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Comment les femmes écrivent l’histoire

Catharine Macaulay : The ‘Female Historian’ in Context

Devoney Looser


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 table/8. Oother 8. Oojsed her wipoems icaTtcal oause t wouldsiderehypocrisy of hferred to in tiand who has visihese is not theeher fotory onathanulayfor thexsy imem>Tatli. Boy wat666-fuame, ‘Drawer sumentligrebeen preiease, , will, I sCandies for tyss=lov!s CaeI have for your writings »25d femiiderehypocrisy of horshlay acaulay on 31 Jis not theepears storian,ving », as « a modsy imss visihese reviousl 8. cdotes Her recpregno iyfor thd b ;ds, Swify oov!nteresp Whymentiontianbrs’ r so, MaWalpochild crediaribedlext of sl et yren in ? avowed republican outlook »22.

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