We are all very busy people and can hardly be expected to complete a satisfactory 500-word Blackboard post each week. I found myself held to this unreasonable standard just this past Monday, when Professor Anthony Grafton’s HIS 448, or History: Introduction to the Discipline, demanded of me an original page of commentary on the week’s lengthy reading assignment, Lord Thomas Babington’s mid-nineteenth century historical masterwork, The History of England. I’d been engaged with things, events, and other miscellany over the duration of the seven days prior, and by that point was, at best, ill-prepared to complete the task before me. What follows below is a makeshift work of spontaneous historiography, a biting commentary on academic principles, and above all, a noble attempt at honesty.

• • • • •

It is important to acknowledge that Penguin Books’ 1968 edition of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay’s The History of England was not printed at the behest of Lord Macaulay, nor, of course, did Penguin receive the deceased Lord’s permission to reprint it, but rather Penguin, in collaboration with historian-editor High Trevor-Roper, created the book of its own volition and for its own ends, ends not explicitly stated within the text of the book itself. Should we judge this practice as deceptive? Perhaps, but it is also expected, and indeed, acceptable: Penguin is, above all, a for-profit corporation intent on maximizing profit and providing its decision-makers with a comfortable living; the Penguin Classics branch achieves this end through the production of thoroughly researched, painstakingly copyedited, and aesthetically designed editions of old works whose original writers have expired along with their claims to copyright. Without them, however, most of us wouldn’t have Macaulay to read, his original manuscripts locked up someplace cold, dry, and impregnable.

The book’s cover and spine are described by “LORD MACAULAY” and “THE HISTORY OF ENGLAND” in bold capitals, but both also feature a small encircled penguin. The flightless birds are significant because the volume they adorn does not contain Lord Macaulay’s The History of England but Penguin’s rendering of it, which includes a brief biography of Macaulay; a title page; copyright information; a table of contents; Trevor-Roper’s lengthy introduction; an index; and advertisements for other Penguin products and publications. But Penguin’s changes are not all so explicit: as Trevor-Roper confesses on page 43, in addition to providing new bracketed explanatory footnotes, he omitted most of Macaulay’s own footnotes (he casts them off as “largely technical”); modernized Macaulay’s spelling; and broke up large paragraphs where he saw fit. In his defense the editor writes, “I have done this, I hope, on the rational principles of sense and euphony, which [Macaulay] himself would not reject.” He does not know, of course, what Macaulay would and would not reject, but he does know what Penguin Books would and would not reject, and we can safely assume that his chosen edits were fully in line with his employer’s desires.

It is reductive and misguided to consider all authors, editors, and publishers as mere profit-seekers, but it is naive to forget that they are, at least partially, just that. With works of historiography one must be especially careful: the objective of Trevor-Roper’s 36-page preamble is to investigate Macaulay’s intentions in writing and printing The History of England, and he pinpoints specific political and personal rewards that he thinks Macaulay sought. As Gianna Pomata writes in Versions of Narrative: Overt and Covert Narrators in Nineteenth Century Historiography, a historical account might be a histoire, a detached narrative of events, or a discours, a conversation between recounted events and their narrator. Macualay’s text is a histoire—the Lord is absent from it. Trevor-Roper’s comments attempt to inject Macaulay into his work, to deny Macaulay’s impartiality and uncover the discours lying just beneath the surface. But in doing so, Trevor-Roper diverts attention away from the fact that the Penguin edition, and his role within it, is too a discours posing as a histoire—the editor never divulges the personal and political rewards he and Penguin sought in their investigation of Macaulay. Trevor-Roper urges us not to trust Macaulay as the sole arbiter of historical truth, but why should we trust Trevor-Roper either?

The above analysis begs the question of my intention in writing the above as Rafael Abrahams, a Princeton student of September 2012. I shun hypocrisy and so I shall provide you with the explanation that I suspect you may have anticipated: My objective was to submit a thoughtful Blackboard post before the deadline, but because I was very short on time this past week, I hatched a plan to write something significant on the subjects of The History of England, Pomata’s article, and historiography without ever reading the former text, a lengthy and dense tome, to be sure. I hope to engage in some significant skimming between now and our meeting thirteen hours hence, and to then provide insights within our conversation that venture beyond the book’s peripheral features. If I have skirted Professor Grafton’s intention regarding this assignment, at least I have been honest.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.