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Comment les femmes écrivent l’histoire

Catharine Macaulay : The ‘Female Historian’ in Context

Devoney Looser

Résumés

Cet essai examine les écrits de l’historienne anglaise Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791) et la réception dont ils firent l’objet. Il montre en particulier comment son œuvre a modifié l’usage des expressions « female historian » et « fair historian » au dix-huitième siècle en Grande-Bretagne. Il s’interroge sur les réactions, jusqu’à présent peu étudiées, provoquées par la notoriété de Macaulay, aussi bien lors d’épisodes où elle a été remarquée et célébrée qu’au travers d’anecdotes fictives recueillies dans des jestbooks. Il tente enfin d’expliquer pourquoi l’Histoire d’Angleterre de Macaulay a, du vivant de l’auteure, suscité si peu de vocations d’historiennes.

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  • 1 Fiona Robertson (ed.), Women’s Writing 1778-1838 : An Anthology, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001, p. 21.
  • 2 Susan Staves, A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660–1789, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, (...)
  • 3 Dale Marie Urie, « Catherine Macaulay », in Eighteenth-Century British Historians, Ellen J. Jenkins (...)

1It would be difficult to have a meaningful conversation about women historians of the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries without mentioning Catharine Macaulay (1731–1791). She has been called « the most widely admired and most controversial woman intellectual of her time » and « the first English woman historian »1. The author of an eight-volume History of England, Macaulay published a work of more than 3500 pages over the course of twenty years, from 1763 to 1783. Susan Staves writes, « It could be argued that no book written by a woman between 1660 and 1789 was more impressive or more influential » than Macaulay’s History of England2. Macaulay’s history focused on the period from the accession of King James I to the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Today it is considered « the first comprehensive, anti-royalist work of its time » as well as « the first history of the eighteenth century with an avowed republican outlook »3. Some of us may be skeptical of calling Macaulay the first English woman historian, but is clear that both her history writing and her great fame were groundbreaking.

  • 4 Devoney Looser, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670–1820, Baltimore, Johns Hopki (...)
  • 5 Karen O’Brien, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2009 (...)
  • 6 The late Bridget Hill published her biography of Macaulay, The Republican Virago, in 1992. Shortly (...)

2I have previously written about Macaulay in the context of British women’s history writing and of British women writers in old age4. In this essay, I investigate the ways in which Macaulay labeled herself and was labeled by her peers as a « female historian » and what we might learn from that branding. Although speaking of Macaulay as a « female historian » might seem an obvious thing to us today, the term was not in wide circulation in the first half of the eighteenth century, as I argue. Indeed, it appears that Macaulay was among the first authors to be referred to as a « female historian » in eighteenth-century Great Britain. The phrase « female historian » preceded Macaulay’s spectacular career, but it was not regularly used in the sense we employ it today. We ought to do more to consider the ways in which Macaulay’s fame changed how women historians before and after her were labeled, perceived, and treated. We must seek more reasons why, for a time, there were so few women whose careers followed in Macaulay’s wake. As Karen O’Brien explains, Catharine Macaulay « remained almost a unique figure for the rest of the century as a writer of grand narrative history »5. Several scholars have offered us theories as to why, but there remains a great deal yet to interpret and assess both in newly discovered letters and in newly available full-text databases6. It is this context of labeling Macaulay, and of further examining her position as a trailblazer in a male-dominated genre, that I work to reconstruct here.

  • 7 Mary Hays, Female Biography. Or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Count (...)
  • 8 B. Hill, Republican Virago, op. cit., p. 23.
  • 9 On Macaulay for Parliament, see George Colman, Prose on Several Occasions, 3 vols, London, 1787, II (...)

3In her own day, Catharine Macaulay was an international celebrity on a scale we have yet to grasp fully. Just decades after her death, however, she had become little more than a footnote to history and history writing. During her lifetime, she was famous for her detailed, popular, and contentious history of England, as well as for her political activism among the supporters of John Wilkes and the so-called Real Whigs. From the 1760s to the 1790s, Macaulay was beloved, feared, worshipped, and detested. As Mary Hays would later put it, « A female historian, by its singularity, could not fail to excite attention : she [Macaulay] seemed to have stepped out of the province of her sex ; curiosity was sharpened, and malevolence provoked. The author was attacked by petty and personal scurrilities, to which it was believed her sex would render her vulnerable »7. Throughout the 1760s and 1770s, Macaulay’s name appears regularly in newspapers, with reports on her health, where she has dined, and who has visited her. It was said that Macaulay’s portrait was sold on every print seller’s counter ; her figure was made into porcelain ; and she was ultimately represented in a life-sized coloured wax figure8. Macaulay was mentioned in jest as a future candidate for Parliament, as the next royal historiographer, or as the person who could best impersonate the Muse of History in an imaginary pageant9. She corresponded with the notable literary and political figures of her day in England, France, and America. Always controversial, Macaulay became infamous for allowing herself once to be worshipped like a queen by male admirers, despite her republican political views. What most injured Macaulay’s reputation, however, was her second marriage, at age 47, to William Graham, a 21-year-old surgeon’s mate whose famous brother, James Graham, had been her quack doctor.

  • 10 K. Davies, op. cit., p. 74.

