In her diary in the mid-Twenties, Virginia Woolf, not yet lionized, railed at Rose Macaulay for being too visible: for speaking at dinners, for giving opinions to newspapers, for writing articles for the American press. “Why should she take the field so unnecessarily?” Woolf wanted to know. Answering her own question, she supposed that the “leading lady novelists,” all equally dutiful, simply did as they were asked. She herself, of course, was “not quite one of them.”

Woolf’s remarks have an uneasy ring, if not an uncertain tone, but there is no doubt about Rose Macaulay’s ubiquitous presence in the postwar literary world. She had caused a minor sensation in 1920, with Potterism: A Tragi-Farcical Tract, her tenth novel and first best-seller, a brilliant, caustic commentary on the noxious influence of the mass media on contemporary life. Virginia Woolf had pronounced it a “donnish” book, “hard-headed” and “masculine,” not to her taste at all. But it had launched Rose Macaulay’s career, which Woolf followed with considerable interest through the Twenties and into the Thirties. Even as late as 1956, Macaulay’s best-seller, The Towers of Trebizond, won her high and discriminating praise, of the sort to gratify the most fastidious writer. Yet now, another thirty years later, when women artists are so much in the public eye, she has virtually disappeared from the scene. A curious state of affairs, it is surely worth an attempt to redress the balance and perhaps uncover in the process a Rose Macaulay who even at her zenith had scarcely been seen at all, and whose personal as well as literary character has suffered in unexpected ways from the stigma of success.

Her life as a writer began after a three-year stint at Oxford, from 1900 to 1903, where she read Modern History. By all accounts, she had entered Somerville College a shy and lanky nineteen-year-old and left with the verbal flair and drive of a natural writer. She certainly produced her first novel soon after, while living with her parents in Wales. By the time it appeared in 1906, her family had moved to Cambridge, where George Macaulay, classical and medieval scholar, spent his last ten years as a don at his own university. Long before, in accordance with the ancient requirements still being imposed, he had given up his fellowship to marry; but one of his few worldly ambitions had been to return to Cambridge.

He died in 1915, early in the war, leaving the standard edition of the complete works of John Gower, Chaucer’s contemporary, but no record of his response to the seven novels his daughter had already published by then. Along with a volume of poems, they had earned favorable, even enthusiastic reviews and attracted the attention of Naomi Royde-Smith, the colorful party-giving literary editor of the Saturday Westminster, in whose pages Rupert Brooke and Walter de la Mare were also publishing their poems. Before the war, Rose Macaulay had become the young pet of the circle of Westminster writers, based in Royde-Smith’s South Kensington flat and. including Hugh Walpole and Middleton Murry, both of them eager for fame. Although curious about the interiors of London literary life, she had qualms and reservations as well, and took refuge on weekends with her parents. In fact, their home continued to be her chief residence until her mother’s death in 1925, when she had already become one of the “leading lady novelists” so sought after and so irritating to Virginia Woolf.

She stemmed from a long, distinguished line of clergymen as well as intellectuals—Macaulays, Babingtons, Conybeares, and Roses.

Rose Macaulay’s family plays a large, complicated part in her personal history and her career. Her parents were cousins, her mother a devout High Anglican, her father indifferent to religion, perhaps ensuring thereby that his wife’s influence would be the stronger. Of their six surviving children, only his second daughter, Rose, was at home in the scholarly world, but she also found it hard—throughout her life—to resist the lure of faith. For she stemmed from a long, distinguished line of clergymen as well as intellectuals—Macaulays, Babingtons, Conybeares, and Roses. The poet Robert Herrick was also one of her ancestors, and his century became her favorite, not least for its extraordinary mixture of poets, scholars, and divines, the secular with the sacred, libertinism with puritanism. Indeed, the conflicts at the heart of seventeenth-century life and literature seem to have been reproduced in Rose Macaulay herself and account for some of the difficulties critics have had getting her into focus. That she was not unaware of this all her work shows, for it, too, is divided between the frivolous or secular and the intensely moral; between the irreverent and the worshipful; between public display and secretiveness; between worldliness and asceticism. In Keeping Up Appearances (1928), these opposing sides of her are amusingly depicted in the central character, as though to make light of the theme of divided selves—and thus perhaps to confirm it as an unsolved problem. Her heroine seems at first to be a pair of sisters—one a popular, outgoing, prolific writer, the other scholarly and withdrawn—but then in an arch aside midway through the novel, she is revealed to be one person, a contemporary type of the split personality, a creature of the new Freudian psychology.

