The intersection of history and literature in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain has received a great deal of attention lately, and critics like Mark Phillips and Karen O’Brien have drawn attention to the ways in which Romantic historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay drew on literary techniques and genres to create evocative and spectacular histories. But the same milieu that produced Macaulay also produced Robert Southey, whose much less discussed Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829) foregrounds another affective history in the period, one dependent on a generic intersection between history and travel writing. Part picturesque tour, part social history, and part ghost story, Colloquies figured prominently in the larger cultural debate over the question of reform in Britain, and it offers an important counterpoint to Romantic histories such as Macaulay’s. Combining history with travel writing and dream vision, Southey exploits their convergence to create a different kind of spectacular history. This generic convergence—in particular, Southey’s use of the picturesque—is central to Macaulay’s indictment of Southey’s historical methodology in his review of Colloquies. The Southey-Macaulay contest over the idea of a picturesque history is part of a larger debate that was taking place about the status of history in post-Waterloo Britain.
The intersection of history and literature in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain has received a great deal of attention lately, and critics like Mark Phillips and Karen O’Brien have drawn attention to the ways in which Romantic historians drew on literary techniques and genres in their histories. Phillips, for instance, traces in late-eighteenth and early- nineteenth-century Britain a shift in historiography’s modus operandi from narrating action to rendering experience. He argues that, influenced by developments taking place in other genres such as fiction and biography, historians moved social and sentimental questions to the centre of their own artistic endeavour so that “[for] the first time, evocation become an important goal of historical narrative, and sympathetic identification came to be seen as one of the pleasures of historical reading” (xii). For her part, Karen O’Brien notes how the “fully spectacular” narrative histories of the Romantic period had their roots in the eighteenth century’s sense of history as a “form of spectacle designed to awaken the imagination and stimulate the sensibility” (8). In different ways, the kind of historiography that critics like Phillips and O’Brien have in mind is represented by a figure like Thomas Babington Macaulay and his celebrated History of England (1848-1861) which sought to animate national history by drawing on the powers of fiction. But the same milieu that produced Macaulay also produced Robert Southey, whose much less discussed Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829) foregrounds another affective history in the period, one dependent on a generic intersection between history and travel writing. Part picturesque tour, part social history, and part ghost story, Colloquies figures prominently in the larger cultural debate over the question of reform in Britain, and it offers an important counterpoint to the historiography of a figure like Macaulay.
“A perfect historian must possess an imagination sufficiently powerful to make his narrative affecting and picturesque,” wrote Macaulay in his essay “History” (1:236). “Yet he must control it so absolutely as to content himself with the materials which he finds, and to refrain from supplying deficiencies by additions of his own” (1:236). In 1828 Macaulay outlined his theory of historiography in two essays for the Edinburgh Review, “History” and “Hallam.” The kind of historiography he championed in these early essays set the measure for his own history writing and is important to present day configurations of Romantic historiography. Macaulay begins his essay “History” by locating history “on the confines of two distinct territories,” one governed by reason, the other by imagination (1:235). The problem with contemporary historians, he argues, is that they neglect the imagination in favour of reason. Concentrating on facts and dates, they produce dry, lifeless histories. Macaulay thus urges them to reclaim the imagination. In particular, he proposes that they draw on the rhetorical and descriptive strategies of historical novelists such as Scott to make their histories more affective. This is not to say that they should abandon truth for fiction, for Macaulay makes clear that the ideal historian “relates no fact, he attributes no expression to his characters, which is not authenticated by sufficient testimony” (1:280). Rather, “by judicious selection, rejection, and arrangement, he gives to truth those attractions which have been usurped by fiction” (1:280). Key to Macaulay’s theory of historiography is the notion of evocation developed in the essay “Hallam,” written the same year as “History”:
To make the past present, to bring the distant near, to place us in the society of a great man or on the eminence which overlooks the field of a mighty battle, to invest with the reality of human flesh and blood beings whom we are too much inclined to consider as personified qualities in an allegory, to call up our ancestors before us with all their peculiarities of language, manners, and garb, to show us over their houses, to seat us at their tables, to rummage their old-fashioned wardrobes, to explain the uses of their ponderous furniture, these parts of the duty which properly belongs to the historian have been appropriated by the historical novelist.1:285
For Macaulay, the ideal historian combines imagination and reason to create for his reader a sort of “living history” (1:283). He makes the “past present” and brings the “distant near.” The theory of historiography Macaulay outlines in these early essays anticipates the development of the “picturesque narration” (the term is J.W. Burrow’s) characterizing his influential History.
