Posts Tagged ‘Rose Macaulay.’

With thanks to the British Library for my copy.

Some books are easier to write about than others, even when they are very good books, this is the hill that I will die on.

Regular readers will knows I am quite the Rose Macaulay fan, so when this new edition of Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay arrived courtesy of the British Library I couldn’t wait to read it. I started it within a few days of it arriving, and wasn’t disappointed.

Rose Macaulay had a long and prolific writing career, her first novel was published in 1906, and from then until the mid-1950s she regularly published novels, poetry, and non-fiction. First published in 1928 Keeping Up Appearances was her sixteenth novel. It certainly deserves to be better known, and in this Rose Macaulay has written both a clever novel and one that it highly entertaining.

Rose Macaulay’s satirical wit is on fine display in this novel, it is a delightfully funny book. However, Macaulay always has something to say, and this 1928 novel has much that will resonate with readers in this twenty-first century social media crazed world. This is a novel about identity, and deceit – and especially how we appear to others. Written at a time when class was far more important, and apparent to people than perhaps it is now, Macaulay uses class (as she has done in other novels) as a way of driving her message home.

As the novel opens we are introduced to Daisy and Daphne – half sisters, who are on holiday in the Mediterranean. Daisy compares herself always with Daphne and finds herself wanting.

“Born of one father, but of two quite different mothers, Daphne and Daisy looked alike, though Daphne was the better looking, the more elegant, and five years the younger. But in disposition, outlook, manners, and ways of thought, they were very different, Daphne being the better equipped in facing the world, Daisy for reflecting on it, though even this she did not do well.”

They are in the company of the Folyot family, who are very highbrow people. Mr and Mrs Folyot, their adult son, zoologist Raymond and their two younger children. The Folyots spend their time doing good, important political work, generally involving the rescue and assistance of refugees and the publishing of leaflets.  

Daphne is twenty-five, elegant, practical, brave, cool, and rather remote – her background is first class. Daisy on the other hand is thirty, born illegitimately her mother is of a lower class, warm and loving but rather garrulous she laces her tea with gin, and lives in East Sheen in a house called Thelka with her painter and decorator husband. Daisy feels the difference between these two worlds, seeing them from the inside – she was educated well, and lived with her father’s sister while at school, so she speaks differently to her mother and Macaulay uses language cleverly to show the differences between the world Daisy wants to inhabit and the East Sheen world where her much loved mother lives. Daisy is also a popular novelist and journalist, churning out silly articles, that were very much in vogue in the 1920s – with titles such as Should Clever Women Marry Stupid Men? Yet despite her success and the need to make a living, Daisy is rather ashamed of her profession.

“Mother’s clever girl, earning her living by writing for the London papers, writing such bright, clever pieces, that people always liked to read. One of those vulgar little journalists who write popular feminine chit-chat in that kind of paper that caters for mob taste. Oh, what matter? She was either, according to her environment.”

Daisy looks to Daphne and wants the world to see her in the way they see Daphne – and she especially wants Raymond to look at her in the way he looks at Daphne – but she doesn’t think he could possibly do so. Daisy recognises herself to be a snob – and she is ashamed of that too – and when she passes her mother off as her old nanny – to the bright young things who live upstairs – she knows she has done a horrible, hurtful thing. Mrs Arthur, Daisy’s mother is clearly one of the nicest characters in the book, and even Daisy can see, how blessed her mother is, in the life she has with her husband in East Sheen.

“Before Daisy’s eyes all the love of the world suddenly sprang up, a soaring edifice, with pinnacles and impregnable towers. Psyche and Eros, Alcestis and Admetus, Paolo and Francesca, Anthony and Cleopatra, Jacob and Rachel, Mr and Mrs Robert Browning, Mr and Mrs Arthur – all the fervent and constant lovers of history cried aloud that love was immortal. Those other lovers, as fervent, doubtless, but less constant, who cried that it was not, were shouted down by this cloud of witnesses. The sad and frail mortality of love was triumphantly, in the sitting room of Thelka, denied.”

What Rose Macaulay does so well is to show us, how we see ourselves and how we want to appear to others – but also how we actually appear to others. The Folyot family are particularly interesting, there they are, impressively highbrow, politically aware and doing good for all sorts of people from around the world, and yet how we the reader see them, and how Daisy sees them – is quite different. Again, Macaulay shows us that she has a very astute observer’s eye for the society in which she lived.

In a world obsessed with appearances not to mention the various merits and pitfalls of social media – Macaulay’s exploration of identity and how we see ourselves and others resonates still.