Rose Macaulay was certainly conscious of the incompatible strands in her makeup. The vein of skepticism ran as deep as the opposing vein of faith. Perhaps by marrying as cousins, her parents had exacerbated the differences rather than cemented the similarities. She confesses as much with a series of scholarly works in the Thirties that revolve compulsively around the subject of heritage. She may have felt that the reputation gained from her topical satires of the Twenties—that of a clever, freethinking, argumentative middlebrow, addicted to cerebral but transient pleasures—needed to be qualified and offset. She had created by then a narrative form peculiarly hers, a blend of the essay and the novel, presided over by the ironic and sophisticated voice that most readers took to be the author’s: a voice ideally suited to the disengaged, unsettled postwar generation. In the early Thirties, however, she began to sound a very different note and turned another side to her public by producing a trio of remarkable books: Some Religious Elements in English Literature (1931), which is still readable; They Were Defeated (1932), an historical novel set in the seventeenth century; and a short life of John Milton (1934) that displeased his admirers by not allowing the greatness of the poetry to obscure the limitations of the man. She presented him as nothing less than “an arrogant, self-dedicated solitary, a superb and monstrous alien.” Her controversial Milton was followed a few years later by a full-length study of E. M. Forster’s novels (1938), which she saw as the product of a thoroughly homegrown English sensibility—rational, modest, humane—and which she went out of her way to praise.

Among these books, the one of most value today for what it tells us about Rose Macaulay is the historical novel, They Were Defeated. A genuine tour de force, its language consists mainly of words actually in use during the seventeenth century. It happens also to be autobiographical fiction of a remarkable kind: a mingling of English, family, and personal history. Set in the period just before the outbreak of the Civil War, the novel’s central characters are modeled on her own ancestors—the Conybeares and Robert Herrick, the parson whose limpid love lyrics offended the minds of the Cambridge metaphysicals. Rose Macaulay slips herself into the plot of the novel in the form of the young, intellectually precocious Julian Conybeare, daughter of a bookish physician working on a history of irrationality.

Julian’s name as well as her unfortunate fate provide us with a glimpse of yet another Rose Macaulay, neither the one who dominated the novels of the Twenties nor the one emerging from the scholarly works of the Thirties. This one gave to a slew of fictional girls and women masculine or genderless names—Stanley, Rome, Neville, Denham, Laurie—and had them play, beneath the surface, a revealing double role. On the one hand, they certainly represent Rose Macaulay’s belligerent view that the only difference worth noting between males and females was intellectual; on the other, they serve—intentionally or not—to minimize the importance of sexuality, in effect refusing to grant it primacy. This impression is reinforced by yet another group of characters—the girls who look and dress like boys and who sometimes come to grief because they fiercely resist growing unequivocally into women. “Sexless,” the world would call them, as it was to call Rose Macaulay herself for the tall, bony, casual figure she made: “a withered spindle-shanked virgin,” was how Virginia Woolf once put it.

This side of Rose Macaulay few people ever fathomed, least of all Virginia Woolf, who had her own problems about sex but who also knew surprisingly little about Rose Macaulay, even though by the Thirties they were on equal as well as more intimate terms. But only Rose Macaulay’s closest friends knew anything at all about the intense relationship at the center of her life, a relationship which endured for a quarter of a century and left its unmistakable mark on the patterns and themes of her fiction.

