Posts Tagged ‘Rose Macaulay.’

Over the last few years’, I have read and enjoyed several Rose Macaulay novels, so I am delighted that she appears to be enjoying something of a revival. A few years ago, Virago brought out some of her novels and now both the British Library and Handheld are re-issuing others. She really is an interesting writer and a prolific one, whose writing career spanned fifty years. Dangerous Ages was Macaulay’s eleventh novel published when she was forty.

“Queer, fantastic, most lovely life! Sordid, squalid, grotesque life, bitter as black tea, sour as stale wine! Gloriously funny, brilliant as a flowerbed, bright as a street in hell, – unsteady as swing-boat, silly as a drunkard’s dream, tragic as a poem by Masefield… To have one’s corner in it, to run here and there about the city, grinning like a dog – what more did one want?”

In this novel Rose Macaulay examines four generations of women within one family, each of them at a different ‘dangerous’ stage of womanhood. Women are certainly the focus here – and although there are a few male characters, they really are of lesser importance. The novel is set in 1920 and is a wonderfully immersive portrait of middle class English women of the period. It is also a novel of mothers and daughters – Macaulay exploring this often complex relationship with perceptive understanding – each of the women in her novel standing for a different generation.

“It wasn’t really touching to be young; it was touching not to be young, because you had less of life left. Touching to be thirty; more touching to be forty; tragic to be fifty; and heartbreaking to be sixty. As to seventy, as to eighty, one would feel as one did during the last dance of a ball, tired but fey in the paling dawn, desperately making the most of each bar of music before one went home to bed.”

Neville is celebrating her forty-third birthday, an event which has caused her to examine her future now that her children are grown up. (Neville is not the only Macaulay character to have a traditionally masculine sounding name – it is something she has done in several of her novels.) She is considering taking up the medical studies that she gave up more than twenty years earlier – why shouldn’t she be a doctor now that she is finished with parenting? Neville’s sister is Nan, ten years her junior – she could almost be another generation – carefree, a little cynical, living life on her terms while Gerda, Neville’s twenty year old daughter, represents a modern generation of young women born at the dawn of the twentieth century, who mock the repressions of their elders’ Victorian past. Another sister, Pamela who is thirty-nine – lives with her friend Frances, they do good works and take care of each other. Hers is a quiet, contented life busy with things that she considers important. Pamela plays little part in the main events of the novel – though it is interesting to compare the lives of these sisters.

Neville’s mother: Mrs Hilary (Emily) is sixty-three – and has been reluctantly inspired by her daughter-in-law Rosalind who she – and no one else it seems – much likes, to investigate Freudianism – which had become very popular around this time. Rosalind, married to Mrs Hilary’s son Gilbert – having started practising Freudianism and extoling its virtues despite no formal qualifications to do so – offers to analyse Mrs Hilary, who decides that she would be more comfortable talking to a man. She consults Dr Craddock, and in talking to him finds a voice. A mother to five, now a widow, living in a small seaside resort Mrs Hilary is rather at a loss, what should she do now that the work of her entire life is done? Mrs Hilary is referred to almost entirely by just her married title – and is only a little less reduced than her mother; Grandmamma now in her eighties, in being essentially nameless. Grandmamma, unlike her daughter and granddaughters is not considering the meaning of her life or worrying about what the next stage might be – she is content, well looked after and continuing to enjoy her garden.

“We may say that all ages are dangerous to all people, in this dangerous life we live. But the thirties are a specially dangerous time for women. They have outlived the shyness and restraints of girlhood, and not attained to the caution and discretion of middle age. They are reckless, and consciously or unconsciously on the lookout for adventure. They see ahead of them the end of youth, and that quickens their pace.”

I thought Nan was a wonderful character, rather cool, a young woman full of life who thinks nothing of flying along cliff paths on a bicycle at pull pelt. She isn’t given to emotional displays and keeps her feelings to herself. Nan has frequently been in the company of Barry Briscoe – and their relationship seems to have become an accepted thing – in an ‘only a matter of time’ kind of way. Only, Nan is about to get a rude awakening in her attachment to Barry. While Barry stays in London and offers a job to Gerda at the Worker’s Educational Association that he manages, Nan goes off to Cornwall to finally work out whether she does or does not want to marry Barry. After a few days on her own, Nan is joined as previously arranged by Barry – but he brings Gerda with him. For Barry, Gerda represents the future – what might she and her generation not achieve? While Nan, is very much the present.

