The World According to Rose

Lovers of any art love to be pointed in the direction of some practitioner — painter, dancer, director, writer — they haven’t discovered yet. Readers are lucky in that books so often lead on to other books.

Several years ago such a referral brought be to 1950’s “The World My Wilderness” by Rose Macaulay. She was once far better known than today. I have read only four of her three dozen books, but they are wonderful.

Macaulay comes from an ancient clan that originated in the Outer Hebrides. She is in the same line as the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay and her father was a classical scholar. She graduated with a degree in history from Oxford in the 1890s when woman scholars were a comparative rarity. Her first novel appeared in 1906 and 22 more followed before World War II, along with seven non-fiction works. Most are forgotten today, though they may not deserve to be.

Macaulay’s reputation rests on “The World My Wilderness,” published when she was 69, “Pleasure of Ruins,” when she was 73 and “The Towers of Trebizond,” when she was 75, two years before her death. She is an encouragement to late bloomers everywhere.

It is perhaps not entirely surprising that Macaulay got a bit lost in the literary reputation shuffle. Contemporaries born within a few years of her include T.S. Eliot, E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, Sean O’Casey and D.H. Lawrence. It was an illustrious and innovative generation.

Yet Macaulay has an oddly appealing voice all her own. Learned, but witty. Satiric, but capable of sudden flashes of deep feeling. Too clear-eyed to be sentimental, but too decent and downright to be a cynic. She was an ironist, perhaps, or as Mark Twain said of himself “an optimist who did not arrive.”

“Wilderness” concerns Barbary, the daughter of a divorced English couple who is living with her frivolous mother in the South of France when they are cut off from home by World War II. The child is left to run wild and is soon employed by the Resistance as a go-between. As such she becomes familiar with hunger, danger, sudden death, betrayal and the unreliability of adults. Yet this life is also thrilling, a bit like Peter Pan, with Nazis instead of Captain Hook.

We learn this history along the way. The book commences in the aftermath of the war when the untamed teen is sent back to an England she barely remembers to live with her father and his new wife in order to be civilized. She quickly flees their unwelcoming embrace and the discipline they and the school seek to impose on her. She disappears into London’s bombed out ruins where she begins living with other dispossessed persons. It is a dark book that ends with a kind of reconciliation and a glimmer of hope, but raises grave questions about how civilized any of us are. It is quite wonderful and unexpected.

“The Towers of Trebizond,” often regarded as her masterpiece, seems at first like a comic soufflé. Aunt Dot is a true English eccentric, as we learn in the book’s famous first line, “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” Aunt Dot is the widow of an Anglican missionary to Africa who likes nothing so much as globetrotting. The narrator is her niece Laurie and she describes the trip they undertake to the Turkish coast of the Black Sea in the company of Father Chantry-Pigg. He aims to convert the Muslims and visit Biblical sites, Aunt Dot, as always hopes to persuade women in unenlightened backwaters to rise up against oppressive patriarchy and improve their lot. Laurie plans to enjoy classical ruins and sketch them.

En route much fun is had at the expense of BBC radio crews and British travel writers, both of which seem to be swarming every place they visit, no matter how remote. They also encounter Billy Graham evangelists, Cold War spies and picturesque locals.

The comic mood darkens, however, when Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg decide to cross the Soviet border, she in hopes of angling in a famous lake and he in order to visit an historic Armenian church. It soon become clear that they have vanished behind the Iron Curtain and are presumed to be either dead, imprisoned or defectors a la McLean and Philby.

Laurie is left with Aunt Dot’s camel but without her financial resources. She elects to ride across Turkey alone to the Levant where she hopes to rendezvous with Vere, the married man with whom she has been conducting an affair. On this trip she has plenty of time to brood about the conflict between her guilt over this relationship yet her inability to live without it. In this, “Trebizond” is clearly autobiographical.

Macauley never married and was dismissed by the catty and snobbish Virginia Woolf as a chattery, flimsy Eunuch. Only after her death was it learned that for over two decades, from 1918 until his death in 1942, she was secretly engaged in a passionate affair with the married Irish novelist Gerald O’Donovan.

“Trebizond” is also autobiographical insofar as Macaulay herself was an indefatigable and fearless traveler. Her “Fabled Shore” (1946) recounts a trip down the Mediterranean cost of Spain from the French border to Gibraltar that she undertook alone in a rickety auto on primitive roads through Franco’s Spain at the age of 65. “Pleasure of Ruins” gives further testament to a lifelong interest in faraway places with archaeological remains.

All these books are rewarding reads in the company of a fascinating woman who would have been more fun to sit next to at a dinner party than all the rest of Bloomsbury combined. V.S. Pritchett said she was “as lively as a needle….discreet, learned and intrepid…Activity was her principle, asking questions her ironical pleasure.” And Harold Nicolson praised her for wit that was acid though “citric merely never poison.” If that sounds appealing, Dame Rose Macaulay ought to be to your taste.

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