To the end of Rose Macaulay’s life, Varazze was Paradise and Italian its language.

In her historical novel, Julian Conybeare—for whom sex and mind do not mix—is faced with a variant of Rose Macaulay’s own dilemma, one which she wove into her fiction from the early days of her secret affair with Gerald O’Donovan, former priest, married man, father of three children, and minor novelist. They had met—and become lovers—toward the end of the First World War. He was head of the Italian section of the British Government’s Propaganda Department, and Rose Macaulay—temporarily employed in the civil service, like other university women—was transferred there because of her fluency in Italian. She had learned the language as a child, when the family lived for several years in Varazze, a town on the Ligurian coast, some twenty miles west of Genoa. It was a period in their lives that the Macaulay children never forgot, associated for them with nature, sensuality, freedom. They had come to Italy for its legendary sun, to cure their mother of tuberculosis. And while her lungs were healing, there was neither school for them nor restraint of any kind. Small wonder that to the end of Rose Macaulay’s life, Varazze was Paradise and Italian its language.

But it became, with the advent of Gerald O’Donovan, the language of sin and guilt as well—linked with illicit sex, which created for her a bar to the sacraments. Her long affair with O’Donovan cut her off from the church just when she had begun to take a renewed interest in religious practice. The greater her sense of sin, the more fervent her longing for a communion she felt she did not deserve. And as her writings reveal, the dilemma intensified with time, embedding in her fiction a running argument between the counterclaims of religion and sex. In novel after novel there are traces of the conflicts and contradictions in her personal life that she could not verbalize elsewhere. They constitute an autobiographical dimension that has gone virtually unremarked, mainly because Rose Macaulay herself was bent on concealment but also because she did not believe in tragic emotions for ordinary life. Sadness yes, frustration, of course, and certainly guilt, but not the heroics of tragedy. Thus, at the end of They Were Defeated, with Julian dead and everyone vanquished, the central message of endurance and moderation is contained in the “Epigraph on the Earl of Strafford,” a poem whose doubtful authorship left Rose Macaulay free to imagine it as having been written by Julian and found by her lover John Cleveland, to whom the poem is usually ascribed. And she has him take its last lines to contain Julian’s forgiveness of his trifling with her love: “Riddles lye heere; and in a worde/ Heere lyes bloud; and let it lye/ Speechless still, and never crye.”

In the novel, the riddles surrounding the execution of Strafford and the ensuing civil war are neither solvable nor cause for tears, resulting as they do from the imperfection we all share, a well-worn yet powerful theme. Rose Macaulay had taken it to heart early on, and blended the appeal of the classical with the attraction of the modern. She was given to the long look and the balanced view, yet taken by the passing show. Human oddities, antiquated words, popular beliefs and customs: all these delighted her and fed her art, which, in the manner of her favorite Latin poet, Catullus, she tried to steer between the comic and the tragic, between satire and epic, even between the subjective and the impersonal. Told by an Idiot (1923), for example, is a mixture of genres: in its structure a chronicle novel, in its tone a mock epic, in its content a social history of England from 1879 to 1920. Full of facts and brilliant commentary, and the distinctive gaiety and skepticism with which Rose Macaulay registered the so-called progress of civilization, it also presents the warring elements in her own personality, divided among three characters—Rome, the eldest daughter and clever critic who seems to believe in nothing but has learned to conceal everything; her sister Stanley, the ardent reformer whose enthusiasms weary her aesthete-husband; and their niece Imogen, one of Rose Macaulay’s boyish young girls unwilling to grow up.

The contradictory self-images have tended to cancel each other out. For the sake of consistency, nearly everyone has settled for the Rose Macaulay whose fictional voice most resembled the one so often heard in public. But to ignore the free-hand sketches of herself scattered through the novels, is, in fact, to close them off and keep her silent, prevent us from hearing what may turn out to be the most compelling lesson she was driven to work out for herself in fiction: the Blakean one of the marriage of Heaven and Hell.

