Chawton House Library Catharine Macaulay Workshop

May 9, 2013 at 7:49 PM (Uncategorized) ()


Chawton House Library will be celebrating the 250th anniversary of the publication of Catharine Macaulay‘s first volume of her History of England, with a one-day workshop, ‘A little sprig of laurel” Women writing history in the long eighteenth century’, on Thursday 26 September 2013.

The main speaker will be Professor Karen O’Brien from the University of Birmingham.

The library has issued a call for papers with abstracts of 250 words for papers of about 15 minutes. The papers can relate to Macaulay, her life and works, or any other female historians of the long eighteenth century.

Naturally, click over to the Chawton House Library website for more information about this workshop and other exciting events those of you lucky enough to live in, or soon to be visiting, the UK can enjoy.

For those of you who have not had the pleasure of encountering Catharine Macaulay, let me introduce you.

Catharine Sawbridge was born in Kent on 2 April 1731. After the death of her mother, Catharine and her siblings were basically left to their own devices under their father’s less than watchful eye. Her formal education was somewhat lacking due to her father’s employment of a rather ignorant governess. In Mary Hays’ 1803 biography of Catharine, she describes Catharine’s education blossoming upon Catharine finding her way “into her father’s well-furnished library, [where] she became her own purveyor, and rioted in intellectual luxury”. Indeed, in the introduction to her first volume of History of England, Macaulay wrote,

“From my early youth I have read with delight those histories which exhibit Liberty in its most exalted state, the annals of the Roman and the Greek republics. Studies like these excite that natural love of Freedom which lies latent in the breast of every rational being.”

Her contemporary, Elizabeth Carter, member of the famous Bluestocking Circle, described Macaulay as being “more deeply learned than becomes a fine lady”, which is a rather disappointing attitude from her fellow Bluestocking.


Portraits in the Characters of the Muses in the Temple of Apollo, by Richard Samuel, exhibited 1779. National Portrait Gallery London, NPG 4905.

Catharine married her first husband, the Scottish physician, George Macaulay in 1760. It was he who encouraged her in her historical enquiries and helped edit her first volume. Their marriage ended with his untimely death in 1766.

In 1778, her scandalous marriage at the age of 47 to William George, the 21-year old brother-in-law of her friend, Elizabeth Arnold saw her ridiculed by her contemporaries and in the popular periodicals.

However, her marriage appears to have been happy and in such a state, she completed the final volumes of her History of England and other works, and travelled to the United States with her husband where they met George Washington.


Macaulay by Robert Edge Pine, c. 1775. National Portrait Gallery London, NPG 5856.

I became quite enamoured of Catharine Macaulay when I was procrastinating through my Honours year. My dissertation, ‘Our Brains are as Fruitful as our Bodies’: Seventeenth-Century Women Defend their Ability and Desire for Learning, introduced me to many fabulous intelligent women, but it was Catharine who stayed with me. You have to love a woman who not only studies history, and manages to defeat the procrastination and actually write about it too, but who also was a bit of rebel in the romance stakes. Let’s face it, she seems to have had great taste in husbands. Her first encouraged her academic inclinations, which was a lot more than some of his contemporaries would have done. And she becomes England’s first infamous cougar when she married the man, I romantically assume, was her soul mate. They remained happily married until her death in 1791.

If you would like to learn more about Catharine Macaulay and other learned ladies as brilliant as her, although not quite like her, I thoroughly recommend Myra Reynolds’ The Learned Lady in England, 1650-1760. The fabulous Internet Archive have the entire volume in downloadable pdf form. You can also find three of Macaulay’s works there too, also free to download and enjoy. You have to register to download things, but it’s totally worth the few minutes it takes to do so.

Well, that’s enough from me. Time for me to get back to some procrastination over my own academic endeavour. If you are fortunate enough to attend the workshop at Chawton in September, do let us know. I would be happy to have you guest blog here about it. 


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