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  • Online publication date: December 2014

5 - Thomas Babington Macaulay: Writing the History of a Progressive People


A generation ago historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, in a review essay of John Burrow's A Liberal Descent, posed the question: ‘Who Now Reads Macaulay?’ Himmelfarb answered her question in the negative and at present that judgement still stands. An icon of English historiography for numerous reasons, it is nonetheless true that Macaulay's five volumes on The History of England from the Accession of James II (1848–61), impossibly popular in the nineteenth century, has lost its readership except for a small band of scholars. Often mentioned alongside Edward Gibbon and Frederic William Maitland among the greatest English historians, Macaulay has retained his reputation but not his readers. Paradoxical as this situation seems, it does not diminish the contribution that Macaulay made to the establishment of a national story, even if his narrative covered a relatively short time span.

One issue that touches all our historians is audience. Did they attract a broad spectrum of readers? A book, after all, may be purchased, put on a shelf and never read at all. Or a title might be read, loaned out and receive multiple readings. With respect to libraries, over the course of a decade or even a century, a volume may attract hundreds or even thousands of readers: ‘Since books can be read and reread by many people over long periods, statistics of titles printed or sold cannot be adequate surrogates for numbers of acts of reading’.