This was the painful burden of a series of definitive events in the world and her personal life that found their way into her later fiction, testing her anti-romantic vision to its limits. As the Thirties wore on and the Spanish Civil War became a rallying point and a cause for liberals and intellectuals, Rose Macaulay, in their midst, was more in the news than ever. As one of the original sponsors of Canon Sheppard’s Peace Pledge Union, whose members renounced war, she wrote a pamphlet, An Open Letter to a Non-Pacifist, that was an apologia for a position she nevertheless had trouble defending. At the same time she wrote a novel wryly called I Would Be Private and strenuously objected, in her daily Spectator column, to the acquittal of an English lord charged with causing a traffic fatality; he sued both her and the Spectator for libel damages, and won.

And just how much did the rest of the world mean to her?

The libel suit had scarcely been forgotten when Rose Macaulay caused her own traffic accident, injuries included. It went unnoticed by the avid press because the legal name on her driver’s license was Emilie Macaulay. The publicity would have been unpleasant indeed, because her passenger was Gerald O’Donovan. On holiday together in the spring of 1939 and driving in her car from the Lakes to the Roman Wall, they were involved in a serious collision. Gerald suffered head injuries and not long afterward a stroke, from which he gradually recovered. The accident was clearly Rose Macaulay’s fault; unlike the arrogant lord who had denied culpability even though he had been driving on the wrong side of the road, she took the blame for it on the spot. But shaken by the narrow escape from several kinds of disaster, she could not help meditating on the limits of her own responsibility, and even wondering in what realm or sphere her own life was actually being carried on—with Gerald O’Donovan or with the rest of the world. And just how much did the rest of the world mean to her? The answers to these questions were already taking shape in her fiction.

And No Man’s Wit (1940) was her second novel about a civil war—this time the contemporary Spanish one, linked to the earlier work, however, by its title from Donne. In it, she created a puzzling minor character who, far from fitting into the main plot, stands out by seeming arbitrary and contrived. The presence of this disturbing girl, who has always wanted to do nothing but swim, is usually explained away as a light-hearted fantasy, inspired by Rose Macaulay’s own familiar English fondness for bathing. But the effect of the girl’s character is dark and eerie, with psychoanalytic undertones. In the belief that she has finally rediscovered her natural element—the sea—Ellen Green swims farther and farther out, loses her sense of direction as well as her confidence, and drowns, without anyone knowing what has happened to her. Her “case”—for this is how Rose Macaulay presents it—comes perilously close to an enactment of her author’s sense of her own secret and drifting existence between opposing worlds—Gerald O’Donovan’s and God’s. But it is in God’s unplumbed world that she fears she may drown.

Ellen Green’s fate seems to sound a note of warning which Rose Macaulay amplified in the story she wrote a year and a half later, one of her rare ventures into short fiction. Called “Miss Anstruther’s Letters,” and written in the early months of 1942, when London was trying to recover from the great blitz and Gerald O’Donovan was hopelessly ill with cancer, it is about a woman who returns one evening to find her home gone. Rose Macaulay herself, in a bombing attack the previous May, had had the same devastating experience. Miss Anstruther, however, is given an opportunity Rose Macaulay did not have—to remove a few possessions before the fire got too intense and no one was allowed back in. But to her dismay and shock, after retrieving a few relatively insignificant items, she realizes—too late—that she has forgotten the letters from her dead lover, all of them saved for rereading when the world was quiet again, all now lost forever in a total silence she can scarcely bear to contemplate. There is no comfort possible; and Rose Macaulay allows none, for this is precisely her point. She was looking ahead. The handwriting on the wall told her plainly that when Gerald O’Donovan died nothing would be left—not a single scrap—of the intensely physical relationship that had dominated her life for a quarter of a century. And she wondered what could fill such a void and whether the waters of faith—if she ever reached them—would sustain her.

