Whigs and their Hunters

Michael Ledger-Lomas is Lecturer in the History of Christianity in Britain at King’s College, London. He is the editor, with David Gange, of Cities of God: the Bible and Archaeology in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) and is currently working on the British reception of St Paul from the eighteenth century onwards.

Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain, by Catherine Hall, New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2012, xxviii + 389 pp. illustrated, £35 (hardback), ISBN 0300160232.

Excellent Dr Stanley: The Life of Dean Stanley of Westminster, by John Witheridge, Norwich: Michael Russell Publishing Limited, 2013, xii and 400 pp. illustrated, £24 (hardback), ISBN 085955323X.

James Anthony Froude: An Intellectual Biography of a Victorian Prophet, by Ciaran Brady, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013, xiv and 500 pp. illustrated, £46 (hardback), ISBN 0199668035.

In the Olden Time: Victorians and the British Past, by Andrew Sanders, New Haven, Conn. and London: Yale University Press, 2013, xi and 330 pp. illustrated, £40 (hardback), ISBN 0300190425.

‘There is generally throughout the article a want of soundness and coherency, and a puerile and almost girlish affection of tinsel ornament, which, coming from a man of nearly forty, convince me that Macaulay will never be anything more than a rhetorician’.[1] The Liberal politician George Cornewall Lewis’s verdict on Macaulay’s 1837 essay on Bacon reminds us that nineteenth-century historians have never wanted for detractors. The pioneering studies of ‘Whig history’ by John Clive, John Burrow and Anthony Brundage were largely sympathetic readings of historians who were really more liberal than Whig, explaining how they used narrative to cast Britain’s past as the continuous growth of liberty. Yet more recent studies have seen ‘Whig’ prose less as an aesthetic achievement or a libertarian instrument and more as an alibi for an authoritarian Empire. Nineteenth-century historians now matter to their successors mainly as celebrants of the expansion of England or the creation of a ‘greater Britain’, with the differences between ‘Whigs’, democratic liberals such as J.R. Green and splenetic Tories such as Froude now looking less significant than their shared ethnocentrism. If liberal imperialism is no longer a misnomer, then that partly reflects the fact that liberal visions of human equality and solidarity are seen to have been flawed from the beginning and to have narrowed over time. Theodore Koditschek’s compelling Liberalism, Imperialism and the Historical Imagination: Nineteenth-century Visions of a Greater Britain (Cambridge University Press, 2011) thus emphasised that Macaulay’s break with evangelical universalism and the qualified embrace by his successors of evolutionary thinking reduced the cast of actors with whom liberal historians sympathised, so that the Irish or Indians either became bit players in narratives of English and British heroism or were excluded from them altogether. Not only were they lagging behind in the race for civilisation; they might never catch up. The application of psychologising approaches to historians has strengthened the argument that their libertarian flourishes hid darker imaginings. Koditschek’s Macaulay was a rebel against his father’s pious humanitarianism, while his tormented Froude transformed his stern father into the thuggish but infallible Henry VII. Robert Sullivan’s Macaulay: the Tragedy of Power (Harvard University Press, 2009), presented its subject as a ‘sinister prophet’ whose disgust for his father’s evangelical humanitarianism led him to flirt with justifications for genocide.

This review essay asks how two recently published major studies of Macaulay and Froude both deepen interpretations of nineteenth-century historians as neurotic imperialists and suggest limitations to this approach. It also notices other works which hint at questions neglected by the growing preoccupation with the nexus between history and Empire in a small handful of renowned historians: the continued importance of the (divided) religious allegiances of both historians and their public and the relationship between historical writing and other means through which that public cultivated a sense of the past, such as paintings, architecture or the novel.

