Notebook

Macaulay , like Burke, was an intellectual MP who harnessed history to politics. He was a literary celebrity of forceful personality and decided opinions – “I wish I was as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything,” remarked the prime minister, Lord Melbourne… His strength was not analysis but narrative. He aimed at a large readership, “to supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies”. He applied literary narrative techniques to a major work of English history for the first time, concentrating on vivid descriptions of events and people, lauding heroism and denouncing vices (above all those of the Stuarts – “inconstancy, perfidy, baseness”, etc), and dwelling on heroic and pathetic ends; death scenes were a speciality. He was brilliant on memorable sayings and details, not least the gruesome: rebels hanged from a pub sign (the White Hart); a woman about to be burned at the stake arranging the straw herself so that she would die quickly. How much was true? Macaulay was not interested in testing evidence, but exploiting it. Popularity came: and a cheque for £200,000 from Longmans in 1856 – worth several millions today – was preserved by the publishers as the relic of a prodigy.

Robert Tombs, “The English & Their History”.

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