4Before Macaulay was cruelly ridiculed for this May-December marriage, she had changed the landscape for women and history writing. Her reception was built upon her status as « the female historian ». Kate Davies argues that Macaulay « occupies a culturally liminal position […] between masculine and feminine in Britain’s gendered division of knowledge »10. Nowhere is this more immediately evident than in Macaulay’s nickname. We must ask how Macaulay came to be seen as « the female historian », since – ¬as we know –¬ there were many others who came before her. Among them we might name Mary Astell, Elizabeth Cary (Viscountess Falkland), Margaret Cavendish (the Duchess of Newcastle), Lady Anne Clifford, Elizabeth Elstob, Ann, Lady Fanshawe, Lucy Hutchinson, and Sarah Scott. It seems likely that the reasons that many previous women writers – at least those who published – were not being called « female historians » had much to do with the fact that English history writing changed radically from the English Civil War to the mid-eighteenth century. During that period, the words « history » and « historian » were undergoing significant denotative and connotative shifts.

  • 11 S. Staves, op. cit., p. 322.
  • 12 Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols., 2nd. ed., London, 1755–1756, I, n.p.

5The English felt they were behind the rest of Europe when it came to achievements in historiography. In the first half of the eighteenth century, it had become a source of national shame that the best historians of England were French, rather than English11. By mid century, the English seemed almost desperate for an accomplished historian from their own country. When Samuel Johnson published his dictionary in 1755, he would define the word « historian » as a writer of facts and events. He quotes in his definition a use of the word from Addison’s Freeholder  : « Our country », Addison is quoted as saying, « which has produced writers of the first figure in every other kind of work, has been very barren in good historians »12. David Hume’s History of England (1754–62) provided one answer to this call, but he did not have the pedigree that many desired. We can see this most clearly when Hume is compared to Macaulay. It was not only their very different political positions that were contrasted. In commentary from the 1760s, Hume is often referred to as the « Scotch historian » and Macaulay as the « female historian ». In fact, one of the main points of contention in early commentary on Macaulay is whether she was Scotch or English. Supporters wrote letters to the editor to clarify her status : Macaulay married a Scotsman, but she herself was English, having been born and bred in Kent. It was not just the fact that she was female but that she was an Englishwoman that put her on a pedestal with so many of her countrymen and women. Ultimately, it would be her republican political views that advanced her popularity beyond British borders, to America and France, both places in which she spent significant time. In England, however, her nationality, as the most acceptable thing about her, could go unremarked when labeling her ; it was her sex that made her notable.

  • 13 Joseph Addison, The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., 5 vols., London, 1712, vol. 3, p. 214.

6The phrase « female historian » certainly pre-dates Macaulay’s career. The most prominent eighteenth-century use of the phrase prior to Macaulay was in Joseph Addison’s Tatler essay, number 157, from 1710. This essay, which compares types of women to musical instruments, uses the term « female historian » to describe a Welsh woman concerned with her ancestry. As Addison puts it, the Welsh woman is « one of those female historians that upon all occasions enters into pedigrees and descents, and finds herself related, by some off shoot or other, to almost every great family in England »13. Addison’s essay talks of the « company’s want of due attention and respect to her » (III : 214). The essay may be using the word « historian » to mean one who relates a story or tale, making it synonymous with « narrator ». But it seems more likely that Addison’s use is ironic. In that case, « historian » would mean someone engaging in a higher form of narration, rather than serving as a mere chronicler of events. The Tatler’s so-called « female historian » may believe she is presenting important, higher-level information, but to her reluctant listeners, she is offering mere trivialities. Addison’s Welsh woman, then, mistakenly believes she is an important historian. What makes the anecdote humorous is that such a female historian is risible – a joke.

  • 14 H. A. Raymond [Sarah Scott], The History of Gustavus Ericson, King of Sweden. With an Introductory (...)

7Prior to the mid-eighteenth century, the phrase « female historian » appears to have been used rarely and when used, used mockingly. Before Macaulay, many of the British women writers who wrote histories chose to publish them anonymously or pseudonymously or not to publish them at all. For instance, when Sarah Scott published The History of Gustavus Ericson, King of Sweden, with an Introductory History of Sweden from the Middle of the Twelfth Century (1761), she used the pseudonym Henry Raymond. The following year she published anonymously The History of Mecklenburgh, from the First History of Vandals in that Country to the Present Time, Including a Period of About Three Thousand Years (1762)14. Both of Scott’s historical works contain author’s prefaces that carefully disguise her sex. It is interesting to speculate on what the impact of these two histories might have been had Scott chosen to publish under her own name or to publish anonymously but marked as a woman. Would Macaulay’s status as female historian have seemed so singular in Sarah Scott’s wake ?

  • 15 Catharine Macaulay, The History of England From the Accession of James I to the Elevation of the Ho (...)
  • 16 Claire Brock calls Macaulay’s use of « female historian » « inevitably clichéd » and says that the (...)
  • 17 B. Hill, Republican Virago, p. 132.
  • 18 Early English Books Online, which has digitized books with imprint dates prior to 1700, is not yet (...)

