Monday, December 28, 2009

Such an idle man

Today is the 150th anniversary of the death of Thomas Babington Macaulay, politician, writer and historian. He served two shorts terms as a high-level minister in the Whig governments of the 1840s, but is best remembered for his learned and innovative History of England. However, he also wrote much else besides, essays and poems, and he kept a diary. Although not published in full until 2008 (and at a price!), it was quoted frequently by Macaulay’s nephew in a 19th century biography. More of Macaulay’s character, however, is revealed in extracts from the diary of his sister, Margaret, who writes often of Macaulay complaining about his own idleness.

Macaulay was born in Leicestershire in 1800, and studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became friends with Lord Grey and Charles Austin, and developed an interest in utilitarianism. Significantly, his father, Zachary Macaulay, had been a colonial governor and was an active anti-slavery campaigner. After university, Macaulay began contributing to the Edinburgh Review, was called to the bar, and, in 1830, was elected to Parliament (for a pocket borough, thanks to Lord Lansdowne), where he distinguished himself as an orator.

In the mid-1830s, Macaulay went to India to serve on the Supreme Council, apparently because it was a lucrative job and his father was in debt. Partly because of his role in reforming the education system there and in developing the use of English language, people born of Indian ancestry but who adopted a Western lifestyle came to be known - disrespectfully - as ‘Macaulay’s Children’. On his return to Britain, he was elected to Parliament again, this time for Edinburgh, and was appointed Secretary of War in 1839 by Lord Melbourne, a post he held till the fall of Melbourne’s government in 1841; he also served as Paymaster-General between 1846 and 1848.

Thereafter, Macaulay focused on writing The History of England from the Accession of James II, five volumes of which were published to great acclaim between 1848 and 1855. In 1857, Lord Palmerston made him a lord. He died on 28 December 1859 - a century and a half ago today. Some further information is available at Victorian Web, Wikipedia, the Age-of-the-Sage, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

For some of the last twenty years of his life, Macaulay kept a diary. He began it in 1838 to record a tour of Italy, and continued for a short while after that, but then the habit lapsed in mid-1839 once he had returned to Parliament and become a minister. He restarted writing a diary in late 1848, and wrote in it more or less regularly from then until five days before his death. The original manuscripts are kept at Trinity College.

Although the diaries were used extensively by George Otto Trevelyan, Macaulay’s nephew, in writing Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, published in the mid-1870s, they were only published in their own right for the first time in 2008 by Pickering and Chatto. The five volume set - The Journals of Thomas Babington Macaulay - was edited by William Thomas and costs a mere £450.

Macaulay, it seems, was acutely aware of the verdict of posterity and would not publish anything not carefully revised and polished, but, the publisher says, his masks were were put aside when writing the journal. Moreover, since he knew the leading Liberal politicians of the day, as well as many writers and scholars (not least Thackeray and Dickens), the diaries are a ‘valuable resource for researchers interested in the mid-nineteenth-century British political and cultural landscape’.

The full text of William Thomas’s introduction to the Journals, as well as 16 pages of diary entries from the first volume, taken from Pickering and Chatto’s website. Here is Macaulay waxing lyrical on the sites of Genoa.

31 October 1838
‘One of the most remarkable days of my life. A day of interest and enjoyment. We were not required to be on board of the steamer again till six in the evening. Soon after seven in the morning I was in the streets of Genoa. Never had I been more struck and delighted. The Strada Balbi, the Strada Nuovissima, above all the Strada NuovĂ  quite enchanted me. Nothing mean or small to break the charm. One huge massy towering palace after another - forming an assemblage in which the finest houses of London would have seemed contemptible. What would Northumberland House, Lansdowne House, or Norfolk House have been there? Change Northumberland House from brick to variegated marble, and raise it to twice its present height and it might perhaps pass muster as a second-rate palace in Genoa. The vestibules beautiful - the flights of marble steps and the colonnades within far superior to anything in London or Paris. True it is that none of these magnificent piles is a strikingly good architectural composition. But the general effect is majestic beyond description. . .

