Rose Macaulay

British novelist, essayist, and travel writer, a cousin of the historian Lord Macaulay, born in Rugby, educated at Somerville College, Oxford; her early life was spent in Italy, Aberystwyth, and Cambridge. Her novels began with Abbots Verney (1906), a Bildungsroman set in Rome, ‘Verney’ being the first of numerous androgynously named central characters in her fiction.

During the First World War she worked briefly as a nurse; effects of shell-shock are depicted in Non-Combatants and Others (1916), in which ‘Alix’ comes to appreciate her forceful mother's pacifist campaigning and contemplates a religious faith.

Macaulay gained a wide readership in the 1920s for her topical novels with a liberal social ethos, characterized by an ironic, sometimes flippant, tone. Potterism (1920) was a bestseller, and dealt with the excesses of popular journalism; Dangerous Ages (1921) studied the problems of four generations of women within a family; and Crewe Train (1926) satirized London literati and society life. A busy woman of letters, Macaulay was often in contact with the likes of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, and produced accomplished works within a number of genres. Her fascination for the seventeenth century resulted in an important historical novel of the Civil War period, They Were Defeated (1932), as well as a biography of Milton in 1934. They Went to Portugal (1946) and Fabled Shore (1949) are delightfully quirky travel books, and her scholarly interest in archaeology informs Pleasure of Ruins (1953).

Macaulay's last novel is perhaps the best known: The Towers of Trebizond (1956), the story of a fruitless missionary jaunt around Turkey aboard an erratic camel; its narration contains many entertaining digressions on religion (particularly Anglicanism), culture differences, and the eccentricities of human behaviour. A more serious sub-plot concerns a long-standing adulterous relationship, conflicts of desires that keep ‘Laurie’ ultimately outside the ‘magical and mystical’ Byzantine city of Trebizond, which comes to symbolize Christianity for her. Macaulay's fictions mostly explore women's social roles and some are now period pieces, but her civilized wit and oblique feminist perspectives remain of contemporary interest. Jane Emery's Rose Macaulay: A Writer's Life (1991) is a sympathetic account, while Eros and Androgyny (1988) by Jeanette N. Passty offers a detailed critique of sexual identity within her works.



Many Sisters to Many Brothers

  When we fought campaigns (in the long Christmas rains)
    With soldiers spread in troops on the floor,
  I shot as straight as you, my losses were as few,
    My victories as many, or more.

  And in naval battle, when, amid the rattle
    Of cannon, fleet met fleet in the bath,
  My cruisers were as trim, my battleships as grim,
    My submarines cut as swift a path.

  Or, when it rained too long, and the strength of the strong
    Surged up and broke a way with blows,
  I was as fit and keen, my fists hit as clean,
    Your black eye matched my bleeding nose.

  Was there a scrap or ploy in which you, the boy,
    Could better me?  You could not climb higher,
  Ride straighter, run as quick (and to smoke made you sick)
    . . . But I sit here, and you're under fire.

  Oh, it's you that have the luck, out there in blood and muck:
    You were born beneath a kindly star;
  All we dreamed, I and you, you can really go and do,
    And I can't, the way things are.

  In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
    A hopeless sock that never gets done.
  Well, here's luck, my dear; ― and you've got it, no fear;
    But for me . . . a war is poor fun.