J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, January 16, 2023

“Poor Mrs. Macaulay! She is irrecoverably fallen.”

In October 1778, the historian Catharine Macaulay left Bath and the home she shared with the Rev. Thomas Wilson.

One possible reason for Macaulay’s move was that Wilson kept pressing her to marry him. Everyone knew the minister was besotted with the widowed author. He’d already signed over a lease to his house, erected a statue in London, and published a book of fawning poetry. But she declined to make him her second husband.

As Bob Ruppert described in this Journal of the American Revolution article, Macaulay moved across England to Leicester in the East Midlands. That was the city where her friend Elizabeth Arnold lived.

Arnold was the sister of Macaulay’s physician, Dr. James Graham, and wife of another physician who managed an asylum for the mentally ill. The two women had visited France together in late 1777.

In November, the ministers in Leicester read the banns for a new marriage. On 17 December, Macaulay married Dr. Graham. Not James Graham, who was with his wife and children in Scotland. That would have provided plenty of scandal and confirmed a rumor that John Wilkes had recorded earlier in the year.

Rather, the historian married William Graham, younger brother of Dr. James Graham and Elizabeth Arnold.

Much younger brother, in fact. William Graham was only twenty-one years old. He was barely a doctor, having studied in Edinburgh and trained as a surgeon’s mate for the East India Company

Even by the modern standard of “half your age plus seven,” William Graham seemed “too young” for Macaulay, who was forty-seven. And of course Macaulay was a woman. A woman who had put herself into the public eye by writing about history and politics.

The reaction was swift and negative. One acquaintance at Bath, Edmund Rack, wrote to Richard Polwhele, an eighteen-year-old admirer of the historian, on 29 December:
Poor Mrs. Macaulay! She is irrecoverably fallen. “Frailty, thy name is Woman!” Her passions, even at 52 [sic], were too strong for her reason; and she has taken to bed a stout brawny Scotchman of 21. For shame! Her enemies’ triumph is now complete. Her friends can say nothing in her favour. O, poor Catharine!—never canst thou emerge from the abyss into which thou art fallen!
And that was one of the more sympathetic responses.

COMING UP: More reactions.

[The portrait of “Mrs. Catherine M’Caulay” above is a woodcut printed in Nathaniel Ames’s Astronomical Diary; or Almanack for 1772. Paul Revere supplied versions of this cut to both Ezekiel Russell and Edes and Gill for their competing editions. Printing this illustration of Macaulay shows the admiration, or at least curiosity, that she inspired in New England at that time. (The almanac’s other images featured John Dickinson and the dwarf Emma Leach.) This image comes courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.]

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