I went over the Royal Palace - both that I might see the interior of one of these superior mansions, and that I might see the famous Paul Veronese. The house is very noble - magnificent flights of steps of the finest marble - long suites of gilded rooms - galleries adorned with a profusion of glasses - and many good pictures and tolerable sculptures. Of the pictures the Paul Veronese of Mary Magdalene anointing the feet of Christ is by far the most celebrated. . . The softness of Mary’s hands is much admired but there is no use in lying to one’s own self and I must say that I want taste to see the transcendant merit of the picture. The expression of the two principal countenances is quite insipid. Mary might be washing her hands and Christ might be sitting to be measured for shoes. There is no love or adoration on her side, nor has he the air of a superior being accepting graciously a sacrifice offered by sincere reverence and affection. The dog under the table is, I think, as well painted and seems as much interested in what is going on as any other character in the piece. . .

The terrace of the palace commands an incomparable view of the city, the port, the shipping and the Mediterranean. The sun was bright and the sea blue so that I saw this fine sight with every advantage.

Next to the huge palaces of Genoa - or rather quite as much as those palaces I admired the Churches - not outside for they are mean and bad, and are seldom so high as the stately houses which surround them, but the interior dazzled and pleased me more than I can express. It was like the awakening of a new sense. It was the discovery of a new pleasure. I had drawn all my notions of classical interiors of churches from such buildings as St Paul’s and St Genevieve’s - cold, white, naked edifices, fine undoubtedly, but without richness and variety. I now found that the classical orders might be used in such a manner as to produce the most gorgeous effects - that an outline like that of St Genevieve might be filled up with all the richest colouring of Rogers’s painted cabinets. The first church door that I opened at Genoa let me into a new world. Variegated marbles, gildings - paintings in fresco occupied every inch. One harmonious glow pervaded the whole of the long Corinthian arcade from the entrance to the altar. These Churches, I am told, do not stand high among Italian Churches, but their effect on me was very great, particularly the effect of the Church of the Annunziata and of the Church of San Siro. I hardly know which of those two I liked the more. In this way I passed the day, greatly excited and delighted. . .’

And here are a few diary extracts culled from the Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay which is freely available online, at Fullbooks for example.

8 April 1849
‘Lichfield. Easter Sunday. After the service was ended we went over the Cathedral. When I stood before the famous children by Chantrey, I could think only of one thing; that, when last I was there, in 1832, my dear sister Margaret was with me and that she was greatly affected. I could not command my tears and was forced to leave our party, and walk about by myself.’

August 1857
‘I sent the carriage home, and walked to the Museum. Passing through Great Ormond Street I saw a bill upon No 50. I knocked, was let in, and went over the house with a strange mixture of feelings. It is more than twenty-six years since I was in it. The dining-room, and the adjoining room, in which I once slept, are scarcely changed - the same colouring on the wall, but more dingy. My father’s study much the same; - the drawing-rooms too, except the papering. My bedroom just what it was. My mother’s bedroom. I had never been in it since her death. I went away sad.’

8 July 1858
‘Motley called. I like him much. We agree wonderfully well about slavery, and it is not often that I meet any person with whom I agree on that subject. For I hate slavery from the bottom of my soul; and yet I am made sick by the cant and the silly mock reasons of the Abolitionists. The nigger driver and the negrophile are two odious things to me.’

8 August 1859
‘We passed my old acquaintance, Dumbarton castle, I remembered my first visit to Dumbarton, and the old minister, who insisted on our eating a bit of cake with him, and said a grace over it which might have been prologue to a dinner of the Fishmongers’ Company, or the Grocers’ Company.’

Also in Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay can be found some revealing diary entries about ‘Tom’ Macaulay, when still a young man his early 30s, by his sister, Margaret.

3 March 1831
‘Yesterday morning Hannah and I walked part of the way to his chambers with Tom, and, as we separated, I remember wishing him good luck and success that night. He went through it most triumphantly, and called down upon himself admiration enough to satisfy even his sister. I like so much the manner in which he receives compliments. He does not pretend to be indifferent, but smiles in his kind and animated way, with ‘I am sure it is very kind of you to say so,’ or something of that nature. His voice from cold and over-excitement got quite into a scream towards the last part. A person told him that he had not heard such speaking since Fox. ‘You have not heard such screaming since Fox,’ he said.’