The year after Macaulay’s essay on “History” appeared, Southey answered its call for an “affecting” and “picturesque” history, but in his own way. Combining history with travel writing and dream vision, he exploits their convergence to create a different kind of spectacular history. Colloquies opens on a melancholy evening in November 1817. Southey’s literary alter ego, Montesinos, is sitting alone in his library when an elderly man enters. The visitor introduces himself as a “stranger from a distant country” and requests admittance (1: 3). At first Montesinos assumes that the stranger is an American tourist who has come to visit the lakes, but he is soon corrected: “I am [. . .] English by birth,” the stranger informs him, “and come now from a more distant country than America, wherein I have long been naturalized” (1: 4). Southey’s stranger comes not from the “New World” but from the “other one,” and he identifies himself as the ghost of Sir Thomas More (1: 13). The ghost explains that he has appeared to Montesinos in particular because the speaker has long reflected on the changes that have taken place between Sir Thomas More’s age and his own, and because certain similarities exist between the two men, the most obvious of which is their youthful speculations on Utopias. As such biographical detail suggests, Montesinos is but a thinly disguised Southey, and Colloquies proceeds to outline by way of dialogue between Montesinos and Sir Thomas More Southey’s thoughts on the progress and prospects of society.
It is important that Southey’s stranger is English rather than foreign. Unlike enlightenment travel narratives, such as Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1762) or Southey’s own earlier work of pseudo-travel, Letters from England (1807), which evoke foreign perspectives in order to criticize the familiar, Colloquies criticizes the English present via the English past. Contact and exchange take place not between different countries or cultures but rather between different time periods: in particular, between Reformation and post-Waterloo Britain. Reaching across time rather than across borders, Colloquies supports a Burkean understanding of the nation as historical continuity. Indeed, Southey’s ghostly More renders eerily literal Burke’s understanding of the English nation as “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” (147). For Southey, those who are patriotic on earth continue to take an interest in their nations after death: “as parents who are in bliss regard still with parental love the children whom they have left on earth,” More explains to Montesinos, “we, in like manner [. . .] look with apprehension upon the perils of our country” (1: 17). Significantly, Southey draws on the vocabulary of familial relations to make his point about patriotism: for him, as for Burke, love of country is first and foremost an affection for hearth and home. But the key point here is that this love of country extends from this world into the next. Southey’s resurrection of the patriotic More thus closes the distance between past and present generations and, in the context of 1820s Britain, serves as a timely reminder to the present generation that it does not have the inalienable right to reshape the nation into whatever form it pleases.
Colloquies couples this emphasis on historical continuity with local attachment, the other cornerstone of the Burkean nation. More’s visits give Southey the opportunity to describe some of his favourite spots in the Lake District, and Colloquies includes not only detailed descriptions of local landmarks such as Walla Crag and Derwentwater but also etchings of six of the spots described in the book. Accompanied by More, Montesinos undertakes a number of day trips in and around Southey’s beloved Lake District. Each trip begins and ends at Southey’s own Keswick home. Travel here is not foreign or exploratory but rather domestic and routine, and it supports Southey’s insular sense of Englishness as something rooted in love of hearth and home. In this way, Southey turns the enlightenment comparative impulse in upon itself, grounding his work firmly in English history and English soil. Southey’s understanding of the nation as historical continuity perpetrated by local attachment underpins the political argument in Colloquies, and his emphasis on love of hearth and home links his tour of the Lake District to his conservative social history.