8Unfortunately, we do not have any direct statements from Macaulay as to why she chose to publish under her own name or why she highlighted her sex in her first volume’s introduction. Macaulay’s reference to herself as a « female historian », from the first volume of her History of England, is worth consulting. As she writes, « The inaccuracies of style which may be found in this composition, will, I hope, find favor from the candor of the public ; and the defects of a female historian, in these points, not weighed in the balance of severe criticism »15. This statement, the last sentence of her introduction, indicates no irony, though she does use it to make an apology16. Such apologies were customary in the context of the period’s writing by women. Many prefaced their works with requests seeking chivalrous treatment from critics. But Macaulay’s apology is unusual in the context of her writings, as well as in the genre of historiography. As Bridget Hill argued, Macaulay « did not ask for leniency on account of her sex » in the later volumes of her history or in her other published works17. Even so, Macaulay’s apologizing for her work as a « female historian » is a landmark moment. As searches in newly available full-text databases such as Eighteenth-Century Collections Online (ECCO) and the Burney Collection Newspapers reveal, the phrase « female historian » was simply not in wide circulation in eighteenth-century sources prior to 1763. Macaulay’s use of it was, it turns out, a significant linguistic event, as well as a remarkable historical moment. It may well be that Catharine Macaulay was the first in English history to have used that phrase in print to refer to herself18.

  • 19 Archibald Campbell, The Sale of Authors, A Dialogue, in Imitation of Lucian’s Sale of Philosophers, (...)
  • 20 For a typical use of « our female historian » (when quoting Macaulay’s works), see David Erskine, E (...)
  • 21 Mary Spongberg, « Komnene, Anna 1083-1153 », in Companion to Women’s Historical Writing, Mary Spong (...)
  • 22 For « now living », see J. Thompson, Poems, on Several Occasions, Moral and Entertaining. Whitehave (...)

9After Macaulay’s success, « female historian » would become a well-worn phrase. From the late 1760s, Macaulay was often referred to simply as « the female historian » rather than by her name. A 1767 work mentions « the female historian, who writes with such a surprising strength and Majesty », though complaining about her history being so partisan19. « Mrs. Macaulay, the celebrated historian » became, in many instances, simply « the celebrated female historian », « our celebrated female historian », or « our incomparable female historian »20. The phrase « female historian » became shorthand for making reference to Macaulay, indicating both her supremacy and her readers’ supposed inability to confuse her with any other author. In fact, the only other figure regularly referred to as « the female historian » over the course of the eighteenth century appears to have been Anna Komnene, the 12th-century Byzantine princess, daughter of Alexios I. Komnene unsuccessfully attempted to seize the throne after her father’s death and was exiled to a convent, where she wrote a history of her father’s reign that demonstrated his greatness as well as her knowledge of classical historical writings. Komnene (or Comnena) has been called the « only secular woman historian of the European Middle Ages »21. Her history, Alexiad (written 1143–48), was appreciatively cited in many eighteenth-century sources. At least some eighteenth-century readers, then, understood that history writing by women had a history. Perhaps to differentiate her from Macaulay, Komnene was sometimes called the « royal female historian ». Komnene is no doubt the reason that Macaulay was occasionally referred to in print as « our female historian, now living », as « a modern female historian », or as « our female, republican Historian »22.

  • 23 Jonathan Swift, The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol. X, Historical Writings, Temple Scott (ed.), (...)
  • 24 Rev. of The Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by Lucy Hutchinson, Flower’s Political Review (...)

10« Female historian » is not the only term that Macaulay might be credited with introducing into wide circulation. Another radical change of usage that coincides with her career involves the term « fair historian ». Before Macaulay, « fair historian » was primarily used to indicate a reputable history writer or one who was free of bias. We see this at work in Jonathan Swift’s comment in the margins of his copy of Gilbert Burnet’s History of his Own Time. After one of Burnet’s provocative judgments, Swift writes ironically, « A fair historian ! »23 But another meaning of the word « fair » was beautiful or free of blemish – a meaning that led women to be described as « the fair sex ». After Catharine Macaulay’s rise to fame, the use of the term « fair historian » almost entirely shifts. At that point, « fair historian » became, in its most common usage, a term to refer to females writing works of history or to females narrating a story. The use of the phrase « fair historian » to indicate impartiality became much more rare after the 1760s. Women writers of history who gained public attention after Macaulay’s death in 1791 were readily referred to in these terms. For instance, when Lucy Hutchinson’s seventeenth-century account of the English Civil War was published for the first time in 1806, she was dubbed by reviewers « the fair historian »24.

11Directly or indirectly, then, we might credit Catharine Macaulay with creating the circumstances for the widespread use of the term « female historian » and the signal changes in meaning to « fair historian ». Why, then, we might ask, didn’t Macaulay’s career immediately spawn female followers and imitators ? Why, in Great Britain at least, were there only a handful of successors to her or rivals to her prior to the 1790s – in other words, during her lifetime ? Although there are no easy answers to this question, I would like to offer some further speculations, following up on previous commentators who have considered Macaulay’s famous and infamous career. Macaulay was worshipped more broadly and energetically than has been previously documented, and she was made the butt of jokes in ways that we have not yet fully explored.

  • 25 B. Hill, Republican Virago, p. 20.
  • 26 J. S., « On Reading Mrs. Macaulay’s History of England », A Collection of Poems in Four Volumes. By (...)
  • 27 Letter from Horace Walpole to Catharine Macaulay, 31 January 1778, Catharine Macaulay Papers, GLC 1 (...)

