Rose Macaulay : Told by an Idiot

Of all the writers of the period, there is nobody that I enjoy reading more than Rose Macaulay. It’s to do with the tone of her voice – so sceptical, so amused, so unflustered by history, but so revealingly personal.

Each of her books is different. Non-Combatants and Others (1916) is a rather troubled study of a young woman who wants to escape the pressures of living through the war. What Not (1918/1919) is a satirical fantasy about a post-war world where eugenics has been integrated into government policy. Potterism (1920) is a satire on journalism, mostly. Dangerous Ages (1921) takes women of different generations through a variety of crises. Mystery at Geneva (1922) is a wild and wonderful detective fantasy about delegates mysteriously disappearing a League of Nations conference. Told by an Idiot (1923) is a family history, from 1879 to the time of writing.

The novel’s opening sets the tone:

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’s utterly Victorian and immensely serious progress through every faith from Catholicism to Christian Science provides one of the comic threads of the novel, which traces the attempts of his children to make sense of their world. They follow the crazes of the day, from Arts and Crafts to Imperialism, and Rose Macaulay is sceptical about all of them in turn .

What amuses her most is every generation’s sense that it is unique, and especially the way that in each successive age the Younger Generation is acclaimed or denounced as uniquely promising or degenerate (often both at once). As she says:

To know all that the mid-Victorians said about modern girls… you have only to read certain novelists and journalists of the nineteen-twenties, who are saying the same things today about what they call the Young Generation.

Interleaved with the personal histories of her characters is an ironic commentary on the politics of the times, on the ineffectiveness of politicians, and the drift towards war:

Even Mr W.T. Stead said, “Let us strengthen our navy, for on its fighting power the peace of Europe depends.” Strengthen our navy we did, but as for the peace of Europe, that lovely, insubstantial wraith, she was perhaps frightened by all those armoured ships, all those noisy guns, all those fluent statesmen talking, for she never put on much flesh and bones.

Soon, of course, “there was a great and dreadful war in Europe, and the abomination of desolation held sway for four horrid years.”

During that time, some of her characters are killed, some are demoralised and some rather enjoy themselves, but Macaulay is at pains to show that in even the worst of times people’s characters do not change markedly. War brings out what was already inherent in them.

An interesting minor character is Roger, “whose class was B2, served in France for a year, and wrote a good deal of trench poetry.” (Classifying him B2, I suppose, is Macaulay’s slightly catty way of saying he didn’t get very near the firing-line.) Invalided out, he enters the Ministry of Information, where he compiles “propaganda to interest the Greenland Esquimaux in the cause of the Allies”.

After the war, Amy, his mother complains to him:

“I simply can’t read the poetry you write in these days, Roger… It’s become too terribly beastly and nasty and corpsey.”

“Unfortunately, mother,” Roger explained kindly, “war is rather beastly and nasty, you know. And a bit corpsey, too.”

“My dear boy, I know that; I’m not an idiot. Don’t, for goodness’ sake talk to me in that superior way, it reminds me of your father. All I say is, why write about corpses? There’ve always been plenty of them, people who’ve died in their beds of diseases. You never used to write about them.”

“I suppose one’s object is to destroy the false glamour of war. There’s no glamour about disease.”

“Glamour, indeed! There you go again with that terrible nonsense. I don’t meet any of these people you talk about who think there’s glamour in war. … Glamour indeed. I’ll tell you what it is, a set of you young men have invented that glamour theory, just so as to have an excuse for what you call destroying it, with your nasty talk. Like you’ve invented those Old men you go on about, who like the War. I’m sick of your Old Men and your corpses.”

“I’m sick of them myself,” said Roger gloomily, and changed the subject, for you could not argue with Amy.

For the next two months I shall be writing a chapter of my thesis where basically I’m going to have to decide whose side I’m on in this argument. At the moment, I think Amy may win.


  1. Posted September 15, 2008 at 1:54 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the info about Macaulay. I was reading Katherine Mansfield’s _Novels and Novelists_ last night and came across a review of _What Not_ and had absolutely no idea what it was. All of Mansfield’s talk about the Brain Committee stirred me up. “How could that possibly be right?” I asked myself, but yes, yes there it is.

    In my forays into the lesser known of the female modernists, I’ve often been rather disappointed with the narrow focus on the domestic. Of course, I’m always “for” domestic novels; I find them fun to read and insightful about the public sphere as well as the private. But I was getting kind of tired of realizing that the limitations of these female novelists were a little more…um…limited than I had hoped.

    So reading your precis of Macaulay cheered me up. Thanks.

  2. Posted September 15, 2008 at 3:43 pm | Permalink

    Shawna –
    Thanks for the comment.
    Macaulay is very good at linking the private with the public. Do you know her “Potterism”? one of the best novels in the period, and very perceptive about the times.
    I hadn’t come across the Mansfield review. I must look it up!

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