Southey’s tour of the Lake District belongs to the home-grown genre of the picturesque tour, and Southey self-consciously appropriates its discourse for his own use, borrowing words from the “Tourist’s Vocabulary” and viewing the Lake District with a picturesque eye (1: 121). As in other picturesque tours, such as Thomas West’s paradigmatic Guide to the Lakes (1778), Southey’s directions to the reader in the Colloquies are direct and specific, and, like West, he selects several “remarkable station[s]” for particular notice (1: 121). Southey also makes use of the genre’s distinctive “two-point model of touring” noted by Alan Liu “in which description, after a strenuous effort, finally orders the point-scenes as a hierarchy of ‘low’ to ‘high,’ as a structure with an innate motive for forward momentum” (8-9). In colloquy 6, for example, Southey describes an excursion to the popular tourist destination of Walla Crag. “You leave Borrodale road about a mile and half from the town,” he directs the reader, “[. . .] and, crossing a wall by some stepping stones, go up the wood, having a brook, or what in the language of the country is called a beck, on the right hand” (1: 120). The reader thus arrives at the first station: “I scarcely know any place more delightful than this was in a sultry day,” Southey effuses, “for the fine composition of the scene, its refreshing shade and sound, and the sense of deep retirement; [. . .] but the woodman has been there!” (1: 120). Marked by the woodman’s presence, however, this first station falls short of a second that lies a little further up the mountain. It is at this second—higher—station that Southey instructs his reader to stop, rest, and “behold a scene of the most striking and peculiar character”:
The water, the rocky pavement, the craggy sides, and the ash tree, form the foreground and the frame of this singular picture. You have then the steep descent, open on one side to the lake, and on the other with the wood, half way down and reaching to the shore; the lower part of Derwentwater below, with its islands; the vale of Keswick, with Skiddaw for its huge boundary and bulwark, to the North; and where Basenthwaite stretches into the open country, a distance of water, hills, and remote horizon, in which Claude would have found all he desired, and more than even he could have represented, had he beheld it in the glory of a midsummer sunset.1: 122
Southey’s description emphasizes representation. He introduces the scene as a “singular picture” complete with foreground and frame. He evokes the authority of the ubiquitous Claude, assuring the reader that the scene more than meets such an artist’s aesthetic desires. And he includes an etching of William Westall’s drawing “Derwentwater, Bassenthwaite-Water and Skiddaw from Walla Crag” on the following page. Represented verbally by Southey, hypothetically by Claude, and visually by Westall’s drawing, the scene is clearly overdetermined. But the key point is that Southey draws on the familiar and pre-set paradigm of the picturesque tour to frame his conservative social history.
By setting his tour in the Lake District in particular, Southey joins a long list of writers from West to Wordsworth touting the beauties of the district. Indeed, Southey’s Lake District is a place much frequented by tourists—for better and for worse. “Of the very many Tourists who are annually brought to this Land of Lakes by what have now become the migratory habits of the opulent classes,” Southey complains at the beginning of colloquy 12, “there is a great proportion of persons who are desirous of making the shortest possible tarriance in any place; whose object is to get through their undertaking with as little trouble as they can, and whose inquiries are mainly directed to find out what is not necessary for them to see; happy when they are comforted with the assurance, that it is by no means required of them to deviate from the regular track, and that that which cannot be seen easily, need not be seen at all” (2: 59). Rootless, conspicuous, lazy, and perfunctory, such tourists underline the link between the picturesque and an emergent consumer economy. Fuelled by the profits of industry, they rush through the Lake District consuming vistas and views like periodicals and paper money—both of which Southey also associates in Colloquies with the commercial class and presents as ephemeral. Yet these superficial tourists are not the only picturesque tourists visiting the Lake District, and Southey is careful to distinguish them from those of a more Wordsworthian cast who “truly enjoy the opportunities which are thus afforded them, and have a genuine generous delight in beholding the grandeur and the lovelier scenes of mountainons [sic] region” (2: 59). Tourists of this latter sort respond to their surroundings not with the bored detachment of the superficial tourists but rather with genuine feeling.
To make his point, Southey activates the familiar Romantic conflation of appreciation of nature and moral or spiritual improvement. Superficial tourists, he suggests, leave the Lake District as they came: unmoved and unchanged. Wordsworthian tourists, on the other hand, take from their travels not only the immediate benefit of improved physical health but also moral and spiritual sustenance for the days to come. The love of natural scenery that these tourists acquire in the Lake District, Southey explains, “is one of our most abiding as well as our present enjoyments, [. . .] a sentiment which seems at once to humble and exalt us, which from natural emotion leads us to devotional thoughts and religious aspirations, grows therefore with our growth, and strengthens when our strength is failing us (2: 60). In this formulation, the landscape of the Lake District operates as a panacea, protecting country-dweller and city-dweller alike from the moral and spiritual ills that Southey sees emanating out of the cities and manufacturing districts of post-Waterloo Britain. Set against the self-interested, superficial, and changeable landscape of commercial Britain, the picturesque landscape of the Lake District reflects old English values such as community, tradition, and slow change.