Gerald O’Donovan died in the summer of 1942, and Rose Macaulay paid her tribute to him in the conventional form of a letter to the Times, signed with her initials. But in any number of novels, and known only to him, she had already testified to his overwhelming influence on her life, for good or ill. All the evidence indicates that the astonishing creativity of the Twenties and Thirties was sparked by O’Donovan. Her career seems to have meant more to him than his own, perhaps because hers held greater promise, and he urged her on, but he also encouraged a disposition to dependency that was nearly disastrous. Indeed, her greatest tribute to him would come in The Towers of Trebizond, when time had given her back the acerbic fictional voice he had always preferred to any other, and she could spell out in his favorite tones the nature of the bond between them.

Meanwhile she finished out the Forties—once the war had ended—in travel to foreign lands and in writing splendid books about them: They Went to Portugal (1946); Fabled Shore (1949). But novels seemed impossible until the end of the decade, when she returned to fiction, as though to pick up the emotional threads of her life, and produced The World My Wilderness, a novel about the postwar world that many people could not help feeling was her most pessimistic work. They were responding to the vision of the world in physical and moral ruins, to the lost child Barbary—a teenage anarchist—and the cultivated, cynical university graduate, destined, Rose Macaulay feared, to rebuild England in his own image. Yet no one seems to have noticed that she had also created for the first time a central character (Barbary’s mother) openly committed to sensuality. Helen Michel dabbles in several arts and specializes in the pleasures of the body. She has never compromised either her unconventionality or her feelings, and, significantly enough, by the end of the novel hers is the most balanced and sympathetic character of all, as though Rose Macaulay had arrived at a strenuously argued conclusion about the efficacy of love and sex. In a book full of moral lapses and ironies, the magnificently amoral figure of Helen Michel becomes the linchpin. A few years later, The Towers of Trebizond would revolve around an adulterous affair that is also a vehicle of religious faith.

In between, in characteristic Macaulayan style, came an apparent corrective to The World My Wilderness (and its setting amidst London’s postwar rubble) in the form of a sumptuous prose work, Pleasure of Ruins (1953). She spent four years researching the responses of human beings in all eras to the great ruins, and in the process found her way back to the religion of her ancestors, helped in this by a priest out of her own past. He was one of the Cowley Fathers, a religious community that held an appeal for C. S. Lewis as well as Rose Macaulay. She had met Father Hamilton Cowper Johnson before the First World War but lost track of him when he was sent to the States. Now, in 1950, he wrote to her, compelled to do so after reading her historical novel, They Were Defeated, thus initiating an extraordinary correspondence published after her death. These letters show how timely was the entrance of the learned Father Johnson into her life, for he replaced Gerald O’Donovan as the representative of benign, admiring authority. She depended on his answers to all her questions—theological as well as personal—and they invariably came. No one reading the irreverent and satiric novels of Rose Macaulay’s middle years—Potterism, Dangerous Ages, Mystery at Geneva, Told by an Idiot, Orphan Island, Keeping Up Appearances, Staying With Relations—could have dreamed that the Church would one day come to serve as the cherished companion others seek and find in tangible human relationships.

She had played her worldly role only too well. Even among those who knew her, relatively few were aware of the extent to which, in her last decade, religious practice regulated her life and occupied her mind. This too, like her relationship with Gerald O’Donovan, was her own private affair. She thought people ought to “consume their own smoke.” So her appearances in public were as numerous and catholic as ever, their lively character unchanged, but early each morning she might have been found worshipping at Grosvenor Chapel, the little eighteenth-century church near her flat, where the brand of Anglicanism—“high but not ‘extreme’”—seemed perfect.

She thought people ought to “consume their own smoke.”