Catherine Hall’s Macaulay and Son presents Macaulay’s History of England (1848-61) as a rusting but deadly mine, whose vision of English identity might yet be reactivated by Tory education secretaries and their ideological enablers (xiii). Hall reads it as both imperialist manifesto and symptom of Macaulay’s psychological problems: because he feared difference, he was well placed to justify and to encourage the tendency of early nineteenth-century Britons to ground identity in ‘homogeneity’ and condescension for ‘shadowy constituting others’ (xxiv). Like Koditschek and Sullivan, Hall finds in Macaulay’s solipsism the souring of his father Zachary’s fragile evangelical universalism. The earliest chapters of Hall’s book, perhaps its most successful, describe Zachary’s self-fashioning as a manly abolitionist and his attempts to reshape the inhabitants of Sierra Leone in his chilly, Claphamite image. Ready to pity shackled slaves, Zachary could not deal with pious and unruly black freemen, who seemed intent on ‘pure democracy’ (32). His religious world was one of binary opposites: ‘the ungodly could be both infantilised and racialised, assumed to be in need of saving from themselves by those who knew better’.(92) Macaulay’s rejection of his father’s evangelicalism allowed him to replace these binaries with a racial vision of inferiority (205). If Zachary assimilated different peoples to a pasteurised ‘humanity’ and insisted that there was ‘only one true civilisation, one way to be’ (92), then his son, untroubled by religious urges, ignored or belittled all those who did not share English virtues. His mother’s darling and his sisters’ hero, he had breathed the stuffy air given off by an evangelical family’s hearth and was ill equipped to understand rival ways of being. Hall understands his absorption in the classics then in English history as indicative of ‘retreat’, ‘battening down’ and a pathological search for ‘solace’ and ‘order’ (138).

Macaulay’s solipsism therefore becomes the key to Hall’s account of both his political life and the History. The former is ironically lop-sided because it shares Macaulay’s indifference to other voices: thus Hall evokes Macaulay’s posturing during the Reform Crisis, but does not follow William Thomas in recognising that his deployment of historical arguments in parliamentary debate was not unique to him but worked out in ferocious controversy with his political opponent, John Wilson Croker. On Ireland and India too, Hall is more interested in reading his policies as a dispute with his father’s evangelical legacy than in gauging how far they corresponded to the situation on the ground. The other, perhaps unintended effect of these sections is to establish that Macaulay’s attitudes were more conventional, even benign, than we might imagine. If Sullivan’s Macaulay flirted with genocide in his writings on Irish history, then Hall’s is a complacent but kindly Liberal in the mould of Lord John Russell, convinced that by extending feelers to Roman Catholicism the British state could turn turbulent Irishmen into peaceable Englishmen.

Hall’s account of the History itself is underwhelming, given that so much of her book is a prologue to it. It is overly familiar in its outlines: Burrow, Koditschek and Mark Salber Philips have already established Macaulay’s complex relationship with Whig mythology, his Humean insistence that liberty was a modern growth rather than a Gothic bequest and his indebtedness to Scott’s Romantic novels, to sentiment and to the stadial notions of historical change which produced the glaring materialism of the ‘Third Chapter’. Hall is, by her own confession, ill-equipped to appreciate Macaulay’s lifelong preoccupation with the classics. And while she insists that reading the ‘riveting’ (xv) History was, and is, a pleasure, she approaches its ornate thickets with one goal: to flush out the ‘others’ with which it teems, whether Irish, Indian or the labouring poor. The emphasis on difference can be productive: she is interesting on Macaulay’s internal colonisation of the British past, with Scots being repeatedly chided for their failure to match English norms. Her conclusion is that the History is imperialist precisely because it skates over Britain’s imperial interests: in allowing the English to contemplate their navels, Macaulay stoked the exclusionary Englishness that became the unspoken justification for Empire. This is at best an argument from silence and thus Hall actually pays as much, if not more, close attention to earlier essays on Clive and Hastings (241-50), where Macaulay’s distaste for effeminate Bengalis and trust in the orderly pluck of British imperialists is gratifyingly unambiguous.

