Macaulay gains on Gibbon

July 14, 1995

I rejoice that Jose Harris (THES, June 30) should plug Gibbon's claim to contemporary relevance so energetically, but her reflex Oxonian sideswipes at Macaulay are to be regretted.

Does not her use of the medium of an historical review essay to advocate the contemporary relevance of the past, while basing her claims on such themes as literary theory, internal barbarism, mass media, the enthralling read, station bookstalls and the market economy, betray a striking lack of awareness? (Copyright being another of Macaulay's interests, one wonders whether he contemplates filing a suit on Parnassus.) I may add that, given our current preoccupation with national identity and Britain's place in Europe, Macaulay's relevance today is many times greater than Gibbon's. Finally, Dr Harris claims that Macaulay has not survived the demise of a canon of "great historian", but I know not on what evidence. It used indeed to be an Oxford commonplace to sneer at Macaulay by way of reverencing Gibbon: but today Macaulay bulks rather larger than Gibbon in our history school. He is, inter alia, a central pillar of an imaginative inter-disciplinary paper in Victorian Intellect and Culture. And who was one of the prime movers behind this enterprise? Why, none other than Dr Harris!

PETER GHOSH St Anne's College, Oxford

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