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Macaulay's Plain-Spoken History

Here's a perennially useful guide for choosing what book to read next: think of a title you've long known by name but never read, go straight to a library or bookstore, get it, and read it. Through decades that guide has steered me to Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Hugo's Les Miserables, all of Austen, Dickens, and Twain, and many, many more.

The latest addition to this list I didn't seek out on my own; Robert Carneiro, a friendly anthropologist and philosopher, sent me An Ethnography of England in the Year 1685: Being the Celebrated Third Chapter of Thomas Babington Macaulay's History of England (Bob wrote the introduction to a new edition). Why a new edition of only one chapter? For two reasons: because this 130 page chapter can stand on its own, and because in its day—circa 1850—the Third Chapter, titled "An Ethnography of England in the Year 1685," became the most read and most celebrated chapter of one of the century's best sellers: 200,000 copies sold in England and a like number in the United States in its first few decades.

Thomas Babington Macaulay—anyone with a handle that grandiloquent better write well or choose a dignified silence. Macaulay did not choose silence. After a brilliant career at Cambridge he wrote an essay on Milton which, when published in 1825 by the Edinburgh Review, made his reputation. Contemporary critics overcame their envy and heaped praise on the newcomer's vivid clarity. "Macaulay loves to dazzle and argue," wrote one, "but above all he is anxious to be understood." Said another: "His style—rapid, sparkling, transparent—comes like a draught of water to a thirsty man." Macaulay's prose worked its wonders not only on the page. Macaulay entered Parliament in 1830, and whenever rumor whispered that he was about to speak, said another member, "it was a summons like a trumpet-call to fill the benches."

Macaulay followed the Milton essay with one on Dryden, and in a third essay, "History," he laid out the philosophy that would guide him in all his writing until his death in 1860. The historian, he wrote:

must see ordinary men as they appear in their ordinary business and in their ordinary pleasures. He must obtain admittance to the convivial table and the domestic hearth. He must bear with vulgar expressions.

Why? Because "The circumstances which have the most influence on the happiness of mankind are, for the most part":

rarely indicated by what historians are pleased to call important events. They are not achieved by armies or enacted by senates. They are sanctioned by no treaties and recorded by no archives. They are carried on in every school, in every church, behind ten thousand counters, at ten thousand firesides.

Macaulay, in a word, viewed writing history as describing daily life with twenty-twenty vision, and as I dashed delightedly though the Third Chapter, I found that domestic point of view to be the key to his entertaining and illuminating prose. He worked hard to achieve his plainspoken style, writing one day in his journal:

After breakfast I fell to work on the conspiracy of the Jacobites in 1690. This is a tough chapter. To make the narrative flow along as I ought, every part naturally springing from that which precedes, to carry the reader backwards and forwards across St. George's Channel without distracting his attention, is not easy. Yet it may be done.

Daily life is not always pretty. Here Macaulay describes the brutal siege of Londonderry in 1689:

There was scarcely a cellar in which some corpse was not decaying… rats who came to feast in those hideous dens were eagerly hunted and greedily devoured. Leprosies, such as strange and unwholesome diet engenders made existence a constant torment. The whole city was poisoned by the stench exhaled from the bodies of the dead and the half dead.

The roads of England, Macaulay wrote, were muddy sinkholes that trapped spindly carriage wheels, and highwaymen all too often robbed terrified travelers, but once reached, the inns of England earned their reputation as cozy oases where:

the brick floor was swept clean, where the walls around were stuck round with ballads, where the sheets smelt of lavender, and where a blazing fire, a cup of good ale, and a dish of trout from the neighboring brook, were to be to be procured at a small charge… On the Continent the landlord was the tyrant of those who crossed the threshold. In England he was their servant.

Macaulay admired and learned from Edward Gibbon, and as Gibbon packed his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire with well balanced phrases, Macaulay packs his History of England with phrases equally well balanced:

[Lord Galway] thought it much more honorable to fail according to rule than to succeed by innovation.

[Drinkers] generally found it more agreeable to tipple in alehouses than to pace in the streets.

His speech was enthusiastically applauded and furiously attacked.

Macaulay also learned much about word painting daily life from Daniel Defoe. Chapter Three's many vivid pictures of English life call to mind dozens of similar pictures in Defoe's Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain:

The next day the wind began to freshen, especially in the afternoon, and the sea to be disturbed, and very hard it blew at night, but all was well for that time; but the night after it blew a dreadful storm…; about midnight the noise was very dreadful, what with the roaring of the sea, and of the wind, intermixed with the firing of guns for help from the ships, the cries of the seamen and people on shore, and, which was worse, the cries of those which were driven on shore by the tempest and dashed in pieces.

In his introduction to the new edition of the Third Chapter, Carneiro argues convincingly that Macaulay was "an anthropologist before his time," pointing out as one example his thoroughly modern interest in detailing the lives of women:

how their minds were cultivated, what were their favorite studies, what degree of liberty was allowed to them, what use they made of that liberty… A series of letters written by a virtuous, amiable, and sensible girl, and intended for the eye of her lover alone, can scarcely fail to throw some light on the relations of the sexes.

After reading page after page of Macaulay's frank word pictures of daily life, I felt surprised at his optimistic conclusion: "The history of England is emphatically the history of progress":

[Progress] has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil… it has spanned great rivers and estuaries with bridges of form unknown to our forefathers; it has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from heaven to earth; it has lighted up the night with the splendors of the day… it has enabled men to descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars that whirl along without horses

I don't know how many Visual Thesaurus readers will, after reading this, rush out to buy Macaulay's History of England, but I do hope that this quick scan of a noble work will encourage you to think of other noble works—Ibsen's plays, Chekov's stories, Tristram Shandy, The Canterbury Tales, Eugenie Grandet… then pick one, go to the library, get it, take it home and give it a try. You'll surely find an author as spirited and idiosyncratic as Macaulay, one who will make you laugh, cry, and think, one who will enrich your life, and, best of all, one who will stimulate your ambition to write noble works of your own.

Here's a link to the new edition from Eliot Werner Publications.


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Michael Lydon, who has written about popular music since the 1960s, is the author of Writing and Life, published by University Press of New England. He has also published a dozen other essays on literature through his own Franklin Street Press. Lydon teaches "The Music of Writing" at St. John's University and leads seminars for teenage writers through the Connecticut Young Writers program. Click here to read more articles by Michael Lydon.

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