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With thanks to Handheld Press for providing the book

Dreaming of Rose was originally published in 2013, but has been revised by Handheld press for this new edition.

Having now read ten books by Rose Macaulay, I do consider myself to be something of fan, and eager to learn more about her. While Dreaming of Rose: A biographer’s Journal is a book about Rose Macaulay’s biographer Sarah LeFanu, it is also, of course, about Rose Macaulay too. I’m not sure I expected to love this one as much as I did, not always being great with non-fiction and being more interested in Rose Macaulay herself and her writing than in her biographer – I thought. Well, I was wrong, everything is connected, Rose Macaulay, her work, and her biographer and I absolutely loved this book. It prompted me to buy Sarah LeFanu’s biography of Rose Macaulay, published in 2003 by Virago. I think this book sets the interested reader up perfectly for the biography – but I shall probably wait a while before I read it.

As the title suggests – this is a journal, a journal kept by Sarah LeFanu during the period she was writing her biography of Rose Macaulay, a writer and great traveller. It is a book which for me works well on two fronts, allowing readers to explore Rose Macaulay through the eyes of another – while also giving us a glimpse into the life of the biographer at work. The biography of Rose Macaulay was published in 2003, and the majority of the journal entries date from 1998 to 2002 when Sarah was writing the book. In 2012 a sealed archive of embargoed Rose Macaulay material was opened – and Sarah took up her journal again, to record this momentous occasion.

LeFanu shows us that the work of a biographer is not easy – there are a lot of hurdles to be got over, many frustrations encountered along the way. Family life, children’s school holidays might sometimes get in the way, and sometimes after days struggling with a particular chapter – it must be set aside for long periods to make way for other, paid work.

“I suspect I’m blaming Rose for my inability to get on with writing this chapter. I desperately need a clear space with no teaching. I’m doing a day school on women poets the weekend after this, and haven’t even begun to think about it. And then there’s all the next term’s reading still to do.”

During this period Sarah was a very busy woman, teaching at Bristol university, abridging books for BBC radio 4, editing anthologies and picking up various bits of freelance work. Yet, as soon as she could, she would come back to Rose, picking up the threads of her literary investigations, persuading people (or not) to talk to her, and thanks to an Art’s Council award travelling to some of the places that Rose had. She is also incredibly honest about her own self-doubt, a terrible critic of her own work, her own worth – there are times when Sarah LeFanu questions her own ability to write the biography at all. Money worries rear their ugly head too – bills are due and there’s little left in the kitty – it’s certainly not all glamour.

The relationship between the biographer and their subject (perhaps especially when the subject is no longer with us) is a unique one. There is naturally a responsibility to that person concerning revelations that they may not have wished to be made so public. In Rose Macaulay’s case many of the letters she hadn’t wished published were published years before Sarah LeFanu began writing her biography. Rose Macaulay’s great secret was already out. Those letters left out of that publication were sealed for fifty years – and opened in 2012. In 1918, Rose Macaulay met a writer, and former priest Gerald O’Donovan, a married man, and father. Their relationship was secret and lasted twenty-five years – until his death.

“This evening I finished James Lees-Milne’s entertainingly bitchy Ancestral Voices. In his entry for 27 July 1943 he describes Rose Macaulay as ‘dry and twitchy’ at a dinner party where they were both guests. I know that it was the first anniversary of Gerald O’Donovan’s funeral. But how was Lee-Milne to know? According to Victor Gollancz Rose’s affair with Gerald had been the best kept secret in London.”

The short story Miss Anstruther’s Letters is inspired by the grief that Macaulay suffered after his death – it’s a deeply poignant story even without that background knowledge. So, alongside LeFanu’s investigations into Rose Macaulay, she must also consider the huge role Gerald O’Donovan played in her life.

LeFanu shows us just how complex and yet consuming the relationship between a biographer and her subject is. Unearthing those little nuggets of information that go into creating a picture of a person – it’s not unlike a treasure hunt, following the clues, hoping to find the things no one else has – fitting it all together, creating an understanding. Appreciating how that relationship works, and where the pitfalls might be, how the biographer can feel like they are chasing a ghost, Sarah LeFanu references the biographer of Robert Louis Stevenson. She also references another long held literary secret – that of Dorothy L Sayers and her son. There is a responsibility in the biographer’s art – and it is one that LeFanu is well aware of.

This is a wonderful book; I am so very glad I have read it. One I think that will interest those interested in Rose Macaulay and those interested in the art of the biographer. Warning – it might make you want to read a lot of books by Rose Macaulay, but of course I would say that could only be a good thing.

