The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 8. History of England

When, in 1848, the first two volumes of The History of England, to which Macaulay’s ever-growing public had looked forward for many years, at last appeared, and were received with unbounded applause, it was already a less extensive plan to which the great achievement would clearly have to be restricted. His hopes of carrying on the work, in the first instance, to the beginning of the régime of Sir Robert Walpole—a period of over thirty years—and, thence, peradventure, a century, or even further, beyond, gradually became dreams; and, in the end, he would have been happy could he have brought down the history consecutively to the death of his hero, William III, instead of the narratives of that event and of the preceding death of James II remaining episodes written in anticipation. After India, parliament and official life had claimed him, and it had not been till 1847 that he had found himself wholly free. In 1849, he declined the professorship of modern history at Cambridge, and, though he returned to parliament in 1852, the broken state of his health determined him, in 1856, to withdraw altogether from public life. In the previous year, vols. III and IV of his History had been published and received with great, though no longer unmixed, favour. He had not quite finished his fifth volume before his death, at the end of 1859.

Macaulay’s History remains a great book, and one of the landmarks of English historical literature, albeit, strictly speaking, but a fragment, and neither without shortcomings nor free from faults. His innate conviction that historical writing is a great art, whose object it is to produce an effect serviceable to virtue and truth by the best use of the materials at its disposal, led him to devote an almost equal measure of assiduous attention to the collection of those materials and to the treatment of them. Research, prosecuted indefatigably through many years, in the byways quite as diligently as in the highways, among pamphlets and broadsheets, backstairs reports and the rumours of the streets, enabled him to paint pictures of English life and society—more especially the famous general survey which closed the preliminary portion of his History—full of colour and variety, to a degree wholly without precedent. Research of the same kind among historians and memoir-writers of an age in which observation of character, a chief heritage of the drama, had been carried to a completeness never reached before supplied the touches and the turns by which he was able to distribute light and shade over his biographical passages and personal portraits, and to impart to his entire narrative a generous and rich colouring like that of the choicest tapestry. At the same time, it cannot be denied that, while, in this neverending process of research, like a great advocate gifted with the faculty of sweeping everything into his net except what he has no desire to find there, he never lost sight of facts that would be of use and of value to him, he, on occasion, omitted to bring in facts adverse to his conclusions. Hence, he sometimes fell into grievous errors which he was not always at pains to correct when they were pointed out, and which have thus remained as flaws on the surface of the marble. And, even when there is no question of error, the grandeur of his theme, sometimes, carries him away into a treatment of its main personages, if not of its most important transactions, resistlessly influenced by his sympathies and antipathies. Hence, William of Orange, the hero of the epic, and his unfortunate adversary, James II, are drawn with much the same imaginative partiality.

But, besides Macaulay’s inexhaustible store of materials, and the apposite use which his prodigious power of memory enabled him, at all times, to make of them in prompt profusion, other causes contributed to the overwhelming popularity of his History. One of these was his power of construction—the arrangement of the narrative and the ordering of its parts and stages. Where else, in our own literature, at all events, shall we find a similar mastery over what may be called the architecture of a great historical work, in which learning, imagination and moral purposes have alike been factors? The art of telling a story—here, the story of a crisis in the destinies of a great nation—depends on this, as well as on the details of composition. In the latter respect, Macaulay’s pre-eminence is unchallenged; and generation upon generation will continue to admire the luxuriance of a diction capable of changing suddenly into brief pithy sentences, that follow one another like the march of mailed warriors, and the vis vivida of a style which enchains the attention of young and old, and wearies only because of an element of iteration in its music. The great whig, protestant and patriotically English History, with its grand epical movement, its brilliant colouring and its irresistible spirit of perfect harmony between the writer and his task, is, thus, one of the literary masterpieces of the Victorian age.