Macaulay’s writing is excellent and her characterisation spot on – the interplay between characters really drives this novel forward – there is reasonably little plot. It is a joy to read though – Macaulay’s examination of these women’s various responses to the concerns they face at different stages of their lives is still relevant and hasn’t dated I don’t think. Now really looking forward to reading Potterism re-issued by Handheld press soon.

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Review copy from the publisher

In 1918, towards the end of The First World War Rose Macaulay began to write What Not. It was a world wearied by war, death and hunger. Many were already starting to wonder about the kind of world that would come out of the war. Rose Macaulay was then twenty-seven – and she had already been writing since 1906 and had published several novels. This, she would of course continue to do – though perhaps her two best known novels would not be published for more than thirty years. When the novel was ready for publication it was decided that part of it would not be suitable for publication as it could have led to legal action against the publishers. Now, that repressed section of the novel has been re-instated in this new edition from Handheld Press.

What Not is a lost feminist classic, of newspaper manipulation, First World War eugenics and that is said to have influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

“The Ministry of Brains, a vast organisation, had many sections. There was the Propaganda Section, which produced pamphlets and organised cinema shows (Miss Grammont had been lent temporarily to this section by her own branch); there was the Men’s Education Section, the Women’s, and the Children’s; the Section which dealt with brain-tests, examinations, certificates, and tribunals, and the Section which was concerned with the direction of the intellects of the Great Unborn.”

Kitty Grammont works for the Ministry of Brains, which seeks to prevent another World War by eradicating stupidity and ensuring that only people of like minds come together. With the passing of the Mental Progress Act everybody in the country has been categorised according to intelligence or their family history – and people are only supposed to marry and have children in line with the restrictions of the ministry. Brain training courses are encouraged for people of a lower rating.

In the village of Little Chantreys, at End House live Kitty Grammont (when not in London), her brother Anthony, Miss Pansy Ponsonby who he is co-habiting with (and their child; the Cheeper). Ivy Delmer daughter of the local vicar also works at the Ministry of Brains, and rather looks up to Kitty. Though of course those living at End House are rather shocking.

“Into this house, standing hospitably open-doored in the May evening, its owner and his friends entered. It affected them in various ways. Anthony Grammont was proud of his house and his garden, his Pansy and his Cheaper. He was young enough to be vain of being head of a household, even of an ambiguous household, and of course anyone would be proud of the dazzling and widely-known Pansy, whose name had always been one of two in large type in advertisements of the shows in which she figured (she was good as all that); and he was tired enough, mentally and physically, by his life of the last few years, its discomforts, its homelessness, its bondage, its painful unnaturalness, to sink with relief into Pansy’s exotic cushions and all they stood for.”

Kitty’s father has been worried by the new restrictions due to the distressingly large numbers of abandoned babies. He has naturally had to think very carefully about his sermons on Sunday, though he is very little altered in himself by the new laws. He has been forced to explain to Miss Pansy Ponsonby that her way of life is somewhat at odds with attending church.

The Minister of Brains himself is Nicholas Chester – who is passionate about what the Ministry are trying to achieve. However, Chester has been categorised as Uncertified because of his siblings’ mental disability – and so is not permitted to marry or have children. Kitty is certified A and so when she starts to feel an attraction for Nicky Chester, and he for her – they know there could be great difficulties. The popular press is determined to end the Brains regime – and any chance for a scandalous exposure will be exploited to the full.

Macaulay’s world is a little futuristic (for 1919) and although it is supposedly soon after the war – she has created a whole new transportation system (an aero bus). This little bit of whimsey surprised me a little – but it doesn’t intrude – and can be pretty much ignored. As the novel progresses, we see that this society is altered in many small but important ways, and it soon becomes apparent that many people believe it is far from perfect. It is a world where the state controls agriculture, where certain books are banned, babies are taxed, and censorship is everywhere. The Prime Minister has been replaced by a United Council and (rather disturbing to me) Jewish people repatriated to Jerusalem. There are certainly some very big, and pretty dark themes here.

I really enjoyed this rather satirical novel, it isn’t Macaulay’s best novel I don’t think, but it is one that deserves to be back in print. It is fascinating for the ideas that it suggests writers, and thinkers were toying with in those dark, weary days at the end of a brutal, world changing conflict.

