I have been reading the letters of Macaulay, these printed in a handsome volume published a hundred years ago, and edited by his nephew George Otto Trevelyan. Some forty pages of this book excerpt the letters he wrote to his family and friends from India.

It was in June 1834 that Macaulay arrived in the sub-continent. Days later he wrote home of ‘the dark faces, with white turbans, and flowing robes: the trees not our trees: the very smell of the atmosphere that of a hothouse, and the architecture as strange as the vegetation’. In 1837, by which time he had been three years in India—mostly in Calcutta—Macaulay wrote to his friend Mrs Drummond of ‘the miseries of life in this country. We are annually baked four months, boiled four more, and allowed the remaining four to become cool if we can. At this moment the sun is blazing like a furnace. The earth, soaked with oceans of rain, is steaming like a wet blanket. Vegetation is rotting all around us. Insects and undertakers are the only living creatures which seem to enjoy the climate’.

It is impossible not to sympathize. For the Englishmen who came out to work in India, this would be a forever strange and sometimes hostile land. The weather was different—radically different; the clothes, the customs, the trees, the birds and the terrain too. The disjunctions were so great as to give the word ‘foreign’ a whole new meaning. Even allowing for the fact that they came here as rulers, day-to-day existence was chock-full of frustration and exasperation. How then did they cope?

Most colonialists sought consolation in sport. They formed their own, racially exclusive, clubs, where they played tennis and cricket with their fellows. Or, if they were more solitary, they went out riding or with a gun into the country’s then teeming jungles. But Macaulay was small, and sickly, and cared little either for shikar or sport. His manner of escape lay in the printed word. In his time in India he read, read as prodigiously as any man or scholar before or since.

Consider thus his description of a trip he made from Madras to Ooty, where he was carried for four hundred miles on the shoulders of coolies. The journey took three weeks. After it was ended he wrote home. ‘My power of finding amusement without companions was pretty well tried on my voyage’, he remarked: ‘I read insatiably; the Iliad and the Odyssey, Virgil, Horace, Caesar’s Commentaries, Bacon de Augmentis, Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Don Quixote, Gibbon’s Rome, Mill’s India, all the seventy volumes of Voltaire, Sismondi’s History of France, and the seven thick folios of the Biographica Brittanica’.

At this point one begins to lose sympathy. For I have done that journey many times myself, if not in a palanquin then by bus, car, and train. And if one only looks around one finds infinite glories—two hundred species of birds (at least); richly varied terrain, from paddy fields to mango orchards through verdant forests on to majestic hills, with the river Kaveri somewhere in between; an exquisite palace built by Tipu Sultan for himself and almost as fine a monument built for his father; and the fabulous temple in Somnathapur, an encrusted little jewel that is a wonder not just of India, but of the world.

Yet this insolent Englishman had eyes for none of this, only for his books. Reading Macaulay’s account, it seems that the coolies were carrying not just a solitary sahib, but also a mobile private library. And could he really have read all those volumes in a single journey? Or was he, shall we say, being economical with the truth?

The truth is that even if he exaggerated somewhat with regard to the number of volumes he read, Macaulay did spent most of his spare time in India reading. As he told his friend Thomas Ellis, ‘my time is divided between public business and books’. In the last week of 1835, Macaulay wrote Ellis with a list of the books he had read that year: ‘Aschylus twice; Sophocles twice; Herodotus; Thucydides; almost all Xenophon’s works; almost all Plato; Aristotle’s Politics and a good deal of his Organon besides dipping elsewhere in him, the whole of Plutarch’s Lives; about half of Lucian; two or three books of Athenaeus; Plautus twice; Terence twice; Lucretius twice; Catullus; Tibulus; Propertius; Lucan; Status; Silvus Italicus; Livy; Velleius; Paterculus; Sallust; Caesar; and, lastly, Cicero’.

In an appropriately classical allusion, his nephew tells us that ‘there are scattered passages in those letters which prove that Macaulay’s feelings, during his protracted absence from his native country, were at times almost at keen as those which racked the breast of Cicero, when he was forced to exchange the triumphs of the Forum, and the cozy suppers with his brother augurs, for his hateful place of banishment at Thessalonica…’. But in at least one respect Macaulay was luckier than Cicero; he could take advantage of printed books. And so can we. Then, as now, there is no better balm for boredom or loneliness than great literature.

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