One of the nice things about running a blog is that out of the blue you get asked some interesting questions. Last week I received this email:
I just finished reading “Told by an Idiot”–lent to me by my mother. I have never read any other works by Rose Macaulay and I didn’t love this one although I enjoyed it enough to finish it…but I have a burning question and no one to discuss it with. WHO LOVES IMOGEN? WHO DOES SHE LOVE?… Is she gay?
I can see the problem. Told By An Idiot is a very episodic book, spanning more than half a century. In the last stages of the novel, we just get glimpses of the surviving characters, often not fully explained. The section that intrigues this reader is a short chapter titled ‘A Note on Imogen’, in which Macaulay describes the character escaping England on a P & O liner heading for the parakeets and bread-fruits of the Pacific Islands.
What she is running away from is described as ‘the entanglement of circumstance’, an ‘enmeshing of soul and will’ that has to be cut (‘and yet was it cut at all, or only hacked in vain? – Imogen’s soul seemed to bleed to death, to bleed and swoon quite away’). Somebody loves Imogen fiercely, and she is running away. But as my correspondent asks – who? Macaulay leaves everything extremely cloudy.
In the book, Imogen is the character most like Rose Macaulay herself. She is about Macaulay’s age, and, like her, is a writer who has achieved pre-war success. In 1914:
The war very greatly discomposed her. It seemed to her a very shocking outrage both that there should be a war, and that since there was a war, she should be found, owing to a mere fluke of sex, among the non-combatants.
Resentment of this fluke is the attitude reflected in Macaulay’s 1914 poem, ‘Many Sisters to many Brothers’, and much of her fiction explores the idea of androgyny, and the unimportance of differences between the sexes.
In wartime, Imogen, like Rose Macaulay, becomes a not very successful V.A.D., and works in a government office, from which she feels alienated. ‘Imogen and many others drifted through its last years to the war’s cynical culmination, the horrid but welcome peace.’
There was a problem, however, with continuing such parallels into the post-war world. During wartime Rose Macaulay had fallen in love with Gerald O’Donovan, a married man, and he with her. (He was Catholic, too, so no hope of a divorce.) This was a subject that caused much friction in Macaulay’s family, and was not known generally to most people outside her immediate circle. The rather obscure mini-chapter is, I suppose, a way of dealing with this situation without giving anything away. Imogen is running away from her lover – but there is no definite assertion that the break will be permanent. I wonder what the contemporary reading public made of this. Were they as bemused as my correspondent. I also wonder what Gerald made of it. He worked for Collins, Macaulay’s publisher, so would have known what she had written.
The voyage to tropical islands may be a coded reference to Macaulay’s plans for her next novel, Orphan Island, which is about a group of Victorian children and their governess, who are cast away on a desert island. I haven’t read this one, but I shall put it on my to-read list. as desert island novels go, I bet it’s a lot better than Lord of the Flies.