Handheld Classics are rather attractive volumes with nice clear print, introductions and end notes – and my own personal favourite French Flaps – I do like a nice French flap! I also have Desire by Una L Silberrad tbr, which of course I bought a few months ago and have yet to read. It looks very good though.

What Not is published by Handheld Classics on March 25th

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So many people have professed their love for The Towers of Trebizond that I couldn’t help but choose it over several other 1956 books, despite having already read three other Rose Macaulay novels this year. Known by many people simply for its fabulous opening line:

“Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, climbing down from that animal on her return from high Mass.”

Well, if that isn’t enough to make you smile and to wish to carry on reading, I don’t what is. Macaulay is frequently wry as she sets about observing people in their various, sometimes ludicrous pursuits.

“Everyone had had the idea of starting for home early, so as to miss the crawl, but, since everyone had had the idea, no one missed the crawl.”

The novel follows the progress of a group of characters as they embark upon a journey from Istanbul to Trebizond. They are, Laurie – our narrator, her Aunt Dot (Dorothea Ffoulkes Corbett) and Dorothea’s friend, high Anglican priest Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg. Oh, and then there’s the camel. They are befriended by a Turkish woman doctor; Dr Halide, an ardent feminist with an interest in Anglicanism. Aunt Dot is set on converting and liberating the Turkish women she meets with Christianity and introduce them to the bathing hat.

This novel is a mix of things, part novel, part autobiographical travelogue and an exploration of religion. While Father Chantry-Pigg carries sacred relics around with him, Laurie muses on the complications of her love life. Along the way the trio meet British travel writers and witness the progress of Billy Graham on tour with the BBC. Macaulay does employ some typical British colonial stereotypes – though these things are put into the mouths of her characters and are fairly mild. Her characters are upper class English idiots – harmless enough and of a type – and I think she was poking gentle fun at them. Macaulay is a good observer of the Englishman/woman abroad – and here she is superb at portraying the noise and clamour of a Turkish harbour.

“The boats were filled mostly with steerage passengers who lived in Trebizond or were visiting relations there, and the women carried great bundles and sacks full of things, but the men carried suit-cases with sharp, square corners, which helped them very much in the struggle to get on and stay on the boats, for this was very violent and intense. More than one woman got shoved overboard into the sea during the struggle, and had to be dragged out by husbands and acquaintances, but one sank too deep and had to be left, for the boat-hooks could not reach her; all we saw were the apples out of her basket bobbing on the waves. I thought that women would not stand much chance in a shipwreck, and in the struggle for the boats many might fall in the sea and be forgotten, but the children would be saved all right, for Turks love their children, even the girls.”

Suddenly, Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappear over the border into Russia – a task so impossible during these cold war days, that it is assumed they must have had help of a fairly sinister nature, and are declared spies, by almost everyone. A little anxious, though not unduly concerned Laurie is left alone in charge of the camel – on which she continues to travel.

mdeShe meets up briefly with her lover, enters into a wrangle over a manuscript with one of the British travel writers; David who has a habit of popping up every now and then, but at least can be relied on to buy dinner. She experiences a hallucinatory draught that she is given in exchange for food, sells camel rides along the road, encounters difficulty getting into Israel and then later meets her estranged mother in Jerusalem. It’s all wonderfully bonkers.

After all that travelling, eventually Laurie heads back to England, with an ape that she has picked up (as you do). Here, as settles back into normal English life, she is forever wrestling her Christian faith with her adulterous relationship with a married man. The camel and the ape suitably ensconced at the zoo but Laurie wonders whether or not she will ever see Aunt Dot and her priest ever again.

Overall, a really good read – my favourite Macaulay is still The World my Wilderness, but I loved the sense of place in this, the bizarre quirkiness of Macaulay’s story and her characters – make for a memorable novel. There is also a fabulously unexpected bit of drama at the end of the novel – which I won’t spoil for you – I do enjoy being taken by surprise.


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Having so very much enjoyed Crewe Train and Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay this year, both great choices for my A Century of Books, I couldn’t help but acquire a couple more. Staying with Relations is one I hadn’t heard of, and with me not having yet done 1930 I decided to read it straight away. It isn’t quite up to the standard of Told by an Idiot, or The World my Wilderness which I read last year, but it is still an enjoyable read.

This is one of the Rose Macaulay novels that is not currently in print, and my edition, bought quite cheaply from ebay, is an American paperback from the 1980s, carrying a quote from Elizabeth Hardwick on the back.