The regenerative power of the Lake District is crucial to Southey’s Wordsworthian tourist. In a suggestive moment in colloquy 6, Southey stops by a mountain stream near Castlerigg and recalls the sight of a flock of geese playing there on a sunny summer’s day months before: “It was,” he remembers fondly, “the most beautiful scene of animal enjoyment that I ever beheld, or ever shall behold” (1: 146). Stream, geese, and sunshine, he remarks, “composed a picture, which like that of Wordsworth’s daffodils, when it has once been seen, the inward eye can re-create, but which no painter could represent” (1: 146). Like Wordsworth’s daffodils, Southey’s scene of animal enjoyment is stored in his memory to be “re-created” in his imagination at a later time. Moreover, because it is written down in Colloquies, the scene can be “re-created” in his reader’s imagination also. Southey’s picturesque tour is thus regenerative in more than one sense: it both re-creates (the absent landscape of the Lake District) and restores (the moral and spiritual health of author and reader).
Southey’s recreation of the landscape is aimed at restoring more than the individual reader: its underlying desire is to preserve a model of nation under threat by liberal thought in the period. Southey’s descriptions of the historical and geographical landmarks of the Lake District provide a material brace for the conservative political ruminations that lie at the book’s core. Southey’s description of the Druidical Stones in colloquy 3, for example, supports a more abstract argument against constitutional reform in Britain. “So I walked to the Circle of Stones upon the Penrith road,” Southey writes, “because there is a long hill upon which would give the muscles some work to perform; and because the sight of this rude monument which has stood during so many centuries, and is likely, if left to itself, to outlast any edifice that man could have erected, gives me always a feeling, which, however often it may be repeated, loses nothing of its force” (1: 40). For Southey, the Circle’s power—its ability to elicit feeling in the observer—lies in its permanence. The monument has literally stood the test of time. Not so, however, the surrounding countryside, and Southey’s description goes on to register several key changes that have occurred since the stones were first put in place: the hill outside the stones has been enclosed and cultivated, larch trees have been planted in the centre of the stones to protect a recently-planted oak tree, and a stepping-stile has been added to give Lakers easier access to the monument. Despite such “improvements” in the surrounding countryside, however, the monument itself has been “carefully preserved” (1: 41). It is, Southey insists, “as perfect at this day, as when Cambrian Bards [. . .] met there for the last time” (1: 41).
Set against the debate over constitutional reform in 1820s Britain, Southey’s description of the Circle of Stones is highly suggestive. For advocates of reform such as Macaulay, the constitution stood as an obsolete monument to a dead past. If the constitution was to reflect the current state of the nation, they argued, it needed to be amended. For opponents of reform such as Southey, however, the constitution was a living inheritance upon which the continued strength and security of the nation rested. For them, the constitution’s power to evoke feeling—in particular, that love of country that stands at the heart of the Burkean nation—lay in its permanence. Moreover, the constitution’s continued power to evoke feeling was contingent on its continued preservation, for only “if left to itself” was it likely to “outlast any edifice that man could have erected.” In this reading, Southey’s description of the Circle of Stones contains an implicit warning against constitutional reform. But it anchors a more explicit warning as well. Paired with the subject “Visitations of Pestilence,” Southey’s visit to the Druidical Stones initiates a discussion of the health of post-Waterloo Britain.
Standing beside the Circle of Stones, Montesinos asserts that it is undeniable that society has improved in many ways since the time of the Druids. Human sacrifice, for one, has been eliminated. Sir Thomas More agrees, but he insists that although certain forms of pestilence have been eradicated since the time of the Druids, new ones have appeared. Science, for instance, may have learned to treat some indigenous diseases, but increased international trade has brought new diseases to British soil, diseases that are as yet incurable. In addition to new forms of pestilence, More argues, old forms continue: war, famine, and plague are as much of a concern in post-Waterloo Britain as they were in Druidical times. Even within Montesinos’s own lifetime, More points out, England has been spared the horrors of foreign invasion on two occasions (the American and Napoleonic wars), and the possibility of famine or plague taking root in overpopulated centres like London was increasing rather than decreasing with each passing year. Southey’s point is clear: “Were society to be stationary at its present point,” More and Montesinos agree, “the bulk of the people would, on the whole, have lost rather than gained by the alterations which have taken place during the last thousand years” (1: 47).