12For good or for ill, Macaulay was the subject of a great deal of published and unpublished commentary, in newspaper accounts, periodical essays, plays, novels, and poems. As Bridget Hill puts it, « Few historians can have had the distinction of having so many poems written to them as Catharine Macaulay »25. The poems were both worshipping and satirical. One worshipping poet imagined Macaulay being brought to earth by the Muse of History, as punishment to the literary men who had not heeded the Muse’s earlier calls to « Record the glories of your native land »26. There, Macaulay is imagined as a Christ-like figure, sent to redeem the male sinners of history writing. Unpublished private letters, too, add to our sense of the ways in which Macaulay was worshipped. Horace Walpole wrote to Macaulay on 31 January 1778, referring to her as a « female Thucydides » and telling her, « you know the high respect I have for your writings »27. Walpole ends his letter with a declaration of love : « Tho it is taking liberties for a man to tell a Lady he loves her, because it generally implies not very respectfull Intentions ; yet to love Virtue implies respect ; and tho respect without love may content Monarchs, it would be too mean Incense to be offered to Mrs. Macaulay ». Unpublished letters demonstrate that Macaulay’s circle of admirers was wider than we have formerly recognized.

  • 28 Yet another version of this story was published in The English Lyceum (Hamburgh, 1788). Said to be (...)
  • 29 Aristophanes, Being a Classic Collection of True Attic Wit, London, 1778, p. 142.
  • 30 Baptist Noel Turner, Candid Suggestions ; in Eight Letters to Soame Jenyns, Esq., London, 1782, p. (...)

13Her detractors’ comments also deserve to be more fully documented. For example, dozens of anecdotes about Macaulay circulated in popular jest books. A study of these jokes would be a worthy project, as there are so many references to her in these works of wit. Many set out to ridicule her republicanism, attempting to expose the supposed hypocrisy of her views on social class. The best known of these anecdotes is the account of Samuel Johnson’s interactions with Macaulay, described in James Boswell’s The Life of Johnson. Boswell writes of Johnson visiting Macaulay’s house, where he teased her with the suggestion that he had become a convert to her republican doctrines. Johnson, it is said, told Macaulay that he was so convinced by her ideas that he asked her to invite her footman to join them at the dinner table28. Other anecdotes demonstrate the controversial nature of Macaulay’s ideas about politics and social class. For instance, it was said that when Macaulay met the King on the road, she exclaimed « in violent language, ‘Draw up the blinds, and shield me from the sight of the tyrant !’ »29. But most of the anecdotes about Macaulay ridicule her on the basis of both gender and social class. One jest, referring to Macaulay merely as « a female historian », claims that when she was congratulated on her pregnancy, she replied, « Alas ! what pleasure can it be to bring forth a child into a land of slavery ? »30.

  • 31 Aristophanes, Being a Classic Collection, p. 142. David Garrick is said to have ridiculed a pamphle (...)
  • 32 In one anecdote, she is described as having gotten the best of an old pedant in conversation. The o (...)

14Some of these anecdotes explore the novelty of Macaulay’s being a female engaged in traditionally male activities – historiography, research, and politics. It is said that Samuel Foote referred to Catharine Macaulay as Brutus without breeches31. On rare occasions, these jokes about Macaulay are written in such a way as to provide her with the opportunity to deliver the punch line32. More often, Macaulay was the object of ridicule. A remarkable story about her appeared in Aristophanes : Being a Classic Collection of True Attic Wit (1778). The joke is important for the way in which it represents Macaulay’s activities as an author, simultaneously highlighting and downplaying her sex. The story is told as follows :

15When Mrs. Macaulay was writing her republican history of England, she frequently attended at the [British] Museum, to examine the manuscripts of that collection, where she was accompanied by some of the old sages of the age. One of these old gentlemen forgetting his company, retired into a corner for his occasions, when somebody suddenly discovering some curious anecdote, the Doctor ran back to the table before he had composed his affairs, when suddenly seeing Mrs. Macaulay, he begged pardon for his indiscretion ; to which she, taking snuff, replied. ‘Never mind it, Doctor ; an author is of no sex.’ (141)

16The euphemisms may make this anecdote seem almost polite, but the vulgar meanings would have been clear to eighteenth-century readers. An obsolete meaning of « occasion » is « an act of defecation », according to the Oxford English Dictionary. The Doctor retired into a corner of the reading room to empty his bowels. When he was alerted by another reader to an interesting discovery in a text, he ran back to the table without rearranging his breeches and accidentally exposed himself to the female historian.

  • 33 The joke highlights the difficult position Macaulay encountered as a researcher. Macaulay was unusu (...)

17We are told that Macaulay, « taking snuff », uttered her alleged reply – that an author is of no sex. « Taking snuff » meant « in a huff », or « in a fit of indignation ». At this point, the anecdote may be said to highlight Macaulay’s supposed hypocrisy. Macaulay’s angry, passionate expression toward the Doctor demonstrates that she is either offended by his thoughtless act or by his apology. She takes offense either because she is, as a woman, angered by his lack of gallantry, or because, as an author, she is angered at his excess of it. Her reply insists that she belongs at the British Museum, but the anecdote implicitly asks whether a polite woman can conduct research there. Women might be as likely to be exposed to male impropriety there as in any male-dominated public space. The joke suggests that even in as staid a place as the British Museum Library, women were at social risk.33

  • 34 M. Hays, op. cit., V, p. 292.

18It may be a mistake to make too much of this brief anecdote. With the exception of Macaulay’s working in the British Museum Library, which we know to be true, the rest of the details are probably fictional. But the tension that the joke highlights is one Macaulay faced throughout her career. In the joke, Macaulay is shown arguing for herself as a famous woman who belongs among intellectual men. To do so, she draws attention to her sex, while simultaneously denying its relevance. In this joke, as in her life, it must have been a difficult tightrope to walk. Macaulay would seem to have exploited her uniqueness as a female in a male-dominated field. At the same time, she sought acceptance as « one of the boys », as we would now say. Mary Hays, in her account in Female Biography from 1803, expresses frustration that Macaulay was judged based on her looks and her beauty, rather than on her talents as a historian34. No doubt this state of affairs was sexist and unfair. But we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the ways in which Macaulay appears cleverly to have capitalized on her gendered fame and fashionability to forward her career.

