Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) is a neglected, sharp & versatile writer once so popular she was created Dame of the British Empire. Small publishers occasionally revive her novels only to let them fall out-of- print again. Why does she not catch on? Although her serious middlebrow novels are of the same quality as E. M. Delafield’s, she has not achieved Delafield’s popularity in the 21st century. Delafield, of course, is beloved mainly for her charming, inimitable Diary of a Provincial Lady series.
Yet I love Macaulay best. Best known for The Towers of Trebizond (NYBR), a superb, humorous autobiographical novel which won the James Tait Black Award in 1956, she is a brilliant satirist and accomplished writer. The Towers of Trebizond, a masterpiece of wit, encompasses travelers in the Middle East, camels, religion, and adulterous love.
But I also like her more serious novels like Dangerous Ages (my personal favorite, available at Gutenberg and also in a Bibliobazaar editions) and Non-Combatants and Others (Capuchin Classics). And you can also find some of her other novels in Virago editions, among them Told by an Idiot and The World My Wilderness.
I just spent several refreshing hours reading Dangerous Ages, an overlooked novel that perhaps cannot be appreciated till middle age. I remember starting it some years ago and thinking it wasn’t for me. Now it is. This gently humorous, sometimes very painful examination of three generations of women charts the sad sense of loss as choices narrow for women in middle- and old age, contrasted with the confidence and sense of immortality of youth. Despite the fact that some of the characters are unlikable, I feel sympathetic to their very different plights. Macaulay’s writing here is plain and unadorned, not nearly as perfect as in The Towers of Trebizond, but her ideas are first-rate.
The novel, set after World War I, begins with Neville, a charming, brilliant, competent mother of two grown children, who, on her 43rd birthday, awakens early and goes to ttake a swim. Strong and athletic, she is a better swimmer than her children. But on the shore afterwards, she ponders the rapidity of the years and the feeling of waste: as a woman of 20, she had been a star medical student, but dropped out to marry and have children. Now she is determined to return to medical school.
As she sits in the woods, she muses:
“To think suddenly of Rodney, of Gerda and of Kay, sleeping in the still house beyond the singing wood and silver garden, was to founder swiftly in the cold, dark seas, to be hurt again with the stabbing envy of the night. Not jealousy, for she loved them all too well for that. But envy of their chances, of their contacts with life…. Conscious, as one is on birthdays, of intense life hurrying swifly to annihilation, she strove desperately to dam it.”
Because she is sensible and considerate, she hides her gloom and spends an enjoyable day with her husband, children, mother, Grandmama, and cynical, brilliant younger sister, Nan, a writer. After all, Neville has medical school to look forward to. But her mother, surgeon brother, and politician husband are not wholly supportive. Her mother and brother think it’s ridiculous to return to school after all these years; her husband is lukewarm. And Neville gradually finds that she can no longer study as she used to. This is extremely disturbing.
Their mother, Mrs. Hilary, has the next birthday. At 63 she is bored, lonely, and jealous of her serene 84-year-old mother, who has everyone’s respect. The once pretty Mrs. Hilary tried living in London after she was widowed: but she was considered too ” stupid”–a word frequently used of Mrs. Hilary, even by Mrs. Hilary herself– to keep up with her sophisticated friends and social contacts, all of whom were informed about the issues of the day. Now she lives in a backwater where her strong personal opinions, formed completely without information, are tolerated. But on her birthday when her favorite son doesn’t show up, she has to make do with Neville, the oldest daughter who soothes her and tries to understand her. Sadly, Mrs. Hilary knows that no one really likes to talk to her. And when she tries to read “difficult” books, they are beyond her.
Perhaps Mrs. Hilary’s character can best by understood by a swimming incident. On Mrs. Hilary’s birthday, the children go out swimming far beyond her. Mrs. Hilary is furious that they are “neglecting” her. She sulks, refuses to get out of the sea, hoping to make them feel guilty, and gets sick with rheumatism. She is triumphant because she has their attention again. Of course the children know exactly what kind of person she is and don’t feel guilty.
Nan, a 33-year-old writer, is independent, strong-willed, narcissistic, and Bohemian. We don’t get to know her as well as Neville and Mrs. Hilary, and she is difficult to like, perhaps because she doesn’t need anyone. Barry, a friend who works for a political organization that forms education programs for the working class, among other innovations, is in love with her. Nan privately decides she will marry him, but she will not tell him before she’s had a month’s vacation. The reader’s apprehension about this procrastination out to be apt.
The youngest woman, Gerda, Neville’s 20ish daughter, is earnest, beautiful, humorless, and unimaginative. A liberal without an education (she refused to go to Oxford), a writer of bad verse and ignorant of punctuation, she belongs to a radical group and suspects that those who have condemned Bolshevism are propagandists. She is also a young woman who doesn’t believe in marriage: she loves Barry and persuades herself that she can “share” him with her aunt. (Actually, doesn’t this sound like the ’60s and ’70s? Except for the rather disgusting “aunt” factor.)
Neville and Nan both experience much emotional pain, due to their vulnerability and age. In some ways Gerda reminds me of Mrs. Hilary. Both are selfish; neither imagines the consequences of her actions.
All the women are at dangerous ages; and the strange thing is that Mrs. Hilary and Gerda are dangerous in their ages.
Although I readily agree that it is not a classic, it is a novel that speaks to me over time.