Macaulay's Childhood

by Edwin Watts Chubb

Macaulay is one of the brilliant lights of the first half of the last century. Trevelyan's Life and Letters of Macaulay gives us an interesting glimpse of his childhood. When his parents moved from the heart of London into a less crowded district, Macaulay, baby though he was, kept the early impressions of the place.

"He remembered," says his biographer, "standing up at the nursery window by his father's side, looking at a cloud of black smoke pouring out of a tall chimney. He asked if that was hell: an inquiry that was received with great displeasure which at the time he could not understand. The kindly father must have been pained almost against his own will at finding what feature of his stern creed it was that had embodied itself in so very material a shape before his little son's imagination. When in after days, Mrs. Macaulay was questioned as to how soon she began to detect in the child a promise of the future, she used to say that his sensibilities and affections were remarkably developed at an age which to her hearers appeared next to incredible. He would cry for joy on seeing her after a few hours' absence, and (till her husband put a stop to it) her power of exciting his feelings was often made an exhibition to her friends. She did not regard this precocity as a proof of cleverness, but, like a foolish young mother, only thought that so tender a nature was marked for early death.

"The new residence was in the High Street of Clapham, a more commodious part of London than that which they had just left. "It was a roomy, comfortable dwelling, with a very small garden behind, and in front a very small one indeed, which has entirely disappeared beneath a large shop thrown out toward the roadway by the present occupier, who bears the name of Heywood. Here the boy passed a quiet and most happy childhood. From the time that he was three years old he read incessantly, for the most part lying on the rug before the fire, with his book on the floor, and a piece of bread and butter in his hand. A very clever woman who then lived in the house as parlor-maid told how he used to sit in his nankeen frock, perched on the table by her as she was cleaning the plate, and expounding to her out of a volume as big as himself. He did not care for toys, but was very fond of taking his walk, when he would hold forth to his companion, whether nurse or mother, telling interminable stories, out of his own head, or repeating what he had been reading in language far above his years. His memory retained without effort the phraseology of the book which he had been last engaged on, and he talked, as the maid said, 'quite printed words,' which produced an effect that appeared formal, and often, no doubt, exceedingly droll. Mrs. Hannah More was fond of relating how she called at Mr. Macaulay's, and was met by a fair, pretty, slight child, with abundance of light hair, about four years of age, who came to the front door to receive her, and tell her that his parents were out, but that if she would be good enough to come in he would bring her a glass of old spirits, a proposition which greatly startled the old lady, who had never aspired beyond cowslip-wine. When questioned as to what he knew about old spirits he could only say that Robinson Crusoe often had some. About this period his father took him on a visit to Lady Waldegrave at Strawberry Hill, and was much pleased to exhibit to his old friend the fair, bright boy, dressed in a green coat with red collar and cuffs, a frill at the throat, and white trousers. After some time had been spent among the wonders of the Orford Collection, of which he ever after carried a catalogue in his head, a servant who was waiting on the company in the great gallery spilled some hot coffee over his legs. The hostess was all kindness and compassion, and when, after a while, she asked him how he was feeling, the little fellow looked up in her face, and replied, 'Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.'

"But it must not be supposed his quaint manners proceeded from affectation or conceit, for all testimony declares that a more simple and natural child never lived, or a more lively and merry one. He had at his command the resources of the Common; to this day the most unchanged spot within ten miles of St. Paul's, and which to all appearance will ere long hold that pleasant pre-eminence within ten leagues. That delightful wilderness of gorse bushes, and poplar groves and gravel pits, and ponds great and small, was to little Tom Macaulay a region of inexhaustible romance and mystery. He explored its recesses; he composed, and almost believed, its legends; he invented for its different features a nomenclature which has been faithfully preserved by two generations of children. A slight ridge intersected by deep ditches toward the west of the Common, the very existence of which no one above eight years old would notice, was dignified with the title of the Alps; while the elevated island, covered with shrubs, that gives a name to the Mount pond, was regarded with infinite awe, as being the nearest approach within the circuit of his observation to a conception of the majesty of Sinai. Indeed, at this period his infant fancy was much exercised with the threats and terrors of the Law. He had a little plot of ground at the back of the house, marked out as his own by a row of oyster shells, which a maid one day threw away as rubbish. He went straight to the drawing-room, where his mother was entertaining some visitors, walked into the circle and said, very solemnly, 'Cursed be Sally; for it is written, cursed be he that removeth his neighbor's landmark.'