“It is a pleasure to have Staying with Relations back in print. It reminds us once more of the fitness of Rose Macaulay’s talent, her astuteness about characters and her gift for displaying, just right, the dramatic elements of the story.”
(Elizabeth Hardwick)

English novelist Catherine Grey has been spending some time in America, when she receives an invitation from her Aunt Belle to come and stay with her and her family. Catherine is interested in character, and character types – she tries to categorise everyone she meets. A visit to her relations should prove entertaining.

“How did the human eye so arrange for itself the lines and colours of the human creature (surely a comparatively ugly animal?) that they wavered and re-formed into this shape we have conceived to be beauty? Strange illusion!”

Aunt Belle is living on an old Spanish plantation in the rain forest of Guatemala. Now married to her second husband an English judge, Sir Richmond (known as Dickie), Belle has a houseful staying already and she thinks Catherine will enjoy the company that she will meet in Guatemala. Catherine has a long, exhausting journey to reach her aunt’s eccentric old home which she finds is an odd mixture of architectural styles. Here, staying with Catherine’s aunt and step uncle are her aunt’s four step-children; Claudia, Benet and Julia all fairly grown up and Meg – the child, and Belle’s own daughter Isie Rickaby and her husband Adrian who has been designing the recent additions made to the house. Isie is spoilt, very beautiful – and she knows it – rather silly and given to stomping off. The final member of the household is taciturn Devonshire man Mr Piper – some kind of estate manager.

The old Spanish house, the Hacienda del Capitan, or the Craddock house as it is variously called, is surrounded by dense jungle, beautifully described by Macaulay. Their nearest neighbours are Mr Phipps who has made his money from straw hats, and a Spanish clergyman with three wives. Catherine settles comfortably in to her pink and silver room – unaware of the drama she is about to be swept up in.

Following a row with Adrian, Isie stalks off into the jungle in a mood – and after paying a visit to Mr Phipps first, is apparently abducted by Lacandon men and taken deep into the Guatemalan jungle. The family are frantic and begin talking about ransoms, Belle recklessly promising the men can have everything they want – much to her husband’s alarm. Meanwhile, Isie actually escaped her captors quite quickly, but is now horribly lost and terrified in the dense jungle. Back at the ranch – with no one knowing where Isie is, there is a lot of fuss. Meg is sent to bed as she has been ill, and Belle doesn’t want her upset when she hears about Isie. Meg demands she be allowed her baby armadillo to sleep with.

“‘Darling, I don’t think one has armadillos in bed. They’d be so uncomfortable.’
‘Tray’s not uncomfortable in my bed. He likes it.’
‘Uncomfortable for you, I mean,’
‘Oh, no. He’s not. He’s a very cuddly armadillo. Please may I have Tray?’”

Questions about who exactly Mr Phipps is, are soon raised, with the funny little man beginning to look decidedly dodgy. Whispers abound of a hidden treasure somewhere around the house – and while everyone tells everyone else that had it ever existed it must surely have been found long ago, they all set about looking for it. Poor Isie must be rescued, and if her captors want treasure it must be found. Catherine wonders what it was that had Isie running off like that – and asks Julia. She discovers that all is not quite as it should be in the Rickaby marriage – and Claudia could well be the reason. Catherine is starting to get to know this peculiar family, their character types, and bit by bit the scales fall from her eyes.

“They were set on their prey. They had mean, small, hard minds, thought Catherine; obstinate, selfish, materialistic and vengeful. She did not know why she had found them charming. They were even stupid, to be so oblivious of the amenities of travel, so set on their small private ends; so fatuously unaware, too…”

Staying with Relations is entertaining and readable, there are many beautifully written descriptive passages and some good characterisation, however it is a weaker novel than the three Macaulay novels I have previously read. It is a bit baggy – a little formless, I liked it – but wondered where it was going really. Overall, worth reading for Macaulay fans, but just not her best.

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I have previously read two Rose Macaulay novels; The World my Wilderness and Crewe Train, firmly establishing Rose Macaulay as a writer I had to read more of. I spent a tiring, slow reading week with this book and it was wonderful company. Told by an Idiot is an earlier novel than either of those other two, and I think a rather more serious one. Rose Macaulay’s list of works on Wikipedia is considerable, though only a few are in print, so I have just purchased two more Macaulay novels from ebay. In this novel Macaulay charts the ever changing social, political and religious fortunes of England from the 1870s to the 1920s through the eyes of one family.