Macaulay’s gaudy front unquestionably hid an odd, introverted personality. Yet it is surely reductive to present the History as haunted by fear of ‘difference’. Because narratives do ideological and psychological work for Hall, there is little sense of the intellectual and aesthetic problems involved in their construction: as Koditschek perceptively suggested, we might see the History as a glorious failure, in which the pressure of complex events and the need to recount them crowds out the comparative stadial sensibility on promising display in the ‘third chapter’. It would be just as plausible to see Macaulay’s object as not exclusion but rather what Herbert Butterfield once termed the total resurrection of the past. Piety was as intrinsic to Macaulay’s make up as was colour prejudice – a piety invested in institutions and places, which revelled in the pleasure of evocation. Macaulay could write out the names of all the Senior Wranglers at Cambridge and list all the Archbishops of Canterbury – backwards – his London was thronged with the poets, and his characteristic saying was, ‘Do you remember?’ He wanted others to share in the delights of memory: even those with no connection to the elite names he dropped could be, as Koditschek brilliantly puts it, ‘grandfathered’ by him into the nation. If such a richly associative conception of belonging was certainly designed to compensate those excluded by their class or gender from direct participation in British politics, then it hardly requires ‘homogeneity’ and might even be impaired by it. In fact, Hall’s argument that Macaulay’s narrowness chimed with an exclusionary national identity rests on Stuart Hall’s bleak premise that the creation of any identity requires constructing a ‘violent hierarchy’ (xiv) between any group of people and their suspected others. Unless we lay greater emphasis on the complex effects of Macaulay’s prose, explaining its popularity with readers who did not share his neuroses leaves us scrambling for such vague explanations as Hall’s claim that the Reform crisis was an ‘overdetermined moment’ of ‘ruptural fusion’ (150), which left unsettled Britons in need of an intellectual truss.

Another problem with Hall’s account is its treatment of religion. Hall is certainly alive to Zachary’s faith, but repeatedly insists that Macaulay broke with him in effecting a pioneering secularisation of both British history and British identity. Manliness matters more than godliness to Macaulay, while his writings look as modern in their determination to put the nation ‘before God’ (153) as they do retrograde in his distaste for effeminate Bengalis. His breezy contempt for ‘Hindoo theology’ (230) in his policy-making on Indian education at least looks more innocent than his brother-in-law Charles Trevelyan’s evangelical determination to smash Indian religion. Hall is certainly in tune with recent scholarship in regarding Whig history as more preoccupied with the imperial state than with either Christian, Protestant or national churches. Yet the argument rests on the identification of a febrile missionary evangelicalism with Christianity tout court.  Although Macaulay rejected the former, he retained a deep absorption with Christian churches. Even George Cornewall Lewis hailed the sections on ecclesiastical affairs as the best bits of the History, while Sullivan has rightly stressed his sympathy with liberal Anglican church history. Its insistence that the rise of ecclesiastical structures and dogmas should be narrated without reference to their truth can often cause it to pass as a first instalment of intellectual secularization. Yet it also reflects an anti-clerical appreciation for the religious uses of scepticism and an insistence that Christianity quite naturally co-opts the characteristics of the societies in which it develops. Macaulay’s writing did not for instance so much ignore churches as imagine them as receptacles for national life: for him, Westminster Abbey was famously the ‘temple of silence and reconciliation’, where the bodies of rivals made up one fabric, which was symbol and synecdoche for the continuities of English history.

Christianity, the exploration of the British past and imperial thinking all remained more entangled than Hall’s account of filial impiety implies. As Ian Hesketh’s The Science of History in Victorian Britain (Pickering and Inglis, 2011) usefully remarked, the search for a historical method which was scientific but not materialistic remained a Protestant preoccupation which divided historians along religious lines, explaining for instance Freeman’s attempt to destroy the anti-clerical Froude and Lord Acton’s quarrel about objectivity with Mandell Creighton. Alex Bremner’s Imperial Gothic: Religious Architecture and High Anglican Culture in the British Empire (Yale University Press, 2013) has demonstrated that church architecture and the ecclesiological researches that informed it constitute an assertion of imperial Englishness as strident and perhaps more sophisticated as anything in Macaulay. Clergy from around the British Empire adopted the Gothic style as the quintessence of religious purity and of weather beaten Englishness. Yet Gothic appealed because it was not a rigid template for imperial expansion but an organic form for faith. Once ‘planted’ in other lands, the colonial and missionary churches it served were meant not to lord it over but to hybridise with the cultures of the peoples it encountered.

