Rose Macaulay is a superb writer whose books are the very opposite of the “cozy” published by some women’s presses–the E. M. Delafields and Elizabeth Taylors we’ve all come to love. Macaulay’s uneven novels of ideas have been rediscovered and boosted by Virago and NYBR, but overall she is a neglected writer. In 1922 she won the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse Anglais for Dangerous Ages, a brilliant novel about the narrowing of choices for women in middle- and old age. In 1956 she won the James Tait Black Memorial Award for The Towers of Trebizond, a satiric novel centering on travel in the Middle East.
Keeping up Appearances, published in 1928, is so stunning when looked at as a whole that one wants to send it to a friend and say, “Here is an underrated tour de force!” It is not a perfect book, but its very imperfections suit it. Macaulay’s protagonist, Daisy Simpson, is not what she seems, and it is this foggy identity that makes Keeping Up Appearances so surprising and fascinating. On the surface Daisy is an unconfident, diffident journalist who hides her feelings of inferiority by tagging along with her worldly, charming half-sister, Daphne. But on page 101 we discover Daisy’s secret: she and Daphne are the same person; she has invented Daphne as a nonchalant, witty personality that can cope with the vagaries of upper-class society. Daisy is the illegitimate daughter of a lower-middle-class woman of whom she is ashamed; she was educated by her upper-class father’s sister, a friend of the Folyots. Presenting herself as Daphne instead of Daisy makes the prospect of marriage to Raymond Folyot, an upper-class scientist, almost impossible. Daisy hides all her accomplishments: he does not know she is a journalist, nor that she writes middlebrow novels under the name Marjorie Wynn.
Daisy’s cowardice, shame, and triple life do not always make her a sympathetic character. Yet at the same time her nervousness and complications make her far superior to the horrible Folyots. Mrs. Folyot has a thousand causes, all of them vague; her husband is a secret snob; Raymond undistinguished and unimaginative; and Cary a sharp 12-year-old who seems to discover all Daisy/Daphne’s faults.
A very enjoyable novel, discovered accidentally.