Rose Macaulay: Potterism

A while back I speculated about Rose Macaulay’s poem Many Sisters to Many Brothers. Sincere statement or satirical dramatic monologue, or a bit of both?

Now I’m reading Macaulay’s Potterism (1920) – a highly enjoyable novel which maybe casts a bit of light on the subject.

The heroine, Jane Potter, is a twin who has just left Oxford; she is a rebel against the conventional values (“Potterism”) symbolised by her parents (Her father is a newspaper proprietor, and her mother is a novelist who is popular without being in the least vulgar.) When war breaks out and her twin enlists:

Jane said within herself, “Johnny can go and I can’t.” She knew she was badly, incredibly left. Johnny was in the movement, doing the thing that mattered. Further, Johnny might ultimately be killed in doing it; her Johnny. Everything else shrank and was little. What were books? What was anything? Jane wanted to fight in the war. The war was damnable, but it was worse to be out of it. One felt such an utter outsider. It wasn’t fair. She could fight as well as Johnny could. Jane went about white and sullen, with her world tumbling into bits about her…

“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? It was because they bore them cheerfully; because they didn’t really, for the most part, mind, Jane decided… The twins, profoundly selfish, but loving adventure and placidly untroubled by nerves or the prospect of physical danger, saw no hardship in active service. (This was before the first winter and the development of trench warfare, and people pictured to themselves skirmishes in the open, exposed to missiles, but at least keeping warm.)

This passage is very close to Many Sisters to Many Brothers, but goes beyond it, to give a more rounded picture of the young woman who is thinking these things – with her need for adventure and involvement , and her refusal to be like the women who didn’t “mind”.She may be “profoundly selfish” in seeing the whole situation in terms of herself, and she may be ignorant of the conditions of war, but she has genuine vivacity and a sense of justice, and she does have a right to be angry.

So maybe that is what the poem is saying, too.

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