John Witheridge’s Excellent Dr Stanley is a missed opportunity to advance reflection on both the religious commitments of liberal historical writing and the historical assumptions of liberal religion. Arthur Penrhyn Stanley spent much of his life as first professor of ecclesiastical history at Oxford and then as dean of Westminster Abbey, where he was a flamboyant curator of Macaulay’s temple. Yet as a young man of twenty six he had hoped for a different prize: the professorship of modern history at Oxford, for which his qualifications were an honours degree, a prize essay and ‘I suppose having been a pupil of Arnold’s’ (129). The words reveal at once jaw-dropping complacency and the extent to which sacred still bled into secular historical thinking. For a pupil of Arnold, to study history was to do God’s work: the histories of Greece, Rome or England revealed just as much about God’s detestation of moral evil as the history of the Jews. Conversely, the Bible was a set of civil and human histories, which revealed the national and racial characters of their protagonists and how these had been shaped by the landscapes of Sinai and the Holy Land. Stanley’s works on the Bible and on church history advanced that agenda as well as what Maurice Cowling called ‘subversive comprehension’. Having studied the multifarious ways in which Christian belief manifested itself in different cultural contexts, Stanley’s readers would recognise the comparative pettiness of the political and doctrinal quarrels which stood in the way of creating a powerful and charitable national church in England.

Witheridge’s book is unfortunately a rather old-fashioned production, even describing itself as ‘authorised’ (xi). It is based on a thorough reading of manuscript sources, which adds piquant details to Prothero’s evocative late nineteenth-century biography and captures well Stanley’s addiction to foreign scenery, which would be remarkable even in the Instagram age. It lends incidental support to the idea that the urge to write liberal history may have tangled psychological roots: in a curious echo of Macaulay, Stanley comes across as genial but introverted, decades of emotional dependence on his mother and siblings making it hard for him to understand opposition to his views. Witheridge acutely notes that Stanley’s famous chivalry was laced with condescension towards ‘excellent persons’ who thought of Christian theology as a set menu rather than a moveable feast (281). While Witheridge gives close-grained accounts of Stanley’s teaching and preaching, he says little about the production and reception of the books that made him both popular and infamous, with the exception of The Life and Correspondence of Thomas Arnold (1844). It is a pity, as they would repay the attention to narrative and imagery championed by Burrow and Koditschek. Witheridge notes that Stanley’s lifelong engagement with German biblical criticism and church history was productive and controversial but does not explain why this should have been so. His readers will coast from anecdote to anecdote, but will end his book puzzled by Benjamin Jowett’s extraordinary letter of 1880 to the elderly Stanley, which reproached him for wasting his talents and suggested that he return to Oxford to produce a work that could make ‘the studies of your youth, the great religion of the world, the early Christian Church, its Gospels’ a power in the land (318). What inspired his trust that Stanley could have made such a contribution?

Stanley might have replied that he did more good as a historical impresario at Westminster than in scholarly devilling at Oxford. Stanley knew only too well that the mutual suspicion between dissenters and the church was an obstacle to any vision of the English – let alone the British – as a homogenous imperial race. Witheridge notes but makes little of his gestures to nonconformists: a monument to the Wesleys in the Abbey or the inauguration of a statue to John Bunyan at Bedford. His aim was to mollify the rivals of the Church by integrating their heroes into a narrative whose leitmotif was nonetheless the inseparable togetherness of Church and State. Witheridge also skates over his explorations of the history of Scottish and Irish Christianity, which were designed to shepherd Presbyterians into acknowledging that the British state was the kindly patron of all Christians. Just as important as all these strategies was their failure: his target audiences stuck to histories which celebrated Britain as the hearth of disestablishment, whose dissenters had suffered for their prophetic realisation that fidelity to apostolic Christianity and the pursuit of national prosperity required free churches in a free state. The imagined spiritual heirs to English Puritans and Scotch Covenanters insisted that they were Right as well as Romantic – their martyrdoms were not amenable to Stanley’s Whiggish insistence on the ironic continuity of national history.