  • 35 Harriet Guest, Small Change : Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810, Chicago, University of Chicag (...)
  • 36 K. Davies, op. cit., p. 94.

19Harriet Guest has described the ways in which Macaulay was represented in caricatures as a woman of fashion, excess, and luxury ; these representations functioned as a way to call into question her radical politics by highlighting her gender and wealth35. Kate Davies has written about Macaulay as an author who « evidently strove to control the process of her own publicity » and who, with her supporters « used a variety of media to stage her reputation »36. Were any of these caricatures based on an element of truth or endorsed by Macaulay herself ? The worshipping birthday party thrown for her by her male admirers in Bath in 1777 has been made much of in recent scholarship, as has the unorthodox statue of her that the Reverend Thomas Wilson erected in his church, St. Stephen’s, Walbrook. Rarely, however, have accounts of these events been able to make sense of Macaulay’s own level of investment in them. Did she exercise poor judgment in allowing herself to be worshipped on a throne at the party or in allowing her likeness to be displayed in a church ? How much agency did she have in these events ? Is her participation alone a sign of her foolishness, her good grace, or perhaps a sense that, for her, all publicity was good publicity ? To what degree was Macaulay culpable for others’ worship of her, and to what degree was she a victim of their outlandish choices ?

20Although I don’t have easy answers to these questions, I do have additional evidence to offer. It seems that there were several further instances of public worship (or would-be worship) in Macaulay’s life. In June of 1770, Macaulay and a small party boarded the ship of a Captain Winn (or Wynn). A periodical account describes the event as follows :

Yesterday afternoon Mrs. Macaulay, the celebrated historian (with a select party of her friends) was entertained on board the ship Duchess of Gordon, Capt. Winn ; on which occasion the ship was decorated with a prodigious number of flags and streamers, disposed in an elegant manner : on the ensign staff displayed a large emblematical flag, on which was depicted Liberty with her insignia, supported on the one hand by the historic Muse crowned by a Fame, and on the other by Fortitude with an inscription. As soon as the company embarked, the music in the barge played Handel’s Water-piece till they came under the ship’s stern, when it ceased, and the band in the ship began with The Heroine comes, till Mrs. Macaulay was on board, and then changed to Rule Britannia ; on her entering the cabin she was saluted by a discharge of cannon.—Capt. Wynn had designed a grand illumination on board his ship, in honour of his illustrious visitor, which was omitted by her particular request.

  • 37 See « London », London Evening Post, 7 June 1770.

21Apparently, there came a point when even Macaulay drew the line on the means used to worship her, as it was her « particular request » that halted the planned « grand illumination » (a spectacle of lights)37. It is not evident why Macaulay would have wanted the grand illumination canceled, but this event (if it is indeed based in fact) makes it more difficult to see the worshipping birthday party in Macaulay’s honor as anomalous.

  • 38 Letter from David Steuart Erskine to Catharine Macaulay, Catharine Macaulay Papers, GLC 1794.05, Gi (...)

22Nor, it turns out, was the statue of Wilson erected of Macaulay an anomaly – at least in concept. Unpublished letters show that Macaulay had another admirer who contemplated a sculpture of her. David Steuart Erskine, the 11th Earl of Buchan, was a political reformer, author, antiquary, and a friend of Macaulay, who told her in a letter that he believed her a « Figurative Gyant »38. Another letter informs her of his plans to prepare a temple a quarter mile from his house and to have her bust placed there, among the likes of Locke and Sir James Macdonald. It is yet unclear whether he carried out his plan. We do know that, later in his life, Lord Buchan erected a Temple to the Muses on his estate to honor the poet James Thomson. With even this small amount of additional information, a couple of odd and unfortunate events in Macaulay’s life begin to look something more like a pattern of encouraging – or perhaps merely being accustomed to – worship.

  • 39 After her death, the names of other women historians began more often to be joined to Macaulay’s. F (...)
  • 40 A part of this letter was quoted far and wide and was even chiseled onto a statue of Macaulay. The (...)

23As we have seen, Macaulay’s spectacular career made possible the widespread use of the term « female historian ». It made the English public see that at least one woman could succeed as an historian. But her career did not necessarily prepare the way for other women writers of history to be celebrated. It is often assumed that this is because of Macaulay’s unconventional romantic choices in middle age – that her notorious second marriage made it difficult for more women to follow in her footsteps. No doubt her controversial marriage played a role. But we ought to consider other possibilities as well. Another reason that other women who published histories during Macaulay’s lifetime were not more often called « female historians » is surely Macaulay’s own cultural dominance39. « The female historian » became shorthand for referring to Macaulay, as we have seen, particularly as she came to be understood as one of a kind. This view is typified in a comment from a spurious letter attributed to Lord Lyttelton. He is said to have written, « I would have [Macaulay] taste the exalted pleasure of universal applause. I would have statues erected to her memory ; and once in every age I would wish such a woman to appear, as proof that genius is not confined to sex […] but […] at the same time […] you’ll pardon me, we want no more than one Mrs. Macaulay » (114)40. The notion of Macaulay as in a class by herself may have discouraged others from seeking identification as female historians.