24 March 1831
‘By Tom’s account, there never was such a scene of agitation as the House of Commons presented at the passing of the second reading of the Reform Bill the day before yesterday, or rather yesterday, for they did not divide till three or four in the morning. When dear Tom came the next day he was still very much excited, which I found to my cost, for when I went out to walk with him he walked so very fast that I could scarcely keep up with him at all. With sparkling eyes he described the whole scene of the preceding evening in the most graphic manner.

‘I suppose the Ministers are all in high spirits,’ said Mamma. ‘In spirits, Ma’am? I’m sure I don’t know. In bed, I’ll answer for it.’ Mamma asked him for franks, that she might send his speech to a lady who, though of high Tory principles, is very fond of Tom, and has left him in her will her valuable library. ‘Oh, no,’ he said, ‘don’t send it. If you do, she’ll cut me off with a prayer-book.’

Tom is very much improved in his appearance during the last two or three years. His figure is not so bad for a man of thirty as for a man of twenty-two. He dresses better, and his manners, from seeing a great deal of society, are very much improved. When silent and occupied in thought, walking up and down the room as he always does, his hands clenched and muscles working with the intense exertion of his mind, strangers would think his countenance stern; but I remember a writing-master of ours, when Tom had come into the room and left it again, saying, ‘Ladies, your brother looks like a lump of good-humour!’

30 March 1831
‘Tom has just left me, after a very interesting conversation. He spoke of his extreme idleness. He said: ‘I never knew such an idle man as I am. When I go in to Empson or Ellis their tables are always covered with books and papers. I cannot stick at anything for above a day or two. I mustered industry enough to teach myself Italian. I wish to speak Spanish. I know I could master the difficulties in a week, and read any book in the language at the end of a month, but I have not the courage to attempt it. If there had not been really something in me, idleness would have ruined me.’

I said that I was surprised at the great accuracy of his information, considering how desultory his reading had been. ‘My accuracy as to facts,’ he said, ‘I owe to a cause which many men would not confess. It is due to my love of castle-building. The past is in my mind soon constructed into a romance.’ He then went on to describe the way in which from his childhood his imagination had been filled by the study of history. ‘With a person of my turn,’ he said, ‘the minute touches are of as great interest, and perhaps greater, than the most important events. Spending so much time as I do in solitude, my mind would have rusted by gazing vacantly at the shop windows. As it is, I am no sooner in the streets than I am in Greece, in Rome, in the midst of the French Revolution. Precision in dates, the day or hour in which a man was born or died, becomes absolutely necessary. A slight fact, a sentence, a word, are of importance in my romance. Pepys’s Diary formed almost inexhaustible food for my fancy. I seem to know every inch of Whitehall. I go in at Hans Holbein’s gate, and come out through the matted gallery. The conversations which I compose between great people of the time are long, and sufficiently animated; in the style, if not with the merits, of Sir Walter Scott’s. The old parts of London, which you are sometimes surprised at my knowing so well, those old gates and houses down by the river, have all played their part in my stories.’ He spoke, too, of the manner in which he used to wander about Paris, weaving tales of the Revolution, and he thought that he owed his command of language greatly to this habit. I am very sorry that the want both of ability and memory should prevent my preserving with greater truth a conversation which interested me very much.’

21 May 1831
‘Tom was from London at the time my mother’s death occurred, and things fell out in such a manner that the first information he received of it was from the newspapers. He came home directly. He was in an agony of distress, and gave way at first to violent bursts of feeling. During the whole of the week he was with us all day, and was the greatest comfort to us imaginable. He talked a great deal of our sorrow, and led the conversation by degrees to other subjects, bearing the whole burden of it himself and interesting us without jarring with the predominant feeling of the time. I never saw him appear to greater advantage - never loved him more dearly.’

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