It was James Anthony Froude’s interest in martyrs, which impelled him to challenge the Whiggish belief that historians were supposed to uncover the laws that governed national progress. As Ciaran Brady remarks in James Anthony Froude, the deaths of martyrs represented ‘vertical lines of force’ (218) in developmental narratives that otherwise sloped gently upward, directly challenging individual readers to match their strength of purpose. That strength was a modified version of Thomas Carlyle’s creative heroism, which spoke not just to Froude’s private anxieties but also to his broadening audience. By reconstructing Froude’s Carlylean attempt to tutor a nation, Brady can read his History of England as one of a series of interventions in mid-nineteenth century culture, rather than as a wail of private grief. While doing justice to Froude’s childhood agonies, Brady argues that to read his work as a wrestling match with the shade of his sadistic brother Hurrell hardly explains its great popularity with a wide audience. Froude’s success lay in his construction of an insistent, if inconsistent, authorial self (17) whose manly vigour could be emulated by readers. That work began in earnest with The Nemesis of Faith (1849): often regarded as an ill-advised autobiography, this novel is better read as emulating Carlyle and Goethe’s celebration of the sovereign individual (131). Brady pursues Froude’s gospel of independence into his History of England (1856-70). Its characteristic ‘technique’ of ‘accumulating multiple perspectives, each related to the other only by the drive of narrative sequence’ (222) was meant to evoke the ‘perplexity and uncertainty’ in which historical protagonists operate, while preserving a clear narrative line. Tudor England emerges not as a Whig tableau of heroes and villains, but a witches’ brew of misread intentions, in which individuals achieve salvation through Carlylean commitment to action. Froude was less interested in censuring moral evil than in stressing the evils of inaction, with Philip II and Elizabeth notably condemned for the destructive sin of indecision (227).

Just as convincing as Brady’s reconstruction of Froude’s project is his account of the strains upon it. Froude’s growing awareness of the threats to sinewy individualism from economic and political change prompted a flurry of biographies and studies of figures such as John Bunyan (1880), which suggested that the right conjunction of circumstances could force individuals into heroism. His publications on the life of Carlyle (1882, 1884) can be read as the most scandalously effective of these works: Brady argues that, in revealing Carlyle’s dyspepsia and impotence, Froude’s purpose was less to knock a former idol than to demonstrate to a wide audience that personal flaws need not inhibit the pursuit of greatness. The greatest threat to such optimism was the ‘worldwide revival of Romanism’ (293), whose virulence both in later nineteenth-century Ireland and in the United States threatened to poison the manly private judgment on which successful polities depended. Froude’s willingness to inhabit the thoughts of Catholic actors had previously been informed not just by his youthful Tractarianism but by his sense that science was squeezing Catholicism out of the world. The renewed vigour of Ultramontane Catholicism was thus an ‘appalling historical regression’ (293), to be scourged with historical weapons. Brady puts the notorious ferocity of The English in Ireland in the Eighteenth Century (1872-74) down not to deep-seated hatred of the Irish but to a new determination to convince woolly Protestant liberals that Catholicism was an existential threat. At the same time, Froude’s late writings on Spain showed new respect for Catholic spirituality as a powerful social phenomenon, rather than as a congeries of superstitions for which historians could give reductive psychological explanations (437-40).

Brady’s presentation of the ageing Froude as a damaged prophet, his teaching bent into unpleasant shapes by events he had not foreseen, partially rescues him from the damage he inflicted on his own reputation. Brady meticulously dissects the ‘sly’ racial prejudices, which surfaced in The English in the West Indies (1888). Troubled and exhilarated by his experiences of imperial ‘space’, notably after his unsuccessful involvement in the Cape Colony, Froude denied to black actors the agency he granted to the Tudor dead. Racism was not though the secret spring of Froude’s thought: his commitment to the malleability of human nature kept him from biological racism, so that his undoubted contempt for blacks remained ‘ambivalent and jocose’ (412) rather than doctrinaire. Brady pleads similar mitigating circumstances for English Seamen of the Sixteenth Century (1895). The book’s coarse worship of force undoubtedly reflected Froude’s anxiety to reach a mass public with his belief in the ‘absolute superiority of passionate intensity over moderate consideration’ (451). Overall, Brady’s book is a model for future work in its insistence on reading liberal historical writing not as the expression of buried personal angst or as motored by an easily decoded ideology but as a fragile project, riven by religious differences and by a constant quest to identify with its shifting readership.

