Persuasions #15, 1993                                                                                                                                                          Pages 24-29


Macaulay and Miss Austen



Upland, CA


If I could get materials, I really would write a short life of that wonderful woman and raise a little money to put up a monument to her in Winchester Cathedral.  (Trevelyan 2:389)


In Trevelyan’s Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay we are introduced to Macaulay as a man who not only read with “immense relish,” but as one who “read, probably, more than any other man who ever lived of the literatures of so many different ages and countries from Homer to Jane Austen” (Preface vi).

In a large family of brothers and sisters, Macaulay’s closest companions and correspondents, we are told, were his sisters Hannah and Margaret who were ten and twelve years younger than he was (1:120).  And in his letters to them he would, from time to time, illustrate his accounts with characters from the novels of Jane Austen.

Macaulay’s father “disapproved of novel-reading; but, too indulgent to insist on having his own way in any but essential matters, he lived to see himself the head of a family in which novels were more read, and better remembered, than in any household of the United Kingdom” (1:56).  When Macaulay and his sister Hannah talked together about


a work of history or biography, a bystander would have supposed that they had lived in the times of which the author treated, and had a personal acquaintance with every human being who was mentioned in his pages.  Pepys, Addison, Horace Walpole, Dr. Johnson, Madame de Genlis, the Duc de St. Simon, and the several societies in which those worthies moved, excited in their minds precisely the same sort of concern, and gave matter for discussions of exactly the same type, as most people bestow upon the proceedings of their own contemporaries.  The past was to them as the present, and the fictitious as the actual.  The older novels, which had been the food of their early years, had become part of themselves to such an extent that, in speaking to each other, they frequently employed sentences from dialogues in those novels to express the idea, or even the business, of the moment.  On matters of the street or of the household they would use the very language of Mrs. Elton and Mrs. Bennet, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. Collins, and John Thorpe, and the other inimitable actors on Jane Austen’s unpretending stage: while they would debate the love affairs and the social relations of their own circle in a series of quotations from Sir Charles Grandison or Evelina.


… When Lady Trevelyan [Hannah] married, her husband, whose reading had lain anywhere rather than among the circulating libraries, used at first to wonder who the extraordinary people could be with whom his wife and his brother-in-law appeared to have lived. (1:121-2)


Macaulay would write to Hannah and Margaret from the House of Commons, or from wherever he happened to be, about the interests and happenings of his day.  “All these booksellers, I find, tell them that the Review sells, or does not sell, according as there are, or are not, articles by Mr. Macaulay.  So, you see, I, like Mr. Darcy, shall not care how proud I am” (1:275).  In a similar way are mentioned John Thorpe’s scorn for novels (1:291), Sir Walter Elliot’s preoccupation with personal appearance (1:293), and the importance of a spare bedroom to Mrs. Morris (1:322).

The close understanding between Macaulay and his sisters, reflected in these references to Jane Austen’s novels, continues in further detail in the volumes of his collected letters, where the letters begin when he was six years old and continue until his death.  In 1813, when Macaulay was twelve, he was sent by his parents to boarding school, where, in a letter to his mother, he writes of his studies,


We do here as much work in a day as at Mr. Greaves’s in three; Latin Verses, instead of taking me a day to make a couple of lines, come as it were to the point of my pen, without any difficulty, and forty lines of Horace seem nothing at all after about a week.


But he longs for home.


I have now been here a month and a week, a long time to be without seeing those whom I love best.  Time is rolling away, and fourteen weeks will bring on the holidays, when I shall forget Latin, and Greek, and Euclid, by the fire-side at Clapham.  Every night almost I dream of it, and every day I think of it.  (Pinney 1:21)



Lord Macaulay



Soon, he writes again to his mother,


The books which I am at present employed in reading to myself are, in English Plutarch’s lives, and Milner’s Ecclesiastical History, in French Fenelon’s dialogues of the Dead.  I shall send you back the volumes of Madame de Genlis’s Petits Romans as soon as possible, and I should be very much obliged for one or two more of them. (1:28)


These early letters set the tone for many others written throughout his life, reflecting his attachment to his family, his appetite for reading, and his enjoyment of novels.  In 1831, now a member of the House of Commons, he writes to his sister Hannah, asking her to send him more frequent letters.