"When still the merest child, he was sent as a day-scholar to Mr. Greaves, a shrewd Yorkshireman with a turn for science, who had been brought originally to the neighborhood in order to educate a number of African youths sent over to imbibe Western civilization at the fountain-head. The poor fellows had found as much difficulty in keeping alive at Clapham as Englishmen experience at Sierra Leone; and, in the end, their tutor set up a school for boys of his own color, and one time had charge of almost the entire rising generation of the Common. Mrs. Macaulay explained to Tom that he must learn to study without the solace of bread-and-butter, to which he replied, 'Yes, Mama, industry shall be my bread and attention my butter.' But, as a matter of fact, no one ever crept more unwillingly to school. Each several afternoon he made piteous entreaties to be excused returning after dinner, and was met by the unvarying formula, 'No, Tom, if it rains cats and dogs, you shall go.'

"His reluctance to leave home had more than one side to it. Not only did his heart stay behind, but the regular lessons of the class took him away from occupations which in his eyes were infinitely more delightful and important; for these were probably the years of his greatest literary activity. As an author he never again had more facility, or anything like so wide a range. In September, 1808, his mother writes: 'My dear Tom continues to show marks of uncommon genius. He gets on wonderfully in all branches of his education, and the extent of his reading, and of the knowledge he derived from it, are truly astonishing in a boy not yet eight years old. He is at the same time as playful as a kitten. To give you some idea of the activity of his mind I will mention a few circumstances that may interest you and Colin. You will believe that to him we never appear to regard anything he does as anything more than a schoolboy's amusement. He took it into his head to write a compendium of universal history about a year ago, and he really contrived to give a tolerably connected view of the leading events from the creation to the present time, filling about a quire of paper. He told me one day that he had been writing a paper which Henry Daly was to translate into Malabar, to persuade the people of Travancore to embrace the Christian religion. On reading it, I found it to contain a very clear idea of the leading facts and doctrines of that religion, with some strong arguments for its adoption. He was so fired with reading Scott's Lay and Marmion, the former of which he got entirely, and the latter almost entirely, by heart, merely from his delight in reading them, that he determined on writing himself a poem in six cantos which he called The Battle of Cheviot.'"



In 1848 Macaulay was a famous man. He had served in India and had written the first part of his History of England. In this year after a lapse of nine years he again keeps a diary. From this diary we quote extracts showing how he became famous.

"Dec. 4th, 1848.—I have felt to-day somewhat anxious about the fate of my book. The sale has surpassed expectation: but that proves only that people have formed a high idea of what they are to have. The disappointment, if there is disappointment, will be great. All that I hear is laudatory. But who can trust to praise that is poured into his own ear? At all events, I have aimed high; I have tried to do something that may be remembered; I have had the year 2000, or even 3000, often in my mind; I have sacrificed nothing to temporary fashions of thought and style; and if I fail, my failure will be more honorable than nine-tenths of the successes that I have witnessed."

"Dec. 12th, 1848.—Longman called. A new edition of three thousand copies is preparing as fast as they can work. I have reason to be pleased. Of the Lay of the Last Minstrel two thousand two hundred and fifty copies were sold in the first year; of Marmion two thousand copies in the first month; of my book three thousand copies in ten days. Black says that there has been no such sale since the days of Waverley. The success is in every way complete beyond all hope and is the more agreeable to me because expectation had been wound up so high that disappointment was almost inevitable. I think, though with some misgivings, that the book will live."