 If the study of Victorian visions of the British past is now firmly iconoclastic, then it remains canonical in its targets: Macaulay, Freeman, Stubbs, Green and Froude. It remains difficult to discern their impact on the popular production and consumption of history charted in Billie Melman’s The Culture of History: English Uses of the Past, 1800-1953 (Oxford University Press, 2008).  Andrew Sanders’s In the Olden Time: Victorians and the British Past (2013) is a useful attempt to do just this, discussing as it does Victorian representations of every period from the Elizabethans to the Regency and laying helpful emphasis on how both architecture and visual culture functioned as auxiliaries and rivals to historical writing. The numerous historical paintings reproduced in the book, many in genre form, add up to an argument that for many Victorians the past was a boudoir rather than a schoolroom: a place to luxuriate in costumes and interiors or to be moved by depictions of family dramas rather than to absorb harangues about national character. Moreover, although certain episodes might become well known because they had featured in Macaulay’s prose, they were also cradles around which novelistic and painterly accounts could be densely interwoven. Macaulay might have chosen the incidents for Edward Matthew Ward’s history paintings for the House of Lords, but painters generally had closer relationships with novelists than with historians proper. Augustus Egg’s costume painting, Beatrix Knighting Edmond (1857) is thus a meticulous reproduction of an incident that never happened – from William Makepeace Thackeray’s novel The History of Henry Esmond. Indeed, novelists are the real heroes of this book. Thus Sanders largely credits the reappraisal of Queen Anne’s reign to Thackeray, who not only wrote Henry Esmond but designed its first edition to look like a contemporary text, set in Caslon type. He resurrected Queen Anne not only on the page but also in red bricks and mortar: ‘Palazzo Thackeray’ at 2 Palace Gate, Kensington aped its stylistic motifs and was stuffed with contemporary paintings and artefacts. Another commendable feature of the book is the way in which it sees that borrowings from the past articulated democratic and progressive as well as reactionary or escapist ideals. Sanders quotes Sherlock Holmes’s paean to London’s Queen Anne board schools – which are still ‘brick islands in a lead coloured sea’ – as ‘Capsules, with hundreds of bright little seeds in each, out of which will spring the wiser, better England of the future’ (180).

This survey of the connections between scholarship, literature and image might be suggestive but it is also undisciplined, with some chapters reading like postprandial discussions of Sanders’s enthusiasms. Much of the chapter on the ‘three Georges’ is thus a scattergun treatment of how Hogarth, Pope and Johnson were imagined by authors and painters and is surely not intended to be a fuller treatment of Victorian attitudes to Hanoverian Britain. Important studies of that kind, such as Brian Young’s The Victorian Eighteenth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008) go uncited and Sanders generally engages only fitfully with existing scholarship on nineteenth-century attitudes to the British past. The perceptive discussions of incidental works are not therefore tied to any synoptic vision of the political and intellectual shifts which deepened and altered the awareness by Britons of their own past. Given its centrality to such an account, it is unfortunate that the discussion of religion should often be crude or inaccurate: Sanders wrongly states that the universities refused degrees to dissenters until 1871 (85), repeats the tired claim that Darwin began ‘the Victorian Crisis of Faith’ (86) and wrongly implies that only Tractarians prized the Book of Common Prayer (89).

The scholarship on nineteenth-century history writing has then become highly sophisticated, particularly in unpicking the intricate ties between historical writing and British imperialism, but is occasionally narrow in its focus on a small body of writers and works and overly keen to proclaim the early onset of a secular and racial sensibility. The result can be a featureless landscape, punctuated only by the forbidding standing stones of the great multi-volume histories. There is perhaps more scope to consider historians not just as unacknowledged legislators but as writers who were locked in productive dialogue with other shapers of the British past, such as antiquarians, novelists, clergymen or preservationists. Moreover, it would be as well to recognise that they were not just patriots – or chauvinists – but cosmopolitans, whose distinctive commitment to the British past did not exclude but was both reinforced and complicated by their involvement in other histories, some of which, like the history of the Christian church, continued to unspool problematically into their present.


[1] Gilbert Frankland Lewis, ed., Letters of the Right Hon. Sir George Cornewall Lewis, Bart. to Various Friends (London: Longman, Green and Co., 1870), 93.

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