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I have been so pleased to see more and more people reading Rose Macaulay of late, she is definitely enjoying something of a mini renaissance. A few years ago, Virgo reissued a few of her novels and more recently Handheld Press and the British Library have brought out books by her. I love the way she uses fiction to examine and often satirise society, class, and politics. She shows us the absurdities and errors perpetuated by human beings – and through her eyes we can see that little really ever changes.

Orphan Island is not one of the novels that has so far been re-issued – and while I really liked it, I would venture the opinion that it is not likely to be as attractive to a modern audience as some of the others. It is very readable – and it does have an intriguing (although improbable) premise, however Macaulay perhaps gets so wrapped up in all her examinations of society and the establishment of a civilisation – that parts of the novel become a little dry. Still, for anyone who enjoyed Macaulay’s novels What Not and Potterism this would make an interesting companion read.

The majority of the novel is set in the ‘present’ of 1923 – but begins almost seventy years earlier. In 1855 a Miss Charlotte Smith a very religious young lady of about thirty, set off to take fifty orphans all under the age of ten to an orphanage in San Francisco from East London, setting sail on a large steamship with a Scottish nurse and a French nursemaid. The ship is wrecked – and Miss Smith, the Scottish nurse, the ship’s doctor a couple of sailors and about forty children find themselves marooned on a lush pacific island. I hadn’t even considered the geography of this until someone on social media pointed it out – but seafarers tell me – is it even possible to set out from the UK and head for the United States, only to come a cropper in the south Pacific? – it seems unlikely at best. However, there are a few places in which the reader must suspend their disbelief when reading Orphan Island, and in a way I’m not sure how much it matters if it makes complete sense.

The doctor is a hard drinking man who shocks Miss Smith considerably – but shows his mettle when the sailors take off in the only boat, not willing to take their chances on an island apparently well away from usual shipping lanes. All they can do is make the best of it and hope that one day a ship will find them.

“And so the little island nation developed along its own lines, isolated and remote, year after year, decade after decade, century after century (for, as we know the twentieth century followed the nineteenth). A strange community indeed! All those inter-marrying orphans of many races – what have their descendants become?”

In 1923 – almost seventy years later – Mr Thinkwell a sociologist from Cambridge university finds out that his grandfather had once left a party of shipwrecked orphans on an island in the pacific, and was so ashamed he never spoke about it until he lay dying. Mr Thinkwell is both appalled and fascinated by the story – and although unlikely, he realises that there could be orphans – and their descendants on the island still. So, Mr Thinkwell, and his three young adult children Charles, William and Rosamond set out on their own voyage to right the wrongs of the past – and have their own adventure. Their mission is kept an absolute deadly secret – in case anyone else from the university decide to try and beat them to a discovery. Charles is a writer, William a scientist and Rosamond is quite the romantic who has never really settled to anything, but is delighted by the very idea of an island. However, this is an island they don’t even know if they can find, only having Mr Thinkwell’s grandfather’s testimony to go on.

“Strange it was, thought Charles, very lovely and strange, the voyage through that blue and glassy sea, where swam fish more brightly-hued than rainbows, more oddly shaped than Gothic devils, each dip of the oars carrying the boat nearer the land unvisited for close on seventy years. Strange and lovely and exciting to Charles, and like a poet’s dream; strange, exciting and deeply interesting to Mr Thinkwell the sociologist; to William, the youth of science, natural enough, and a new field for exploration and investigation. And to Rosamond this and the whole voyage were like sailing out of an alien, irrelevant world of illusion into reality, to Rosamond it was like coming home.”

Well of course the island is found – and here they find a large community – a matriarchal civilisation, who hang on to the words of the few books they have retained and their idealised vision of Queen Victoria. Here, the Thinkwells are soon to discover is a society run very much along class lines – Orphans and Smiths (i.e. – those descended from orphans and those descended from Charlotte Smith, who had little choice but to ‘marry’ the doctor). Religion underpins everything, and in less than seventy years this society has established an education system, a judicial system a system of telling the news, masters and servants. Charlotte Smith, incredibly is still alive, as is the Scottish nurse, both well into their nineties. However, while the nurse still dreams of returning to Aberdeen – Miss Smith seems to almost believe herself to be Queen Victoria. Her word is very much law – and she doesn’t seem that overjoyed to meet the visitors from England.

Rosamond is just happy about everything on the island, she wants to stay forever, she is a recognisable Macaulay heroine, unconventional, free spirited and unaffected by the societal rules she has grown up with. William is happy making scientific discoveries, studying the flora and fauna on the island, while his brother falls under the spell of Miss Charlotte Smith’s granddaughter. Their father, a mild, sensible man wants to learn everything about how this island society works, and how various things came about in the first place.