As the novel opens, Mama and Papa Garden live in their comfortable London home with their six children, the eldest Vicky is already twenty-three – the youngest Una a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl.

“One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, – in brief, in the year 1879, – Mrs Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr Garden’s study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, “Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor Papa has lost his faith again.””

Mr Garden changes religion like people of today change their mobile phones, from Anglicanism to Ethicism, to Catholicism to Christian Science – and everything in between. The family are well used to it – and his long suffering, ever supportive wife embraces whatever the latest thing is – no matter what her own private thoughts.

It is their children however who are at the centre of this novel, and in 1879 and the 1880s they are what is seen as the modern generation. Conventional Vicky’s younger sisters Stanley and Rome (here again Macaulay’s unusual androgynous names for women) and their brother Maurice at Cambridge are the epitome of late Victorian modernity. Stanley is passionate for a social cause, Rome is charming, urbane and cynical, she tries not to engage too fully with anything, taking life as it comes, and finding so much of life highly amusing.

“Life was to her at this time more than ever a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. She went on her way as usual, reading, seeing pictures, hearing music, meeting people, talking, smoking, bicycling, leading the life led by intelligent dilettanti in the small, cultivated nucleus of a great city.”

Maurice, with his first from Cambridge is an angry young man, who writes for a newspaper. Una grows up and marries a farmer, delighting too much in country life to do anything else, and Irving becomes a business man with some conscience and the ability to make money.

Vicky becomes a typical late Victorian matron, marries Charles, they argue a little from time to time, but Vicky loves him, and children inevitably arrive. Stanley marries and has children too, but her marriage is less successful, as is Maurice’s who marries a shallow, silly woman without really knowing her. Rome finds her one true love, though he is married to someone else.

Throughout the years, as various politicians come and go, as new technologies and new fads come along, and wars are fought, the older generation continue to be confounded and outraged by the younger generation. Though sometimes, the modern generation is even too outrageous for one another. Stanley’s husband is horrified and repulsed when she takes to wearing ‘bloomers’ to ride around London on a Bicycle.

“’It’s better to be elegant, dirty and dangerous than frumpish, clean and safe. That’s an epigram. The fact is women ought never to indulge in activities, either of the body or the mind; it’s not their rôle. They can’t do it gracefully.”

No wonder, perhaps that in middle age Stanley becomes a suffragist.

The third generation of Gardens grow up in a world where the Boer war is talked about by everyone – including children. Young Imogen is mortified when a child at school says her Uncle Maurice is pro Boer – and Imogen tries to explain that she isn’t pro -Boer herself but she can see their point. Imogen is a wonderful character, if Rome reflects one part of Macaulay’s own character, then her niece Imogen reflects the other part. Imogen; Vicky’s daughter, wants nothing more than to be a bright blue-eyed boy and join the navy. Her head is filled with stories in which she casts herself as Denis, a brown-skinned, blue-eyed young naval man. Imogen longs for adventure, to break away from the role cast for her by society. There is a wonderful scene where Imogen and her brother spend a Sunday morning riding around the underground for a penny. Those readers who love Imogen as much as I did will cheer for her as the novel draws to a conclusion.

Macaulay writes movingly about the realities of the First World War; those modern Victorians are in their sixties as the novel comes to an end – and England in some ways has changed and yet we see that in all the ways that matter people don’t change all that much. The older generation will always shake their heads at the younger generation, no matter what generation that is.

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My introduction to Rose Macaulay was with her 1950 novel The World my Wilderness – which I absolutely loved. I was therefore delighted that Virago has seen fit to re-issue some of her novels – and while I’d always prefer a shabby old green these new editions are lovely to be going on with.

Crewe Train is a much earlier novel and yet there are several similarities to Macaulay’s later novel especially in the character of Denham Dobie. Like Macaulay’s later character Barbary Deniston, Denham has been allowed to run wild, growing up abroad in a less than conventional household. There’s an untutored, childishness about Denham as a young woman – who prefers to be alone out of doors, to not have to talk or socialise or play host in any way to relatives from England.