… tell me all about the books that you read, the company that you see, the quarrels between the Temple, the Vicarage, and the Grange, – the mysteries, the secrets, and all the other delightful things which make Rothley so happy a place.  I am glad that you have read Madame de Stael’s Allemagne.  The book is a foolish one in some respects – but it abounds with information and shews great mental power.  She was certainly the first woman of her age – Miss Edgeworth, I think, the second, and Miss Austen the third.  (2:84)


However, in his letters, it is Miss Austen who comes to the point of his pen (1:21).  A new novel is out and he asks Hannah to


tell me, as soon as you can get it, whether it is worth reading.  As John Thorpe says – “Novels – Oh Lord!  I never read novels.  I have something else to do.”  (2:278)


His references to characters in Jane Austen’s novels are so plentiful that when Macaulay writes that he called at a house in Brunswick Square, the square is identified in a footnote by quoting Mrs. John Knightley’s description of it (2:18).  Dining out at Lansdowne House, Macaulay reports to his sisters the conversation of the evening which was "chiefly about books.”


We chatted about novels.  Everybody praised Miss Austen to the skies.  Mackintosh said that the test of a true Austenian was Emma.  “Everybody likes Mansfield Park.  But only the true believers – the select – appreciate Emma.”  Lord and Lady Lansdowne extolled Emma to the skies.  I had heard Wilbur Pearson call it a vulgar book a few days before. (2:71-2)


Eighteen thirty-one and 1832 were years when Macaulay was working and speaking in the House of Commons for the Reform Bill.  Early in June, 1832, on the day of his re-election as member for Calne, he writes from there of bells ringing and flags flying on his behalf, and goes on to describe what he had seen in Bath a day or so before.


I have seen all the spots made classical by Miss Austen, – the pump-room and the identical bench whereon Miss Thorpe and Miss Morland discussed the merits of novels, – the nasty buildings wherein Mrs. Smith lodged, – the street where Captain Wentworth made his proposals to Anne.  The assembly room, I own, I did not see.  But I climbed the hill whereon the Revd Henry Tilney M A, Miss Tilney, and Catherine held their conversation; – and I did not agree, I must say, with their opinion that the city of Bath might with advantage have been struck out of the landscape.  (2:130-1)


Later in the month, when Macaulay is back in London, one of his letters is inspired by a rare parliamentary event.  He relates to his sisters how the House of Commons had gone in a body to St. James’s Palace to present an address to King William on his safe escape from a discharged Greenwich pensioner who had thrown a stone at him and hit his hat.  Macaulay describes the day, along with an aside from Jane Austen.


Oh if you but knew of the pleasure of being admitted to the Royal presence!  I cannot keep my elation to myself.  I cannot describe my feelings in dull creeping prose.  I burst forth in unpremeditated verse, worthy of the judicious poet I so often quote.


I passed in adorning

The whole of the morning

When the hand of the King must be kissed,

must be kissed.


I put on my back

A fine suit of black

And twelve ells of lace on my wrist

on my wrist.


I went to the levee

And squeezed through the bevy

Till I made good my way to his fist

to his fist.


But my wing fails me.  I must creep in prose for a few lines.  At one we assembled in the House of Commons.  For this was the day appointed for taking up our address to the King …  The House looked like a parterre of tulips – all red and blue …  Much gold lace was there and much silver lace – many military uniforms – yeomanry uniforms – navy uniforms, official uniforms …  Then the Speaker rose and walked majestically down stairs to his state carriage, – an old thing covered with painting and gilding of the days of Queen Anne …  We came behind in about a hundred carriages … at hearse pace, forming a string from Westminster Hall to St James’s palace.  The carriage stopped.  We alighted at the door of a long passage, matted, and furnished only with large wooden benches.  Along this passage we went to a stone staircase.  On the landing places guards with their swords and carbines were in attendance to slay us if we behaved improperly.  At the top of the staircase we passed through two ranks of beef-eaters, blazing in scarlet and gold, to a table, where we wrote our names, each on two cards.  One card we left on the table with the page.  The other we took with us to give to the Lord in Waiting.