Championing the feudal past over the commercial present, Southey’s reading of history departs from enlightenment narratives of progress such as Adam Smith’s which tie commercial progress to societal progress in general and which depict European history as a linear march forward. In so doing, it challenges the idea of progress, which was fundamental to the push for reform in Britain. In colloquy 3, More informs Montesinos that progress is not as even as was often supposed: certain nations improve while others regress, and even within improving nations, all classes do not benefit equally. England is no exception. Ancient (pre-Roman) Britain, he explains, was superior in many ways to the Britain of the present day. The labouring classes in particular were better fed, better clothed, and little worse housed than they are in the present time. Moreover, they were more religious and, on the whole, more content. But the high point for the labouring classes thus far, as Southey goes on to suggest in colloquy 4, was in More’s own age, when the “feudal system had well nigh lost all its inhuman parts, and the worse inhumanity of the commercial system had not yet shown itself” (1: 62). For Southey, the advent of the commercial system did not benefit the nation collectively as political economists of the Scottish school liked to suggest. Rather, by destroying the traditional feudal relationship between landlord and vassal it brought new sorts of poverty and despair. Indeed, one of the repercussions of the breakdown of the feudal system was the creation of a new class: vagabonds with neither homes nor employment. Now a constituent part of modern society, these vagabonds have become the vocal and unruly mobs threatening British order (1: 97).
To make his point about the commercial system, Southey turns to the picturesque, exploiting its anti-industrial and anti-urban bias and claiming the category for his own cause. The effects of the commercial system become visible, he suggests in colloquy 7, when one compares the cottages of an agricultural village such as Applethwaite to those of an industrial village like the nearby Millbeck. These are the cottages of Applethwaite:
Substantially built of native stone without mortar, dirtied with no white-lime, and their long low roofs covered with slate, if they had been raised by the magic of some indigenous Amphion’s music, the materials could not have adjusted themselves more beautifully in accord with the surrounding scene; and time has still farther harmonized them with weather stains, lichens and moss, short grasses and short fern, and stone plants of various kinds. The ornamented chimnies, round or square, less adorned than those which, like little turrets, crest the houses of the Portugueze peasantry, and yet not less happily suited to their place; the hedge of clipt box beneath the windows, the rose bushes beside the door, the little patch of flower ground with its tall holyocks in front, the garden beside, the bee-hives, and the orchard with its bank of daffodils and snow-drops, (the earliest and the profusest in these parts,) indicate in the owners some portion of ease and leisure, some regard to neatness and comfort, some sense of natural and innocent and healthful enjoyment.1: 173-174
Activating the well-established conflation of aesthetics and morality of the period, Southey makes the picturesque a reliable guide to correct moral judgement. Built of “native stone,” adorned with local vegetation, and naturally weathered by time, the Applethwaite cottages are “such as the poet and the painter equally delight in beholding” (1: 173). The cottages of the industrial village of Milbeck, in contrast, stand “naked, and in a row” (1: 173). Hastily constructed and uniform in appearance, they resemble any other mass-produced goods. “From the largest of Mammon’s temples down to the poorest hovel in which his helotry are stalled, the edifices have all one character,” Southey complains: “Time cannot mellow them; Nature will neither clothe nor conceal them; and they remain always as offensive to the eye as to the mind!” (1: 174). Inorganic, unclothed, and unnatural, the industrial cottages—like the industrial workers living within them—lack any attachment to the countryside upon which they are found.
“The anti-industrialism implicit in the picturesque grew out of the split between agrarian and industrial capitalism, which would widen considerably after the Napoleonic wars, and the nostalgia of the picturesque anticipated and compensated for the resulting shift of power away from the countryside after Waterloo,” writes Ann Bermingham in Landscape and Ideology (83). Southey’s description of the contrasting cottages of Applethwaite and Milbeck reflects the wider conflict Bermingham notes between agricultural and commercial systems in post-Waterloo Britain. For Southey, the commercial system disrupts the natural ties and domestic affections that lie at the heart of the Burkean nation. “How is it,” Southey asks rhetorically, “that every thing which is connected with manufacturers, presents such features of unqualified deformity?” (1: 174). Against the growing industrialization of the English countryside and the urban-led push for reform, Colloquies presents a nostalgic vision of an older, agrarian England steeped in historical continuity and local attachment.