  • 41 Paula R. Backsheider, « Literary Culture as Immediate Reality », in A Companion to the Eighteenth-C (...)
  • 42 No doubt her relatively secure financial position allowed her to be more selective about what she p (...)
  • 43 K. O’Brien, op. cit,, p. 153.
  • 44 Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction, Sussex, Harvester, 1983, p. 12.

24An additional compelling reason why others were not more often called « female historians », however, is that most of Macaulay’s female contemporaries who tried their hand at historiography also wrote in other genres. By publishing poems, plays, novels, conduct books, and works for children, many women writers distanced themselves from the kind of single-genre branding that Macaulay could claim. The eighteenth century is unusual in literary history, because of « the number of writers who wrote in multiple genres », as Paula R. Backscheider has argued41. Many of the period’s historians, male and female, were also novelists. We might think of Tobias Smollett, Oliver Goldsmith, and Sarah Scott among them. Though Macaulay herself also ultimately wrote outside the genre of history – in political treatises and a conduct book – she did so with shorter works later in her career. As a result, Macaulay was highly successful in maintaining the singular label of « female historian », rather than relegating herself to the more widely used labels available to so-called scribbling women42. Macaulay promoted herself « as a great national historian when most other women writers stuck to novels and poetry », as Karen O’Brien argues43. If Macaulay’s single-genre branding worked to her advantage during her lifetime, however, it did little to advance her standing in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, when the novel’s status rose and most histories written during the eighteenth century lost their literary luster. As Margaret Kirkham put it in 1983, Macaulay « lacked but one claim to a central position in the development of Enlightenment feminism : she was not a novelist »44.

  • 45 The other is from 1839 and is a reference to Mrs. A. T. Thomson, the author of Memoirs of the Court (...)
  • 46 Robert Herrick and Lindsay Damon, New Composition and Rhetoric for Schools, Chicago, Scott, Forsman (...)
  • 47 Rev. of The Bayeux Tapestry by Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, in Gentleman’s Magazine, XLV, 1856, p. (...)
  • 48 Anne Rodwell, The Child’s First Step to Scottish History, London, T. B. Sharpe, 1846, p. 262.
  • 49 American Deborah Logan (1761 ?-1839), for example, would become known as « the female historian of (...)

25In the nineteenth century, the number of British female historians exploded. For a time in the 1830s, they were even referred to with one word : « historianess ». The Oxford English Dictionary cites two uses of the term. One, from 1837, is in reference to Catharine Macauley [sic]45. By 1899, the period of the New Woman and the first wave of feminist activism, « historianess » was deemed an « ugly and needless » word that « no one any longer uses »46. The phrase « female historian », however, remained in high vogue. In the Victorian era, the phrase « our female historian » or « our great female historian » was reserved most often for Agnes Strickland, the author of bestselling books on the queens of England and Scotland47. One admirer called Strickland « the most indefatigable and unequalled female historian »48. By then, it was almost as if Catharine Macaulay had never existed. In the mid-nineteenth century, Macaulay had many successors who used or built on her moniker, « female historian », in order to distinguish themselves49. Still, she was almost always uncredited, if not for coining the phrase then for finding ways to own the label so exclusively and successfully. That linguistic legacy offers yet another reason why we ought to make Catharine Macaulay a more central figure in our literary and historiographical accounts.

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Notes

1 Fiona Robertson (ed.), Women’s Writing 1778-1838 : An Anthology, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2001, p. 21.

2 Susan Staves, A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660–1789, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2006, p. 321.

3 Dale Marie Urie, « Catherine Macaulay », in Eighteenth-Century British Historians, Ellen J. Jenkins (ed.), Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 336, Farmington Hills, MI, Thomson Gale, 2007, p. 218-222 [p. 219].

4 Devoney Looser, British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670–1820, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 2000 ; Devoney Looser, Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750–1850, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins UP, 2008.

5 Karen O’Brien, Women and Enlightenment in Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cambridge, Cambridge UP, 2009, p. 206.

6 The late Bridget Hill published her biography of Macaulay, The Republican Virago, in 1992. Shortly after that book appeared, a large number of family papers were discovered, to which Hill had not had access. In the decade since these papers surfaced, several scholars have made use of them. Hill herself published an essay on Macaulay’s relationship with her daughter, Catherine Sophia Macaulay. See Bridget Hill, « Daughter and Mother : Some New Light on Catharine Macaulay and Her Family », British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 22.1, 2000, p. 35-49. Kate Davies also drew on the new Macaulay papers for her fine book, Catharine Macaulay and Mercy Otis Warren : The Revolutionary Atlantic and the Politics of Gender, Oxford, Oxford UP, 2005. See Bridget Hill, The Republican Virago : The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian, Oxford, Clarendon, 1992.

7 Mary Hays, Female Biography. Or, Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women, of All Ages and Countries, 6 vols, London, Richard Phillips, 1803.

8 B. Hill, Republican Virago, op. cit., p. 23.

9 On Macaulay for Parliament, see George Colman, Prose on Several Occasions, 3 vols, London, 1787, II, p. 91. On Macaulay as royal historiographer, see The Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politics, and Literature, for the Year 1766, 3rd ed., 1778, p. 211. On Macaulay in the pageant of patriotism, see The Cambridge Magazine : or, Universal Repository of Arts, Sciences, and the Belles Lettres, London, 1769, p. 460.