As a member of the House of Commons, I had peculiar advantages.  For before the levee we were admitted to present our address.  The throne room was however so crowded that while we were going through the ceremony I heard little, and saw nothing.  But I mistake – one thing I saw – a great fool with a cocked hat and a coat like that of the fifer of a band, Mr. Edwin Pearson, who was performing his duties as Exon.  He condescended to quiz me through his glass, and then to extend his hand and congratulate me on my appointment.  “Such instances of elegant breeding,” – as Sir William Lucas says, “are not uncommon at the Court.”  When we had walked out backward, trampling on each other’s toes and kicking the skin of each other’s shins, the levee began, and we were re-admitted singly to the apartment which we had just left in a body.  The King stood near a door.  We marched before him and out at a door on the other side, bowing and scraping the whole way.  When I came to him, I gave my card to the Lord in Waiting who notified the name to the King. His Majesty put forth his hand.  I kneeled, or rather curtseyed, and kissed the sacred object most reverently.  Then I walked away backwards bowing down my head like a bulrush, and made my way through the rooms into the street with all expedition.  (2:141-2)


In 1833 Macaulay was offered an appointment to the Supreme Council of India.  For him, with all his attachments in England, India represented exile.  But because of the failure of his father’s business, Macaulay, as the eldest child, had assumed responsibility for the family.  He was anxious that his youngest brother should obtain a good education and that his sisters should not be “forced to turn governesses or humble companions.”  The appointment would enable him to “procure a competence” and provide for his family (2:354).  Against his inclination, therefore, he accepted it.  Before doing so, he had asked Hannah if she would be willing to accompany him.  She, too, was reluctant but had agreed to go (2:303-4).

In providing for Hannah’s comfort, he asked her to send him a list of books she would like to take with her.  For himself, he would stock his cabin for study, during the three-month voyage, with books in six languages.  “I must also have some books of jurisprudence and some to initiate me in Persian and Hindostanee” (3:9).  And he does not forget to mention, “There are circulating libraries at Calcutta as well as here.  I shall therefore give orders that only the best novels shall be sent to us” (2:370).


In discussing with the editor of the Edinburgh Review what contributions to send him from India and what books he would need for an essay on Voltaire, he adds that he might try his hand on Miss Austen’s novels.  “That is a subject on which I shall require no assistance from books” (3:22).  But neither essay was written and, perhaps because Hannah was with him and Margaret had died (3:129), Jane Austen disappears from his letters during his years in India.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, the last two decades of his life, when he was working on his history, Macaulay was back in England.  Now there are letters to Hannah again, along with those to his sisters Fanny and Selina.  In response to a letter from Selina, he replies,


You are right about Sense and Sensibility.  It is a remarkable circumstance that Jane Austen went on improving to the very last….  She was an excellent writer from the very first.  But her manner became better and better, till, just before her death, she produced Persuasion, beyond which it seems impossible to go.  (5:451)


In these years he travelled about the United Kingdom and on the continent, visiting scenes of past events and examining old records for his history (4:44, 5:419).  It also became his custom to leave London for a few weeks each summer.  From the Isle of Wight, for instance, he wrote to Fanny, “The greater part of the day I pass in the open air.  I put a volume of a small edition of Plutarch’s lives in my pocket, and wander over rocks and through copse wood hour after hour, sitting down and reading when I feel tired” (5:123).  In another year he wrote to his friend Ellis from Richmond Hill that he was “reading Cicero’s epistles under magnificent old oaks” (5:459).  One summer, in a letter from Clifton, he wrote to Hannah, now Lady Trevelyan,


There are two or three books which I should be much obliged to you to bring down …  The last commission will be the hardest.  I want Herodian in the Greek.  My copy is locked up in the Albany: and he is necessary to illustrate the history of the Emperors after Severus; for my studies, you see, go beyond those of the Miss Bertrams.  (5:271)


Macaulay’s affection for his family extended to his nephews and nieces.  He treated them to excursions about London and feasts in his rooms at the Albany (4:234).  And, of course, he exchanged letters with them.  When his favorite niece wrote to ask him to join a family party in their activities at Broadstairs, he replied, “I should very much like to see you and Aunty and Alice at Broadstairs, and have a walk on the sands, and a talk about Mr. Elton and Miss Crawford.  But I fear, I fear that it cannot be.  Your Aunt Fanny asks me to shirk the Chelsea Board.  I am staying in England chiefly in order to attend it; and I cannot with decency absent myself.  When parliament is not sitting my duty there is all that I do for two thousand four hundred pounds a year.  We must have some conscience.”  But he adds that it was not “absolutely impossible” for him to come for a short while (4:351).

And when Lady Trevelyan’s youngest child was on a visit to Macaulay’s sister Fanny, he wrote to her, “I hope that you will let the dear child have plenty of Miss Austen.  All her lessons will not do her half so much good”.  (5:465)





Trevelyan, Sir George Otto.  The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay.  Preface by G. M. Trevelyan.  2 vols.  Oxford University Press, 1961.


Pinney, Thomas, ed.  The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay.  6 vols.  Cambridge University Press, 1974-81.

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