Tomboy Grudge

Claire Harman

  • Rose Macaulay: A Writer’s Life by Jane Emery
    Murray, 381 pp, £25.00, June 1991, ISBN 0 7195 4768 7

Rose Macaulay loved semantics and her most precious possession was her 12-volume Oxford English Dictionary: ‘my bible, my staff, my entertainer, my help in work and my recreation in leisure,’ she wrote to Victor and Ruth Gollancz in a rare display of feeling, after they had replaced the copy destroyed with the rest of Macaulay’s flat during the Blitz. Macaulay was the author of 41 books, and an early ‘media intellectual’ whose university education and illustrious family name, BBC talks and regular appearances on the Brains Trust programmes, sealed her fate as a sort of establishment blue-stocking. Her best books have been called novels of ideas, but could perhaps be more accurately described as diversions, for the ideas in them are seldom allowed to settle: the genteel humour which guaranteed her popularity in her own day and relative obscurity in ours diverts the novels away from anything too conclusive.

Rose Macaulay began to write novels in her twenties, when she was living – as unmarried daughters were expected to – at her parents’ house, languishing in the ennui of being highly-educated and having nothing to do. Clearly, writing was, in part, a means to independence, and yet it took years, and the interference of an uncle, to effect even a partial move away. In fact, she can’t properly be said to have left home at all: home left her in 1925 when her mother died. Jane Emery is unemphatic about the hold Grace Macaulay seems to have had on her seven offspring, none of whom married or had children of their own. There is evidence that she was ‘savage’, and probably sadistic, towards her fourth daughter, Eleanor, who was mistreated and excluded from the family group. ‘E. keeps watch over the coming of food with the eyes of a little dog,’ wrote Grace in her diary, with evident disgust. Rose, Eleanor’s senior by six years, included scenes of sadism and violence (by an older stepbrother to a young boy) in an early novel, but expressed no strong feelings elsewhere about the treatment of her sister. Jane Emery says that Rose ‘felt remorse’ at Eleanor’s death in 1952: ‘I feel now that I should have put more in our relationship.’ As remorse goes, however, this seems rather restrained.

Grace Macaulay did not want daughters and had attempted to influence her second pregnancy (Rose) by thinking ‘manly’ thoughts and reading ‘manly’ books. Macaulay does not seem to have been oppressed by her mother’s views: rather, she took them as her own, endlessly repeating the opinion that ‘the intellectual superiority of most men’ is ‘an obvious fact’. Her childhood from the age of seven to 14 was spent romping idyllically in Varazze on the Ligurian coast, where her father had bought a villa so near the sea that at high water the basement would flood and become navigable on boards. Rose was a tomboy: daring, strong, active, amphibious, and a male figure in all her fantasies of travel and adventure. When the family moved back to Oxford in 1894, the loss of freedom was dramatic. The elder girls were sent to Oxford High School and Rose had to be told to stop saying she wanted to join the Navy when she was a man. Varazze had made the six surviving Macaulay children ‘educationally precocious’ and ‘socially retarded’, and Rose became a shy young woman, fully conforming to the unwritten law at Somerville that women students should do nothing to make themselves conspicuous. She read History at Oxford, but didn’t answer any of the questions when she sat for Schools in 1903, a failure which hung over her for many years and which recalled her father’s own failure to win a Cambridge fellowship in 1877 – Jane Emery suggests that Macaulay may have been anxious not to outstrip her beloved father academically. There is certainly an air of defeatism in Macaulay’s person as well as in her work, about which she was consistently self-deprecating: ‘I have no wish to be a great writer. My touch is for trivial topicalities,’ she wrote to her mother.

Macaulay was a dowdy woman, and before the age of thirty was well on the way to being a batty spinster in the great English tradition. She was addicted to childish and ill-judged ‘larks’, which ranged from dressing up as an old lady to do research at a psychiatrist’s to attending a Mosley rally in 1936 in the hope of turning the crowd against him. She was also a psychopath behind the wheel of a car, adding to the perils of the Blitz by volunteering to drive an ambulance. To counter this stereotype, Jane Emery is anxious to foreground Macaulay’s ‘passionate love-affair’ with a married man, ex-priest and Irish patriot Gerald O’Donovan, which lasted from the end of the First War (when Macaulay was 37) until O’Donovan’s death in 1942. The ‘affair’ was secret, cerebral and possibly celibate: no letters survive, and Macaulay did not keep a diary. On the available evidence, ‘passionate’ may be a misleading word to use: Macaulay’s own utterances about love between the sexes reveal rather low expectations (‘women do feel rather differently about it, I think’) and are all in the context of marriage. Also, her novel What Not, whose leading characters are heavily based on herself and O’Donovan, is, in effect, a prolonged fantasy of imposed celibacy. Whether they were lovers or not (Evelyn Waugh took it that plain, ageing Rose must have been ‘hallucinating’), there is a general air of cold fish about all Macaulay’s work, as Virginia Woolf noted of the successful 1920 novel, Potterism: ‘Rose, judging from her works, is a Eunuch – that’s what I dislike most about Potterism. She has no parts. And surely she must be the daughter of a don?’