If Southey’s Colloquies can be read in terms of a larger battle for cultural hegemony taking place in post-Waterloo Britain, so too can Macaulay’s review of Southey’s text. Drawing attention to the significance of this review for Macaulay, Jane Millgate asserts that there can be “little doubt” that the essay on Southey had “a direct relevance for the progress of Macaulay’s political career” (27). Published in the January 1830 issue of the Edinburgh Review, Macaulay’s review of Southey’s Colloquies was a timely celebration of Whig principles, instrumental in securing Macaulay a seat in the House of Commons. Indeed, for the Whiggish Macaulay, Southey was an “Ultra-Tory” and his Colloquies an “absurd fiction,” “wholly destitute of information and amusement,” and Southey’s biggest failure since Vision of Judgement (2:116, 125). What arises in Macaulay’s review, however, is not only a direct refutation of Southey’s Tory politics but also a broader indictment of his historical methodology.
For the Scottish-school-tutored Macaulay, history unfolds as an uninterrupted and linear narrative of progress. Not surprisingly, then, he takes issue with Southey’s revisionist reading of history: in particular, Southey’s assertion that the feudal past was superior to the commercial present. Such a reading of history, Macaulay insists, misrepresents the true state of affairs as described by the records and mortality statistics of the times: “We might with some plausibility maintain that the people live longer because they are better fed, better lodged, better clothed, and better attended in sickness; and that these improvements are owing to that increase of national wealth which the manufacturing system has produced” (2:130). It is short-sighted as well. Progress may include short pauses and small regressions, Macaulay concedes, but its general direction is never in doubt: “A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in” (2:162). If Macaulay disagrees with Southey’s reactionary views on the progress of society, he disagrees with Southey’s idea of its prospects as well: “We see the wealth of nations increasing, and all the arts of life approaching nearer and nearer to perfection, in spite of the grossest corruption and the wildest profusion on the part of rulers” (2:162). For the progressive Macaulay, it is the people—and not the government (as for the Tory Southey)—that will carry the nation forward: “Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties”(2:165). Macaulay famously concludes: “Let the Government do this: the people will assuredly do the rest” (2:165).
Central to Macaulay’s criticism of Colloquies was Southey’s aesthetic approach to politics:
Government is to Mr Southey one of the fine arts. He judges of a theory or a public measure, of a religion, a political party, a peace or a war, as men judge of a picture or a statue, by the effect produced on his imagination. A chain of associations is to him what a chain of reasoning is to other men; and what he calls his opinions, are in fact merely his tastes.2:117
Southey’s pointed description of the villages of Appelthwaite and Milbeck is a case in point. “Mr. Southey,” Macaulay states sardonically, “has found out a way, he tells us, in which the effects of manufactures and agriculture may be compared. And what is this way? To stand on a hill, to look at a cottage and a factory, and to see which is the prettier” (2:131). Neglecting reason in favour of the imagination, Southey roots his political musings in personal feelings rather than scientific fact. In short, he “makes the picturesque the test of political good” (2:131). By no means was Macaulay’s word on Colloquies the last. In June 1830, for example, the conservative Fraser’s Magazine launched an enthusiastic defence of Southey and his Colloquies, heralding the poet laureate as an innocent victim in Macaulay’s unbridled push for literary recognition and political power. Marked for particular refutation in Fraser’s review was Macaulay’s statement that Southey regarded politics “not as a matter of science, but as a matter of taste and feeling” (qtd. in Madden 383). Southey may not be not a “keen disputant,” Fraser’s concedes, but his style is laudable, his theories and histories esteemed world-wide, his person venerable, and his purpose altogether irreproachable (qtd. in Madden 382). For true instances of political inconsistency, Fraser’s suggests, Macaulay should look to members of his own House “who have wantonly and impudently forfeited their pledged faith to their country—and apostatised and ratted from their own confiding party for a worse motive than defect of taste or misapplication of feeling—FOR BASE WORLDLY EMOLUMENT AND A HIRELING STIPEND” (qtd. in Madden 383).