"January 11th, 1849.—I am glad to find how well my book continues to sell. The second edition of three thousand was out of print almost as soon as it appeared, and one thousand two hundred and fifty of the third edition are already bespoken. I hope all this will not make me a coxcomb. I feel no intoxicating effect; but a man may be drunk without knowing it. If my abilities do not fail me, I shall be a rich man, as rich, that is to say, as I wish to be. But that I am already, if it were not for my dear ones. I am content, and should have been so with less. On the whole, I remember no success so complete, and I remember all Byron's poems and all Scott's novels."

"Saturday, January 27th.—Longman has written to say that only sixteen hundred copies are left of the third edition of five thousand, and that two thousand more copies must be immediately printed, still to be called the third edition.... Of such a run I had never dreamed. But I had thought that the book would have a permanent place in our literature, and I see no reason to alter that opinion."

"February 2d.—Mahon sent me a letter from Arbuthnot, saying that the Duke of Wellington was enthusiastic in admiration of my book. Though I am almost callous to praise now, this praise made me happy for two minutes. A fine old fellow!"

The above selections are from Macaulay's diary, as was said. Now come several from letters to a Mr. Ellis, to whom Macaulay sent many.

"March 8th, 1849.

"At last I have attained true glory. As I walked through Fleet Street the day before yesterday, I saw a copy of Hume at a book-seller's window with the following label: 'Only £2 2s. Hume's History of England, in eight volumes, highly valuable as an introduction to Macaulay.' I laughed so convulsively that the other people who were staring at the books took me for a poor demented gentleman. Alas for poor David! As for me, only one height of renown remains to be attained. I am not yet in Madam Tussaud's wax-works. I live, however, in hope of seeing one day an advertisement of a new group of figures—Mr. Macaulay, in one of his own coats, conversing with Mr. Silk Buckingham in Oriental costume, and Mr. Robert Montgomery in full canonicals."

"March 9th, 1850.

"I have seen the hippopotamus, both asleep and awake, and I can assure you that, awake or asleep, he is the ugliest of the works of God. But you must hear of my triumphs. Thackeray swears that he was eye-witness and ear-witness of the proudest event of my life. Two damsels were about to pass that doorway which we, on Monday, in vain attempted to enter, when I was pointed out to them. 'Mr. Macaulay,' cried the lovely pair. 'Is that Mr. Macaulay? Never mind the hippopotamus.' And having paid a shilling to see Behemoth, they left him in the very moment at which he was about to display himself to them in order to see—but spare my modesty. I can wish for nothing more on earth, now that Madam Tussaud, in whose Parthenon I once hoped for a place, is dead."

In his diary of June 30th, 1849, we find: "Today my yearly account with Longman is wound up. I may now say that my book has run the gauntlet of criticism pretty thoroughly. The most savage and dishonest assailant has not been able to deny me merit as a writer. All critics who have the least pretense to impartiality have given me praise which I may be glad to think that I at all deserve.... I received a note from Prince Albert. He wants to see me at Buckingham Palace at three to-morrow. I answered like a courtier; yet what am I to say to him? For, of course, he wants to consult me about the Cambridge professorship. How can I be just at once to Stephen and to Kemble?"

"Saturday, July 1st—To the Palace. The Prince, to my extreme astonishment, offered me the professorship, and very earnestly and with many flattering expressions, pressed me to accept it. I was resolute, and gratefully and respectfully declined. I should have declined, indeed, if only in order to give no ground to anybody to accuse me of foul play, for I have had difficulty enough in steering my course so as to deal properly both by Stephen and Kemble, and if I had marched off with the prize, I could not have been astonished if both had entertained a very unjust suspicion of me. But, in truth, my temper is that of the wolf in the fable, I cannot bear the collar, and I have got rid of much finer and richer collars than this. It would be strange if, having sacrificed for liberty, a seat in the Cabinet and twenty-five hundred pounds a year, I should now sacrifice liberty for a chair at Cambridge and four hundred pounds a year. Besides, I never could do two things at once. If I lectured well, my History must be given up, and to give up my History would be to give up much more than the emoluments of the professorship—if emolument were my chief object, which it is not now, nor ever was. The prince, when he found me determined, asked me about the other candidates."