She was, clearly, a remarkable but polarising figure: politically radical; internationally celebrated, especially in America, if not notorious; a pioneer as a woman working in a male-dominated field who both insisted on the irrelevance of her gender and drew attention to it. Until yesterday, I had never heard of Catharine Macaulay (1731-91; born Sawbridge, later Graham), the eighteenth-century historian, but after a happy hour or so in the library reading some of her works I’m now something of a fan. Her eight-volume History of England interpreted it as a never-ending struggle to win back the freedom and rights that had been enjoyed by the Anglo-Saxons but then crushed by the Normans and suppressed as far as possible by every subsequent dynasty; she also anticipated Mary Wollstonecraft in arguing that the apparent inferiority of women was simply a result of their mis-education. She commented on the ideas of both Burke and Hobbes – works which I haven’t yet been able to read – and was an acquaintance of George Washington and other American revolutionaries.
The reason for this little detour into the eighteen century is my embarrassment at the almost complete absence of women from my finished manuscript on Thucydides and the Idea of History; obviously I cite modern scholars like Emily Greenwood, Giovanna Ceserani and Marianne Pade, but my source material for how Thucydides was regarded between the 15th and 20th centuries is thoroughly male. Further, when these writers discuss the principles and rules of historiography, the historian they have in mind is clearly male, someone like them, and that left me with a dilemma: when paraphrasing rather than quoting their words, should I switch to more inclusive forms (whether s/he, him/her etc., or alternating between the genders), or should I stick with the more historically accurate but uncomfortable masculine form? I’d be interested to hear anyone’s views – still a small window to change the manuscript – but for the moment I’ve gone with the latter approach, and an embarrassed note in the preface so that at least no one thinks that I’ve unconsciously assumed that the ideal historian must be a man.
This then prompted one of the readers to suggest that I might look at Macaulay to see if she says anything about Thucydides. The good news is that I now have another example of the use of the Greek historian in compliments; Horace Walpole referred to Macaulay in a letter as ‘Dame Thucydides’. The bad news is that she doesn’t make any direct reference that I’ve been able to find, not even in her lists of what texts a pupil of hers should be able to read. There’s a general reference to Greek history as an important topic, which may be postponed until the student can read it in the original, but the authors she mentions are Plutarch and Demosthenes, as well as Plato, Homer, Euripides and Sophocles; her portrait of Pericles in her account of education in Athens looks very Plutarchian to me, focusing on how the Athenians had already been corrupted by earlier politicians so he was able to bribe them with money and the Parthenon.
Macaulay’s preface to the first volume of A History of England is tantalising. She emphasises the role of the historian in scrutinising the evidence and presenting a true account to the public, since so many people do not trouble to investigate the past properly. “I have ever looked upon a supposed knowledge of facts seen in the false mirror of misrepresentation as one of the grear banes of this country… The vulgar are at all times liable to be deceived” (pp. vii-viii). She emphasises that her task is the pursuit of truth, and apologises for her style. This does seem reminiscent of Thucydides – and if there is an influence, she puts a populist spin on it, insisting that if the general public is presented with a true account it will instantly recognise its merits, rather than Thucydides’ belief that his history will always remain the preserve of an elite few. But it’s all very vague, and very conventional – female writers were expected to be apologetic, all historians insist on their dedication to the truth – and I don’t think there’s enough here to demonstrate a direct link rather than a general influence from several centuries of historiographical platitudes, where Thucydides was just one of the original sources.
So, regrettably, I don’t think I can get her into the book. I’d be delighted if someone could change my mind, or find some more direct references in the works I haven’t been able to get hold of, and in the meantime I’ll simply enjoy a quiet pleasure at having encountered Dame Thucydides, also known as the Republican Virago.
Elizabeth Frayer, ‘Mary Wollstonecraft and Catharine Macaulay on education’, Oxford Review of Education 37.5 (2011), 603-17
Bridget Hill, The Republican Virago: the life and times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian (Oxford, 1992)
Devoney Looser, ‘Catharine Macaulay: the “female historian” in context’, Etudes episteme 17 (2010), 105-11