The ‘lack of parts’ is Macaulay’s overriding weakness as a writer. She simply does not seem to feel anything particularly strongly. As she wrote in Personal Pleasures, ‘I am one of the world’s least efficient novelists; I cannot invent good stories, or care what becomes of the people of whom I write.’ Her detachment from the age was remarkable and not at all endearing, her politics tentatively liberal and woefully uninformed. The facetious tone of her memoir of life in London in 1914 is typical: ‘Behind all the talking and the writing and the ballet and the theatres and the poetry, there were a few quite uncivilised noises off, from Ireland, and from the Balkans, and from strikers and suffragettes. Not being politically minded, I do not think that I attended very closely. Naturally I knew it was ridiculous to deprive half the people of the country of any voice in the laws they had to live under, merely on account of a trifling difference in sex, but I did not think anything I could do about it was likely to be helpful.’

That account was written in 1957. At the time of the war, she displayed a grossly romantic view of what it must be like to be a Tommy in her poem ‘Many Sisters to Many Brothers’:

Oh, it’s you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck:
   You were born beneath a kindly star;
All we dreamt, I and you, you can really go and do,
   And I can’t, the way things are.
In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
   A hopeless sock that never gets done.
Well, here’s luck, my dear – and you’ve got it, no fear.
   But for me ... a war is poor fun.

The naive expression of this tomboy grudge is partly excusable in the context of her friend Rupert Brooke’s own relish for the ‘great fun’ he found in the beginning of the war. It also shows her fatalism once again about ‘the way things are’. In the better novels she treats this theme satirically, and if she does not exactly attempt to answer (or even ask) the Woman Question in her books, she does at least dramatise it. In Crewe Train (1926), the heroine’s attempt to attain ‘a very low-class, lazy, common life’ is thwarted, and she deteriorates into marriage; in Dangerous Ages (1921) three generations of a family are shown severally illustrating the pointlessness of middle-class female life, but the books cry out not to be taken too seriously – Macaulay simply wants to provide entertainment. Dangerous Ages contains a certain amount about psychoanalysis, made over into a topic suitable for the Boots Library. When the heroine is told she has some ‘bad complexes’ which must be ‘sublimated’, she thinks: ‘It sounded awful, the firm way he said it, like teeth or appendixes which must be extracted. But Mrs Hilary knew it wouldn’t be like that really but delightful and luxurious, more like a Turkish bath.’

This may have sufficed in her own day, but makes Macaulay seem rather a pale companion now, the ‘jolly skeleton’ she was likened to in old age. ‘Do you know what “the feminine role” is?’ she wrote to her sister Jean in 1954. ‘I am accused of rejecting it by a correspondent (a psychologist) who disagrees with me that men tend to be cleverer than women. She perceives evidence of this rejection in my novels. How does one reject it, I wonder? And what is it?’ Rose Macaulay never found out what it was, and clearly never intended to. She seems to be a mixed case of emancipation and denial, as her peculiar preference for ‘gender-blind’ names for characters nicely illustrates. The novels are full of heroines called Cecil, Alix, Julian, Denham, Rome or Barbary, as if the author were trying to neutralise their femininity, and (it is implied) give them a sort of head start in the reader’s sympathies. In her last, best and best-known book, The Towers of Trebizond, this characteristic trick with names takes an interesting twist when Macaulay chooses ambiguous names for both the lovers, Laurie and Vere, and does not identify them by masculine or feminine pronouns until the end.

Perhaps The Towers of Trebizond is the only one of Macaulay’s 23 novels in which a satisfactory balance between style and content is achieved. A charming detail is that this cosmopolitan story was partly written at Butlin’s in Skegness, where she had taken Gerald O’Donovan’s granddaughters for a holiday. Macaulay was not a snob, though she was taken up by snobs all her life, and relished a very active social life. Macaulay’s greatest claim to fame was the most perishable: she was a ‘golden talker’, valued by literary hostesses from her first appearance in print onward, and described by Naomi Royde-Smith in terms equally applicable to a patent corkscrew, ‘welcome at any dinner table, invaluable at weekends’. There is nothing golden about the talk quoted in this biography and the charm she exerted over certain friends and admirers remains mysterious and elusive to the reader in Jane Emery’s well-researched but fulsome book. Macaulay was clearly an active, lively person, and a game old lady, but anyone who suspected that she had had her day may have their suspicions confirmed by this book. The ‘mélange of toughness, independence, enterprise, courage and good humour’ which David Wright admired when he met Macaulay in the Fifties, reads like an uncorroborated report, and, ironically, the most lasting image is Wright’s description of an unattended bicycle, a familiar sight outside the London Library during the war: ‘angular, battered, with a wickerwork basket strapped to the handlebars and, boldly inscribed on the frame in white paint, the name ROSE MACAULAY.’