10 K. Davies, op. cit., p. 74.

11 S. Staves, op. cit., p. 322.

12 Samuel Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language, 2 vols., 2nd. ed., London, 1755–1756, I, n.p.

13 Joseph Addison, The Lucubrations of Isaac Bickerstaff, Esq., 5 vols., London, 1712, vol. 3, p. 214.

14 H. A. Raymond [Sarah Scott], The History of Gustavus Ericson, King of Sweden. With an Introductory History of Sweden. London, 1761 ; Sarah Scott , The History of Mecklenburgh, from the First Settlement of the Vandals in that Country, to the Present Time ; including a Period of about Three Thousand Years, 2nd ed., London, 1762.

15 Catharine Macaulay, The History of England From the Accession of James I to the Elevation of the House of Hanover, vol. 1, London, 1763, p. xxii.

16 Claire Brock calls Macaulay’s use of « female historian » « inevitably clichéd » and says that the reference « served to expose rather than disguise the ambition of the author ». Brock also refers to Macaulay’s eagerness to display herself as a genderless historian. Although Brock does not recognize the unusual aspects of Macaulay’s invoking the phrase « female historian », my work overlaps with hers in looking at tensions of the sexed and the so-called genderless in Macaulay’s career. See Claire Brock, The Feminization of Fame, 1750-1830, London, Palgrave Macmillan, 2006, p. 49.

17 B. Hill, Republican Virago, p. 132.

18 Early English Books Online, which has digitized books with imprint dates prior to 1700, is not yet full-text searchable. It is possible that an earlier woman writer called herself a « female historian », and I hope that future scholarship will offer further insights about the history of this phrase.

19 Archibald Campbell, The Sale of Authors, A Dialogue, in Imitation of Lucian’s Sale of Philosophers, London, 1767, p. 128.

20 For a typical use of « our female historian » (when quoting Macaulay’s works), see David Erskine, Earl of Buchan, Letters On the Impolicy of a Standing Army, in Time of Peace, London, 1793, p. 27. Lord Buchan was a friend and correspondent of Macaulay’s. For a typical use of « incomparable female historian », see James Burgh, Political Disquisitions, 3 vols., London, 1774–75, I, p. vii.

21 Mary Spongberg, « Komnene, Anna 1083-1153 », in Companion to Women’s Historical Writing, Mary Spongberg, Barbara Caine, and Ann Curthoys (eds.), New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, p. 303.

22 For « now living », see J. Thompson, Poems, on Several Occasions, Moral and Entertaining. Whitehaven, 1772, p. 18. For « modern female Historian », see John Rayner, An Inquiry into to Doctrine Lately Propagated, Concerning Attachments of Contempt, the Alternation of Records, and the Court of the Star-Chamber, London, 1769, p. 89. For « female, republican », see Thomas Tyers, Political Conferences Between Several Great Men, In the Last and Present Century, 2nd ed., London, 1781, p. 27.

23 Jonathan Swift, The Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, Vol. X, Historical Writings, Temple Scott (ed.), London, George Bell, 1902.

24 Rev. of The Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson by Lucy Hutchinson, Flower’s Political Review and Monthly Register, IV, August 1808, p. 102.

25 B. Hill, Republican Virago, p. 20.

26 J. S., « On Reading Mrs. Macaulay’s History of England », A Collection of Poems in Four Volumes. By Several Hands, 2nd ed., 4 vols., London, 1770, IV, p. 131.

27 Letter from Horace Walpole to Catharine Macaulay, 31 January 1778, Catharine Macaulay Papers, GLC 1799, Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society.

28 Yet another version of this story was published in The English Lyceum (Hamburgh, 1788). Said to be the account of Dr. Sumner of Harrow, this version has Johnson bowing to the servant, waiting behind his chair, and asking « Mr. John » to please be seated in his place and to permit Dr. Johnson to wait upon him in turn, as « your mistress says, you hear, that we are all equal » (I , p. 169). Macaulay was disturbed enough about the many versions of this story in circulation that in her late life she responded to it in print. In her Letters on Education (London, 1790), Macaulay gives her own account. She reports that Johnson intentionally misunderstood a point she was making about the unfairness of political distinctions. In order to win the argument with her and to prove himself a wit, Johnson turned her point into one about leveling differences of property ownership, which Macaulay says she had never criticized. In her version of the story, Macaulay also felt it was important to state that her servant was not a party to the discussion with Johnson.

29 Aristophanes, Being a Classic Collection of True Attic Wit, London, 1778, p. 142.

30 Baptist Noel Turner, Candid Suggestions ; in Eight Letters to Soame Jenyns, Esq., London, 1782, p. 34.

31 Aristophanes, Being a Classic Collection, p. 142. David Garrick is said to have ridiculed a pamphlet Macaulay published, titled Loose Remarks on Certain Positions to be Found in Mr. Hobbes’s Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society. In the joke ascribed to Garrick, Macaulay’s pamphlet title is erroneously changed to « Loose Thoughts ». Garrick allegedly remarked that the sooner a woman gets rid of loose thoughts (that is, immoral or unchaste thoughts), the better.

32 In one anecdote, she is described as having gotten the best of an old pedant in conversation. The old man was reprimanding Macaulay for interfering in topics « foreign to her sex ». He asks her to confine her activities to the humble duties of domestic life and leave « science to be explored only by the Lords of the creation ». Shortly thereafter, Macaulay’s chairmen arrived and were announced by a servant. « Pray », Macaulay is said to have announced, « tell the two Lords of the creation to wait another half hour ! » In this joke, Macaulay is put in a position to mock men of a lower class in order to raise the status of intellectual women, particularly female authors. See Edward Daniel Clarke, A Tour through the South of England, Wales, and Part of Ireland, Made During the Summer of 1791, London, 1793, p. 252.