Denham’s father – a former Church of England vicar, had taken his daughter away, seeking a quieter life abroad, having become sick of having to ‘bury dissenters or to baptise illegitimate infants’ and wanting to be less busy and less sociable. Having found Mallorca to be too sociable they moved to Andorra – where Denham’s father re-marries in a moment of weakness providing Denham with a step-mother and half siblings who he immediately has cause to regret and she doesn’t care for at all. To the horror of Mr Dobie and Denham – visitors from England begin to arrive in Andorra – and with them come relatives of Denham’s mother. When Denham’s father dies – her beautifully groomed, still young Aunt Evelyn and her smart cousins Audrey, Guy, Noel and Humphrey contrive to spirit Denham away – to London, where they can civilise her.

Before I go any further – a word or two about the title – which really puzzled me. A Twitter conversation about it put me out of my misery. The title refers to the lyrics of a once popular music hall song – which describes a mis-directed traveller. This is also explained in the introduction to this edition – but of course I don’t read introductions until I have finished the book.

Oh! Mr Porter, what shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham
And they’re taking me on to Crewe,
Take me back to London, as quickly as you can,
Oh! Mr Porter, what a silly girl I am.

In London, Denham is introduced to a world she really doesn’t understand. The world of society writers and publishers, where people are always coming together to socialise – to talk! Her Gresham relatives are very well meaning and kind – but they struggle to understand Denham – who immediately dislikes London – and she struggles to understand them. Denham has no idea what to talk about at dinner – each social situation more agonising than the last.

“At dinner that night, when her neighbour said to her, ‘Did you see the Guitrys last week?’ she replied in the manner of Ollendorf, ‘No, but the hair of my dog is coming out. Do you know the best treatment for it?’

The Greshams are conventional, gossipy, self-absorbed and shallow. Denham is something of a rebel – tongue-tied and awkward in company – she soon recognises her relatives and their friends for what they are.

Denham loves the outdoors, prefers the country to London, she likes to be alone, likes fishing and playing games. She dresses just how she likes – she doesn’t understand her aunt’s horror of her apparel – and when Evelyn says she really can’t go out like that – Denham can’t understand it – as she just did. Denham meets Arnold – her uncle’s junior partner in the publishing firm. They fall head over heels – Denham reminds Arthur how much he loves some of those things too. Together they go fishing, play games in front of the fire. However, Arnold also loves society, he likes London and has to be there for work. To the Greshams disapproval Denham and Arnold get married. Denham is horrified by all the domestic conventions she must adhere to.

“But Evelyn gave Denham the true reason why they must not put all the food on the table at once.
‘You mustn’t try to be original yet, Denham dear. You don’t know well enough yet how to keep rules to break them safely. You must wait a bit, and meanwhile do things like other people. You see, when you break social rules, you should always seem to be ahead of fashion and convention not lagging behind them, do you see what I mean?’

On a holiday to Cornwall Denham discovers a cave with a secret passage leading up to a small, disused cottage. This is just the thing to delight the newly-weds – and they set about arranging to rent it for a year. They are like a couple of kids playing house – taking bits and pieces over to the cottage – Denham insisting that Arnold keep the secret passage a dead secret. The novelty of the cave and passageway to the sea soon wears off for Arnold– who finds he doesn’t like sleeping there. So, it isn’t long before cracks are beginning to show – with Denham wanting to stay by the sea in Cornwall with their little dog, and Arnold needing to return to London. Denham stays at the cottage for an extra few weeks – and Arnold returns to London. Here, the Greshams gossip and interfere causing all sorts of mischief at the couple’s expense. Will Denham ever be able to settle down to life with Arnold? – host afternoon tea, manage the servants, know the right conversation?

In this novel Macaulay highlights the absurdity in conventional society – the so called civilised way of life that Evelyn Gresham and her family are so much a part of. Macaulay is frequently very funny in her recreation of this world. In this entertaining comedy of manners Macaulay provides sharply observed social commentary. However, Crewe Train is also the poignant story of a young woman going relentlessly in the wrong direction.


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the world my wilderness

I have been juggling various reading challenges this month, completing my #20booksofsummer, and reading things for both All Virago/All August and #WITmonth.

I have had The World my Wilderness on my shelves for years, part of my #20booksofsummer list – which I completed last week, it also fitted beautifully into All Virago/All August.