In this state of unworldly contentment, she wrote The Towers of Trebizond, one of her funniest and raciest novels: an ingeniously clever first-person narrative that is a travel guide to Turkey as well as a mystery, a fable, and a farce. It was also her most openly religious work of fiction, centering on a longstanding secret liaison, like her own, that provides a beautiful example of the way in which fiction can be so frankly autobiographical that it turns into high and impersonal art. The affair in the novel—between cousins, one of whom (Vere) is married—has been going on for years, with neither party having the slightest intention of giving it up. As Laurie (the narrator) says, there was no way out of the dilemma such love produced—the “discord in the mind, the happiness and the guilt and the remorse pulling in opposite ways so that the mind and soul are torn in two.” Here indeed is the marriage of Heaven and Hell. And the only way out—the death of one of the lovers—becomes in fiction a mirror version of reality, reflecting Rose Macaulay’s acceptance of equal responsibility in the long-term relationship with Gerald O’Donovan that had been the source, in the same measure, of joy and sorrow. This is why the lovers are made kin in The Towers of Trebizond; this is why the narrator’s sex is not revealed until the last moment; and this is why Laurie must bring about Vere’s death in an automobile accident caused by senseless pride. The novel ends here, with Laurie (female) living “in two hells,” without love and without God, the hellish paradise gone forever and insensibility all that remains.

Yet the novel did not depress its readers as The World My Wilderness had done, for many of them heard Rose Macaulay’s voice suggesting, through the young and vital Laurie, that the hopelessness would not last, as it had not lasted for Rose Macaulay herself. When she wrote the novel, she had already made her way back to the Church from her own lowest point, after Gerald O’Donovan’s death. In fact, Towers was an instant success, winning her the James Tait Black Memorial prize in 1957 and prompting her inclusion in the 1958 New Year’s Honours. Thus, not long before her sudden death in October of that year, she became—like her friend Ivy Compton-Burnett later on—Dame Commander of the British Empire.

They were a striking pair indeed, and one is tempted to remark that in spite of her celebrated presence in the great world, Rose Macaulay was as private as the opaque and secretive Compton-Burnett. In style, of course, they were utterly different, but Rose Macaulay’s lucid expositions often concealed nearly as much as Ivy Compton-Burnett’s oblique dialogues. Perhaps they were both incurable blends of opposites, who resist definition and exasperate critics. All her life Rose Macaulay had alternated between contrasting self-images, so that even in death the worldly and unworldly sides of her were curiously mingled. The young assistant priest who spoke at the Requiem Mass held for her at Grosvenor Chapel, where she had received so much personal solace during her last years, was himself a social and worldly being, a “new type” she had actually commented on in a letter to Father Johnson. Now he could not refrain from observing that it was hard to believe she would miss this gathering of all her friends, and he half-expected her to turn up at her own memorial service. They were words she might have put into his mouth if he had been a character in one of her irreligious novels.

Rose Macaulay’s absence from today’s critical consciousness is another matter, not difficult to understand, even though she offers so rewarding a mix of cultural materials for the historian of women and literature. Determinedly anti-romantic to the last, she also blended causticity and piety into a heady modern brew. When you add to this that she turned fiction into a social essay and her social life into a fiction, the end result might well be a disappearing author in the postmodern mode. Given, however, to reconstruction rather than deconstruction, I would argue that Rose Macaulay is available to critical scrutiny. The brilliant surfaces of her fiction—the rhetorical flourishes, the linguistic explorations, the witty play of idea against idea—yield only a partial portrait of the artist, a portrait that has held sway for years, in large measure because she wanted it that way. But beyond the verbal facility—and the clear prose persona mistaken for its elusive and polymorphous author—is a rich historical .imagination that never failed her and a religious sensibility she could neither wholly suppress nor fully indulge, not even in her old age, when she was free of the personal constraints of the past. An ingrained skepticism always got in the way, so that hers was an art of contrarieties played against each other, at its best in such fictions as The World My Wilderness and The Towers of Trebizond, supremely balanced achievements that represent the hard-won triumph of classicism and impersonality.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 5 Number 2, on page 38
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