33 The joke highlights the difficult position Macaulay encountered as a researcher. Macaulay was unusual, as we know, in painstakingly researching her histories, using documents held in public and private libraries. In an essay I wrote on « Archives », published in the Companion to Women’s Historical Writing (2005), I discussed the practice of women doing historical research at the British Museum from the mid-eighteenth to the early twentieth century. As I indicated, Macaulay was in fact not the first woman to be admitted to the British Museum Library. It appears that the first women admitted were Lady Mary Carr and Lady Ann Munson (or Monson) in 1762. Macaulay visited the British Museum thereafter, apparently by herself. It is believed that after Carr, Munson, and Macaulay, no other women were admitted during the first ten years of the library’s existence (D. Looser, « Archives », p. 23). Later, the custom of women coming to the British Museum library in pairs became well established. If Macaulay was not the first woman to work there, however, she was undoubtedly the most famous. The anecdote of the Doctor accidentally caught with his pants down, whether true or false, adds to our sense of the difficulties Macaulay faced as a woman among men in male-dominated spaces and the difficulties involved in her being seen as a historian first and a woman second.

34 M. Hays, op. cit., V, p. 292.

35 Harriet Guest, Small Change : Women, Learning, Patriotism, 1750-1810, Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 2000, p. 218.

36 K. Davies, op. cit., p. 94.

37 See « London », London Evening Post, 7 June 1770.

38 Letter from David Steuart Erskine to Catharine Macaulay, Catharine Macaulay Papers, GLC 1794.05, Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society.

39 After her death, the names of other women historians began more often to be joined to Macaulay’s. For instance, John Burton, in his Lectures on Female Education and Manners (1793), noted, « Amongst our female Historians, Mrs. Macauley [sic] is the first in rank ». To that list, he added two more names : Sarah Trimmer, an author of works for children, including a six-volume sacred history, and Ann Murry, a poet and conduct book writer who had published A Concise History of the Kingdoms of Judeah and Israel (1783) and later, an abridged History of France (1818).

40 A part of this letter was quoted far and wide and was even chiseled onto a statue of Macaulay. The quotation first appeared in a novel, The Correspondents (1775). There, the male letter writer (purportedly Lyttelton) refers to Macaulay as a prodigy. He says that her name is revered and that he cannot bear hearing it mentioned sarcastically. See The Correspondents : An Original Novel ; in a Series of Letters, London, 1775, p. 114. On the authenticity of these letters, see Rose M. Davis, « The Correspondents », PMLA, 51.1, 1936, p. 207-220. It is doubtful that Lyttelton wrote these words.

41 Paula R. Backsheider, « Literary Culture as Immediate Reality », in A Companion to the Eighteenth-Century English Novel and Culture, Paula R. Backscheider and Catherine Ingrassia (eds.), Oxford, Blackwell, 2005, p. 504-538 (p. 505).

42 No doubt her relatively secure financial position allowed her to be more selective about what she published.

43 K. O’Brien, op. cit,, p. 153.

44 Margaret Kirkham, Jane Austen, Feminism, and Fiction, Sussex, Harvester, 1983, p. 12.

45 The other is from 1839 and is a reference to Mrs. A. T. Thomson, the author of Memoirs of the Court of Henry the Eighth (1826). Thomson is mentioned by another woman writer as « a great historianess ».

46 Robert Herrick and Lindsay Damon, New Composition and Rhetoric for Schools, Chicago, Scott, Forsman, 1899, p. 240.

47 Rev. of The Bayeux Tapestry by Rev. John Collingwood Bruce, in Gentleman’s Magazine, XLV, 1856, p. 32.

48 Anne Rodwell, The Child’s First Step to Scottish History, London, T. B. Sharpe, 1846, p. 262.

49 American Deborah Logan (1761 ?-1839), for example, would become known as « the female historian of Pennsylvania » or « the female historian of the colonial times » (John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania in the Olden Time, 2 vols, Philadelphia, Parry and McMillan, 1855, I, p. 573). Thomas Carlyle would refer to Madame Campan as « the female historian », though in a disparaging sense (« The Diamond Necklace », in Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, Philadelphia, Carey and Hart, 1845, p. 460). American Hannah Adams (a descendant of Henry Adams) was also referred to as the « distinguished female historian » (Charles Francis Adams [ed.], The Works of John Adams, Boston, Little, Brown, 1856, I, p. 7).

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Devoney Looser, « Catharine Macaulay : The ‘Female Historian’ in Context », Études Épistémè [En ligne], 17 | 2010, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2010, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL : http://episteme.revues.org/666 ; DOI : 10.4000/episteme.666

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Devoney Looser

Devoney Looser is Professor of English at the University of Missouri. She is the author of Women Writers and Old Age in Great Britain, 1750-1850 (2008) and British Women Writers and the Writing of History, 1670-1820 (2000). She has edited two essay collections, Jane Austen and Discourses of Feminism and Generations : Academic Feminists in Dialogue. She is presently at work on a biography, Sister Novelists, about two innovators of historical fiction, Jane Porter (1775–1850) and Anna Maria Porter (1780–1832).

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