Catharine Macaulay (1731-1791)
‘The situation and education of women, Hortensia, is precisely that which must necessarily tend to corrupt and debilitate both the powers of mind and body… The defects of female education have ever been a fruitful topic of declamation for the moralist; but not one of this class of writers have laid down any judicious rules for amendment.’
Letters on Education with observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (1790), pp. 129-130.
Catharine Macaulay was born Catherine Sawbridge in 1731, the second daughter of John, a landowner in Kent. Her mother Elizabeth (née Wanley) died when Macaulay was only two, and the young child was educated at home with her brother John. This education, however, seems to have consisted of little more than being let loose in her father’s library, where she and John read many works together, including Roman history. This early reading may have sown the love of history in the young Catharine, and encouraged her commitment to republican values. She certainly managed, despite her inauspicious beginning and lack of a formal education, to become the leading radical historian and polemicist of her age, immortalized in Richard Samuel’s 1778 painting ‘Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo’ as one of the nine living muses.
In 1760, Catharine married Dr George Macaulay, publishing the first volume of her History of England from the Accession of James I to That of the Brunswick Line (1763-83) just three years later. This was a hugely ambitious project, viewed in its own time as a Whig riposte to Hume’s Tory account of the Stuarts and Interregnum period. George Macaulay died in 1766, shortly after the publication of volume two of the History, leaving Catharine with a daughter, and comfortably off. She placed herself at the centre of radical London of the 1760s and early 1770s, holding a salon in her home, and working on the next volumes of her History.
Personal controversy came in 1778, when the 47-year-old Macaulay remarried. Her second husband was William Graham, who at 21 was more than 25 years her junior. Polite society ridiculed the match, which nonetheless appears to have been a happy one: Macaulay’s second husband outlived her, and erected a memorial to her in the parish church of Binfield where she died after a lengthy illness in 1791.
Macaulay is represented in this exhibition by two important works in the Chawton House Library collection. The first is a fine portrait by Joseph Wright of Derby, in which Dr Thomas Wilson (an admirer of Macaulay’s and a close personal acquaintance from 1774, when Macaulay moved to Bath) is seen reading Macaulay’s History of England with her daughter, also Catharine. The second exhibit is Macaulay’s 1790 Letters on Education, a remarkable work that inspired Mary Wollstonecraft’s more famous Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). Macaulay’s letters, addressed to ‘Hortensia’ include a brief history of education in Europe as well as thoughts on such topics as ‘Necessary Qualities in a Tutor’, ‘Literary Education of young persons’ and ‘No characteristic Difference in Sex’. Above all, Macaulay seeks to discourage coquetry and foster a taste for serious learning and rational reflection.