay’s History of England might prefer the version found in Lady Trevelyan’s original collected edition, Macaulay 1866 (or the same text repackaged into a larger format with superior material quality in 1898). It remains acceptable to cite almost any of the various editions issued by numerous presses in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, since none are obviously superior. Macaulay 1842, Macaulay 1843, Macaulay 1848, and Macaulay 1854 are important editions overseen by Macaulay himself. Macaulay 1866 remains the standard edition by his chosen successor-editor, his sister Lady Trevelyan. Macaulay 1853, Macaulay 1860b, and Macaulay 1968 represent some of the most important of the small number of selections that have been carefully edited by someone other than Macaulay or his sister. Finally, Macaulay 1977 is the result of a major discovery in the bowels of Macaulay’s publisher Longmans of a long-lost portion of an unfinished history of Napoleon’s fall and the restoration of the Bourbons.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Lays of Ancient Rome. London: Longmans, 1842.

    New edition with “Ivry” and “The Armada” published 1848 (London: Longmans). In addition to his famous lays, Macaulay wrote undergraduate prize poems and published several ballads, songs, and scenes in Knight’s Quarterly Magazine. McKelvy 2007 (under Construction of a Modern Reading Public) has a bibliography listing these hard to access juvenilia.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Critical and Historical Essays, Contributed to the Edinburgh Review. 3 vols. London: Longmans, 1843.

    Essays selected and edited by Macaulay but not a complete set of his Edinburgh essays.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England from the Accession of James II. Vols. 1–2. London: Longmans, 1848.

    Dated 1849. Volumes 3 and 4 appeared in 1853, and a final fifth volume was left unfinished but published posthumously in 1861, though Macaulay did manage to push the narrative through to the death of his hero William III. Numerous editions from various 19th-century American publishers are based off these original five volumes.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Speeches, Parliamentary and Miscellaneous. 2 vols. Edited by Henry Vizetelly. London: Henry Vizetelly, 1853.

    Viewed as unreliable by Macaulay and thus his “corrected” edition of the speeches (Macaulay 1854); still well worth consulting about alternative versions of the speeches, which may appear in this edition in a form closer to what Macaulay originally delivered.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Speeches of the Right Honorable T.B. Macaulay, M.P., Corrected by Himself. London: Longmans, 1854.

    Macaulay labored over this edition of twenty-nine speeches. It distracted him from progress on his history but was seen as a necessary response to flawed versions published in the early 1850s without Macaulay’s permission (see Macaulay 1853). Macaulay’s corrected versions do not present verbatim versions of what he delivered orally.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Biographies by Lord Macaulay Contributed to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Edinburgh: Black, 1860a.

    It includes all five of the long entries contributed by Macaulay in the 1850s. Some of them continued being used by this encyclopedia into the second half of the twentieth century. This edition also includes selected highlights from his speeches.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Miscellaneous Writings of Lord Macaulay. 2 vols. Edited by T. F. Ellis. London: Longmans, 1860b.

    This edition is valuable for including Macaulay’s early contributions to Knight’s Quarterly—both prose and verse.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The Works of Lord Macaulay. 8 vols. Edited by Lady Trevelyan. London: Longmans, 1866.

    The standard edition reprinted in various formats. It is not complete, especially regarding his poetry, essays, and speeches.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The History of England. Edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper. London: Penguin, 1968.

    This is the only edition of the History currently (in 2022) available from a major press. It is an abridgment down to approximately 25 percent of the whole and is valuable for being the work of a distinguished Macaulay scholar and narrative historian. The introduction provides a succinct overview of Macaulay’s life and writings and, appended to it, a review of editions of his works.

  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Napoleon and the Restoration of the Bourbons. Edited by Joseph Hamburger. London: Longman, 1977.

    Invaluable for showing Macaulay’s early ambition to write a major history of modern France. It also establishes that Macaulay’s scope always looked to a historical narrative that would end by reaching his historical and political moment. See especially Hamburger’s preface (pp. vii–ix) for the archival romance behind the finding of this text.

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