A lot of time is spent explaining how various parts of this society works – and this can get a little dry – but overall, this is a fascinating read. Macaulay shrinks the society she saw around her down to the size of a pacific island – attempting to show people just how absurd it all really was (and still is) in this she does a pretty good job, highlighting the ridiculous and destructive nature of snobbery and class. There is also a rather delicious little twist of sorts at the end – I shall say no more. I will be interested to see if any of those publishers mentioned above ever pick this one up – but I suspect they may not. Still, I am very happy with my cheap ebay copy, and very glad I got to read it.

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I have now read a good number of Rose Macaulay’s novels – she was a very interesting and prolific writer whose career spanned something like fifty years. Non-Combatants and Others is one of her earlier works re-issued last year by Handheld Press who have reissued two of her other earlier novels – which I highly recommend. This volume consists of the novel Non Combatants and Others – first published in 1916 – some pieces of journalism, some essays, and a short story. Together these pieces make up an excellent collection of writings against war – Rose Macaulay was a committed pacifist in the years before the second world war.

The novel is remarkable for being the first anti-war novel to have been published during The First World War. Considering how jingoistic the country was at this time, it seems extraordinary that she should have published it at all during the war – it seems at the very least quite a brave step.

The novel Non Combatants and Others is the longest piece in this volume at a little more than two-hundred pages. The non-combatants of the title being those who do not go off to war, the women, the conscientious objectors, and those whose health precludes them from joining the fray. Alix Sandomir is the main focus of the novel – a young woman studying art, as the novel opens it is 1915 and Alix is living with her aunt and cousins in the country. Alix’s father is dead, a Polish liberationist who died in a Russian prison, her mother Daphne is a campaigner for peace, she travels widely and is currently abroad again. A childhood illness has left Alix with a limp – she walks with a stick and is very conscious of her disability. Her aunts and cousins are busy with various kinds of war work – all of which has left Alix feeling rather out of things, she is unable to fully engage with what is happening all around her and the changes that war has brought with it.

“For among them, the centre of the family, was John; John wounded and just out of hospital and home on a month’s sick-leave; John with a red scar from his square jaw to his square forehead, stammering as he talked because the nerves of his tongue had been damaged. Alix, watching from the garden, saw the queer way his throat worked, struggling with some word.”

Alix decides to move in with a distant cousin she barely knows in London. Her cousin is a middle aged woman with two grown up daughters, their house -Violette – is closer to her art school – but it is also away from all the talk of war and war work. At Violette there is little if any talk of war. Her cousin Mrs Frampton is a comfortable, conventional woman, her daughters each have their own concerns. Kate is very prim her life seems to revolve largely around her church – she has little time for any enjoyment. Evie is very beautiful and she is all about enjoying herself – she has lots of friends, and lots of admirers and will be the unwitting and unthinking cause of Alix’s heartbreak.

From Violette Alix is able to carry on the life she wants to live. She attends her art school – she visits her brother Nicolas in the rooms he shares with his friend Rev West – and when her friend Basil is sent home from the war injured she is able to visit him too.

“He talked nonsense, absurdly; they all did. They all laughed, but Basil laughed most; he laughed too much. He said it was a horrible bore out there; funny, of course, in parts, but for the most part irredeemably tedious. And no reason to think it would ever end, except by both sides just getting too tired to go on…Idiotic business, chucking bombs over into trenches full of chaps you had no grudge against and who wished you no ill …and they chucking bombs at you, much more idiotic still. The whole thing hopelessly silly…”

There are some days out to be enjoyed with friends, but everywhere there are reminders of the war, as the year goes on, Alix is forced to face some of what is happening across the channel. Tragedy is brought right to her door – and the experiences of those around her can’t be entirely ignored. To this point Alix has been quite selfish – concerning herself only with what she wants to be concerned with – keeping everything else at bay. This cannot be sustained.

Cleverly Rose Macaulay shows us the various points of view of all these characters – revealing how the war impacted on different people in different ways and how that manifested itself – with some people hiding quite well how they really were.

Alix’s mother Daphne arrives in London in time to help Alix re-evaluate the way she is living.

Following on from this excellent novel – are the non-fiction pieces written between 1936 and 1945 for Time and Tide, The Spectator and The Listener. These pieces are really well written – together they detail the rise of fascism abroad and in the UK and the response to war of ordinary people.