Rose Macaulay was a hugely prolific and popular writer – and The World my Wilderness was the novel she published in 1950 following a decade of silence. Of Macaulay, Penelope Fitzgerald in her introduction to my VMC edition, says:

“Rose Macaulay was born in 1881, and died in 1958. As a young woman she went bathing with Rupert Brooke, and she lived long enough to protest, as a well-known author and critic, against the invasion of Korea.”
(Penelope Fitzgerald, 1982)

That was enough to make me want to know Rose Macaulay a lot better. The World my Wilderness was my first ever novel by her – one which at the time apparently surprised her fans, more used to social satires.

The World my Wilderness is a wonderful novel, set in the fragile post-war world still reeling from the difficulties and betrayals of the war years, it is a novel which explores beautifully, the damage parents do to their children.
It is 1946 and Barbary Deniston has been living in France with her beautiful, indolent mother Helen throughout the war years. Their home at the Villa Fraises in Collioure, an area occupied by the Germans during the war is a place of relaxed freedom and sunshine. Helen, divorced from Barbary’s father, married a wealthy Frenchman widely seen as a Nazi collaborator.

“Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath. She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the sinking step, the affected, furtive glide, the quick wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.”

Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul, have run wild together, associating with the defiant and dangerous local Maquis (Resistance) who defied the Germans and betrayed the collaborators. Here, Barbary learnt about danger, betrayal and death, and in the hands of the Gestapo; sexual assault. A free spirited artist, hedonistic Helen’s attention these days is largely taken up with Roland the young son she had with her second husband, Barbary is often ignored. With her husband recently drowned in highly suspicious circumstances, Helen decides to pack Barbary off to England to her father and stepmother, Barbary’s elder brother who had remained in London after his mother fled to France, arrives to collect his wild and untaught sister. Raoul travels with her, packed off to an uncle, Helen freed at last of two responsibilities.

Barbary is seventeen, though appears much younger – her childlike rebellion, and search for her place of safety making her vulnerable as if her development to adulthood has been arrested by her wartime experiences. There were moments when I found it hard to see Barbary as a seventeen-year-old – although teenagers of 1946 were not the teenagers we know today. A few times, Macaulay uses the word children for Barbary and her (albeit slightly younger) stepbrother – the word jarred a little for me – though why should it? – teenagers are more adult now than then, no doubt the reason for that word seeming inappropriate to a modern reader.

Scruffy, stubborn and untamed Barbary is not ready for the mixture of formal, English politeness and bomb damaged austerity that exists in post-war London. Barrister Sir Gulliver Deniston; Barbary’s father is stiff and starchy, his new wife the always correct, tweedy Pamela is very conventional, about as unlike Helen as it is possible to be. Both are shocked by Barbary’s unconventional wildness, the results of Helen’s rather neglectful parenting. There’s a feeling that Sir Gulliver has not entirely recovered from Helen’s desertion of him before the war, while Pamela resents any reference to the woman she feels unable to compete with.

“Suddenly the bells of St. Paul’s clashed out, drowning them in sweet, hoarse, rocking clamour. Barbary began to dance, her dark hair flapping in the breeze as she spun about. Raoul joined her; they took hands, snapping the fingers of the other hand above their heads; it was a dance of Provence, and they sand a Collioure fisherman’s song in time to it.
The bells stopped. The children stood still, gazing down on a wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.”

Desperately unhappy; Barbary looks for somewhere she can feel safe, that makes sense to a girl who ran with the Maquis, instructed by them in sabotage and thievery. Craving the world that she has left behind, Barbary finds a wilderness in the wastelands created by the bombs which rained down upon the streets around St. Paul’s. Here Barbary finds similarities to the life she led in France, meeting an odd collection of characters, hiding from policeman, stealing from shops. Invited to a shooting party in the Scottish Highlands, Sir Gulliver and Pamela whisk Barbary off before she has barely got used to being away from France. Barbary raises a few eyebrows with her unconventional behaviour, finally, running off back to London, and the ruined buildings where each day she escapes the claustrophobic atmosphere of her father’s house. Still running around with Raoul, the pair take over the ruins of an abandoned flat, while Barbary paints in the ruins of a church. Their new friends; deserters and thieves, people looking for a place to hide. Getting into rather more trouble than she bargained for, Barbary ensures that her father and stepmother will have to entertain her mother, who finally rushes to be with the daughter she had so brutally thrust from her.

In The World my Wilderness we have guilt and redemption. The hurts created by the ravages of war in people and their places are explored with great compassion and understanding. Macaulay knows what it is to be young, and also what it is to be lost.


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