Picture the scene I’ve laid out here so many times before: an Emily reclined on a couch under an early-20th-century Princeton window, drinking tea out of the ceramic mug she decorated with her first-grade art skills, reading for class by the sunlight that cuts across what she, after the Oxonian fashion, persists in calling a “quad,” torn between the necessity of pushing through pages in order to get done the work that needs to be done, and stopping to enjoy the picture of academic life which would be recorded if someone came along to take a snapshot of this moment, a snapshot that says, How cool is it that this is Emily’s life? How lucky she is!
I wandered off on this self-regarding train of thought because I am reading Macaulay’s History of England today: a book which is not precisely great at holding one’s attention rapt, and that seems so classically historical that it’s impossible not to sit there laughing so much at yourself that you forget to turn the pages. I mean, really: how crazy is it that right now my purpose in life is to read and be able to talk in seminar about things like this, from the fifth chapter of Macaulay’s work:
At sunrise the next morning the search recommenced, and Buyse was found. He owned that he had parted from the Duke only a few hours before. The corn and copsewood were now beaten with more care than ever. At length a gaunt figure was discovered hidden in a ditch. The pursuers sprang on their prey. Some of them were about to fire: but Portman forbade all violence. The prisoner’s dress was that of a shepherd; his beard, prematurely grey, was of several day’s growth. He trembled greatly, and was unable to speak. even those who had often seen him were at first in doubt whether this were truly the brilliant and graceful Monmouth. His pockets were searched by Portman, and in them were found, among some raw pease gathered in the rage of hunger, a watch, a purse of gold, a small treatise on fortification, and album filled with songs, receipts, prayers, and charms, and the George with which, many years before, King Charles the Second had decorated his favourite son. Messengers were instantly despatched to Whitehall with the good news, and with the George as a token that the news was true. The prisoner was conveyed under a strong guard to Ringwood.
Macaulay’s style is obviously pretty novelistic, but the novelist it particularly puts me in mind of is Robert Louis Stevenson, whose Kidnapped I read at least a dozen times in academic year 2002-03. When you hear a song you haven’t heard in years on someone else’s playlist, you suddenly find your mind transported back to the time you first heard it, and what you were thinking and feeling then; I am the same way about stories of 17th- and 18th-century British politics, and the above passage from Macaulay reminds me of an encounter in the Scottish wilderness when Stevenson’s protagonist, David, sees the villainous “Red Fox” assassinated. Macaulay is of course writing about a different century, elaborating upon a different facet of the Stuart story, but here we are nevertheless back searching out rebels from the British countryside! Here we are back with Whigs and Tories and the trouble caused by Scotland and by France as if nothing had ever happened since the first time I heard the Jacobite anthem “Will Ye No’ Come Back Again?” and found myself converted to the sentimentality of a long-dead political cause.
I suppose early modern British politics will always mean my troubled early teenage years, to me. I suppose that reading about them will always seem to me to be as strange a theatrical role as when I strolled down school corridors in petticoats. And I wonder if, then, I might have suspect that after all that’s happened in seven or eight years of adolescence, I might have come back to the Jacobites again. Reader, I cannot tell you how strange it feels.