A review of the first two volumes of Macaulay’s History of England from the Accession of James II.
In accordance with the labor-saving spirit of the age, we have in these volumes an admirable example of history made easy. Had they been published in his time, they might have found favor in the eyes of the poet Gray, who declared that his ideal of happiness was “to lie on a sofa and read eternal new romances.”
The style is that which lends such a charm to the author’s essays,– brilliant, epigrammatic, vigorous. Indeed, herein lies the fault of the work, when viewed as a mere detail of historical facts. Its sparkling rhetoric is not the safest medium of truth to the simple-minded inquirer. A discriminating and able critic has done the author no injustice in saying that, in attempting to give effect and vividness to his thoughts and diction, he is often overstrained and extravagant, and that his epigrammatic style seems better fitted for the glitter of paradox than the sober guise of truth. The intelligent and well-informed reader of the volume before us will find himself at times compelled to reverse the decisions of the author, and deliver some unfortunate personage, sect, or class from the pillory of his rhetoric and the merciless pelting of his ridicule. There is a want of the repose and quiet which we look for in a narrative of events long passed away; we rise from the perusal of the book pleased and excited, but with not so clear a conception of the actual realities of which it treats as would be desirable. We cannot help feeling that the author has been somewhat over-scrupulous in avoiding the dulness of plain detail, and the dryness of dates, names, and statistics. The freedom, flowing diction, and sweeping generality of the reviewer and essayist are maintained throughout; and, with one remarkable exception, the History of England might be divided into papers of magazine length, and published, without any violence to propriety, as a continuation of the author’s labors in that department of literature in which he confessedly stands without a rival,–historical review.
That exception is, however, no unimportant one. In our view, it is the crowning excellence of the first volume,–its distinctive feature and principal attraction. We refer to the third chapter of the volume, from page 260 to page 398,–the description of the condition of England at the period of the accession of James II. We know of nothing like it in the entire range of historical literature. The veil is lifted up from the England of a century and a half ago; its geographical, industrial, social, and moral condition is revealed; and, as the panorama passes before us of lonely heaths, fortified farm-houses, bands of robbers, rude country squires doling out the odds and ends of their coarse fare to clerical dependents,–rough roads, serviceable only for horseback travelling,–towns with unlighted streets, reeking with filth and offal, –and prisons, damp, loathsome, infected with disease, and swarming with vermin,–we are filled with wonder at the contrast which it presents to the England of our day. We no longer sigh for “the good old days.” The most confirmed grumbler is compelled to admit that, bad as things now are, they were far worse a few generations back. Macaulay, in this elaborate and carefully prepared chapter, has done a good service to humanity in disabusing well-intentioned ignorance of the melancholy notion that the world is growing worse, and in putting to silence the cant of blind, unreasoning conservatism.
In 1685 the entire population of England our author estimates at from five millions to five millions five hundred thousand. Of the eight hundred thousand families at that period, one half had animal food twice a week. The other half ate it not at all, or at most not oftener than once a week. Wheaten, loaves were only seen at the tables of the comparatively wealthy. Rye, barley, and oats were the food of the vast majority. The average wages of workingmen was at least one half less than is paid in England for the same service at the present day. One fifth of the people were paupers, or recipients of parish relief. Clothing and bedding were scarce and dear. Education was almost unknown to the vast majority. The houses and shops were not numbered in the cities, for porters, coachmen, and errand-runners could not read. The shopkeeper distinguished his place of business by painted signs and graven images. Oxford and Cambridge Universities were little better than modern grammar and Latin school in a provincial village. The country magistrate used on the bench language too coarse, brutal, and vulgar for a modern tap-room. Fine gentlemen in London vied with each other in the lowest ribaldry and the grossest profanity. The poets of the time, from Dryden to Durfey, ministered to the popular licentiousness. The most shameless indecency polluted their pages. The theatre and the brothel were in strict unison. The Church winked at the vice which opposed itself to the austere morality or hypocrisy of Puritanism. The superior clergy, with a few noble exceptions, were self-seekers and courtiers; the inferior were idle, ignorant hangerson upon blaspheming squires and knights of the shire. The domestic chaplain, of all men living, held the most unenviable position. “If he was permitted to dine with the family, he was expected to content himself with the plainest fare. He might fill himself with the corned beef and carrots; but as soon as the tarts and cheese-cakes made their appearance he quitted his seat, and stood aloof till he was summoned to return thanks for the repast, from a great part of which he had been excluded.”