“Where an hour back two houses stood in this small street, there is a jumbled mountain of fallen masonry, rubble, the shattered debris of two crashed homes; beneath it lie jammed those who lived there; some of them call out, crying for rescue, others are dumb. Through the pits and craters in the rubbled mass the smell of gas seeps.”

(5 October 1940)

One piece I found fascinating and chilling was her report on a visit (in her role as a journalist) to one of Mosely’s rallies. Other pieces discuss such things as the differing attitudes to the death and destruction of war, pacifism, and post-war morality.

The final piece in the book is Miss Anstruther’s Letters – a wonderful short story from 1942 – which I have read twice before. It is beautifully rendered, memorable because of its simple poignancy and the fact it is based on an incident in Rose Macaulay’s own life.

Together this novel and the non-fiction pieces that follow it provide an extraordinary sense of the pain and anger that so many felt towards the suffering that war brought with it.

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With thanks to the publisher for the review copy.

With both Handheld Press and the British Library re-issuing Rose Macaulay novels this does seem to be her moment. I think she is a fascinating writer. Her writing career spanned five decades, and through it she gives us her take on the first half of the twentieth century. Potterism is a satire of the newspaper industry around the time of the First World War and just after.

When twins Jane and Johnny Potter are at Oxford just before the First World War, they despise the newspaper empire that has been built up by their father. They encounter others who think similarly – who see everything that Percy Potter’s newspapers stand for as being second rate, an inauthentic arm of the popular press – that incite gossip, sensationalism, conspiracy theories and what would now be called fake news.

“Potterism has, for one of its surest bases, fear. The other bases are ignorance, vulgarity, mental laziness, sentimentality, and greed. The ignorance which does not know facts; the vulgarity which cannot appreciate values; the laziness which will not try to learn either of these things; the sentimentality which, knowing neither, is stirred by the valueless and the untrue; the greed which grabs and exploits. But fear is worst; the fear of public opinion, the fear of scandal, the fear of independent thought, of loss of position, of discomfort, of consequences, of truth.”

They join the Anti-Potter league, which seeks to counteract the continuing rise of Potterism. The Potter papers are at their most vocal just before and of course during the First World War – whipping up patriotic feeling across the country, criticising suffragism and strikers and anything remotely to do with socialism.

While their father Percy, has been creating an influential newspaper business, the twins’ mother Leila York has been carving out a career as a romantic novelist, the Potter twins despise her work and world view just as much – and with good reason as we come to find out. The twins aren’t the Potters only children, Clare is her mother’s darling, pretty, conventional; sharing her parents view of the world, Frank is a clergyman – married to a pretty young managing wife, he has his sights set on a good living.

Arthur Gideon, a member of the Anti-Potter league runs his own newspaper, the Daily Fact – and the Potter twins have ambitions of working for the Fact. The war intervenes, however. Despite their feelings, in the wake of the First World War the Potter twins will end up working for the family business. Another friend and member of the Anti-Potter league is Laurence Juke a deacon, while the only other woman member, Katherine Varick, a scientist is silently in love with Arthur Gideon.

Jane Potter is greedy for more than is allowed a woman at this time, when her brother goes off to fight at the outbreak of war, she is furious that she should be required to stay at home.

“‘The women of England must now prove that they are worthy of their men,’ said the Potter press. ‘I dare say,’ thought Jane. Knitting socks and packing stores and learning first aid. Who wanted to do things like that, when their brothers had a chance to go and fight in France? Men wouldn’t stand it, if it was the other way round. Why should women always get the dull jobs?”

Percy Potter appoints a new editor called Oliver Hobart, he catches the eye of Jane’s sister Clare to start with. Clare is quite smitten – but Jane swoops in and takes him away from her sister, marrying him to the absolute disgust of her friend Arthur Gideon.

Macaulay adds a little bit of whodunnit into the story too – when a tragedy occurs out of the blue, the inevitable question is, was it accident or murder? The Potter press are quick to begin expounding their own theories – which gets everyone talking, potentially slandering an innocent person.

The novel is told by a series of narrators, one of them being RM! It is interesting to see the shift in perspectives. The most telling narrative is that of Leila York, her anti-Semitism is the most obvious – she is someone very sure of her own influence, which is largely sentimental and hyper-romantic.

Nationalism and anti-Semitism were rife in England at this period – and Rose Macaulay explores the effects of this in this novel. She was a woman with a lot to say, a committed pacifist at this time she exposes the damaging nature of the othering of people from different backgrounds.

That this novel should be re-issued at a time when many people are concerned with the rise of fake news and Facebook algorithms is very timely. That a novel first published in 1920 should chime so loudly one hundred years later makes it surprisingly relevant.

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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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