In her discussion of the relationship between history and fiction in “Revenge of Literature,” Linda Orr writes, “It is as if history awakes in the nineteenth century surprised and even horrified to see how closely it is coupled with fiction. It seeks thereafter to widen a difference within its very self, in order not to be engulfed by that other self—and the effect is to invent the modern definition of history, to inaugurate a tradition by rewriting the history of history, and in so doing to instate that difference as science” (3). The modern definition of history, Orr argues, rests on the exclusion of history’s own fictionality, and that fable itself becomes history’s “double” (1). In his review of Southey’s Colloquies, Macaulay performs a similar move, pushing the picturesque outside the bounds of “proper history.” At issue here, as Orr suggests, is history’s relationship to truth. As a category that privileges subjective experience, the picturesque threatens history’s status as objective knowledge. Based in taste rather than reason, it is unverifiable and impressionistic, as is Southey’s “picturesque history,” which lacks the objectivity and scientific rigour demanded by proper history. Writing his famous introduction to History of England (1848-1861), Macaulay asserts:
It will be my endeavor to relate the history of the people as well as the history of the government, to trace the progress of useful and ornamental arts, to describe the rise of religious sects and the changes of literary taste, to portray the manners of successive generations, and not to pass by with neglect even the revolutions which have taken place in dress, furniture, repasts, and public amusements. I shall cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history, if I can succeed in placing before the English of the nineteenth century a true picture of the life of their ancestors.1: 3
Macaulay’s “true picture” is not Southey’s “picturesque” history. And in the end it is Macaulay’s History—and not Southey’s—that became the paradigm for the kind of historiography that would dominate the nineteenth century.
In his classic critique of the Whig interpretation of history, Herbert Butterfield warned of the “tendency for all history to veer over into whig history” (6). Historians, Butterfield points out, tend “to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present” (v). Butterfield associates this Whig interpretation of history not with members of a particular political party but rather with a particular method of organizing historical knowledge, one he sees as characterized by a series of fallacies and false assumptions. “The total result of this method is to impose a certain form upon the whole historical story,” he explains, “and to produce a scheme of general history which is bound to converge beautifully upon the present—all demonstrating throughout the ages the workings of an obvious principle of progress, of which the Protestants and whigs have been the perennial allies while Catholics and tories have perpetually formed obstruction” (12). So far, so obvious. But Butterfield goes on to make a shrewd point. “If we see in each generation the conflict of the future against the past, the fight of what might be called progressive versus reactionary, we shall find ourselves organising the historical story upon what is really an unfolding principle of progress, and our eyes will be fixed upon certain people who appear as the special agencies of that progress,” he warns (45-46). “But if we see in each generation a clash of wills out of which there emerges something that probably no man ever willed, our minds become concentrated upon the process that produced such an unpredictable issue, and we are more open for an intensive study of the motions and interactions that underlie historical change” (46). Butterfield’s point is worth taking seriously. So long as we continue to see Romantic historiography as part of larger narrative about the development of history writing, our eyes will remained fixed upon “progressive” historians such as Macaulay. If, however, we shift our attention the “motions and interactions” that underlie nineteenth-century historiography, we will bring back into useful view “reactionary” historians such as Southey, and in so doing challenge our own reading of the story of the writing of history in the period.
Criticism has generally focussed on the importance of Colloquies as a social history: Raymond Williams, for instance, sees it as a key text in the development of Christian Socialism, and Geoffrey Carnall finds its social vision prophetic of the modern nation-state.
Southey of course had made several previous forays into the genre, writing among others a six-page preface to William Westall’s Views of the Lake and of the Vale of Keswick (1820).
As recent critical debate suggests, the picturesque is itself an over-determined category. See for example, Fulford; Copley and Garside; Michasiw. On the relationship between domestic tourism and consumption in particular, see Andrews and Fabricant.
On Wordsworth and the picturesque, see Liu.
Millgate offers an insightful close reading of Macaulay’s review of Southey’s Colloquies in chapter 2 of her Macaulay.
On the influence of the Scottish school on Macaulay’s thought, see Collini, Winch, and Burrow.
Butterfield’s statement about the implication of seeing in each present moment the conflict of the future against the past also nicely fits the Waverley Novels, much admired by Macaulay as exemplary histories.
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- ---. Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society. 2 vols. London: John Murray, 1831.
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