Rose Macaulay first hoved onto my horizons when I read Nicola Beauman’s wonderful book A Very Great Profession (which I discover, rather to my horror, I’ve never blogged about – it’s essential reading for anyone remotely interested in Persephone books or any interwar domestic novels). On the strength of that, I bought Told By An Idiot in Pershore market, and… I still haven’t read it. This is the story of so many of my books, of course, but Told By An Idiot (like, for some reason, Rosamund Lehmann’s Dusty Answer) has been close to the top of the tbr pile on numerous occasions. It’s come away on holiday with me, been placed by the bed, somehow never quite been read…
And I still haven’t read it – but I have read a Rose Macaulay novel. While researching my middlebrow stuff, Crewe Train by RM was mentioned a lot, especially in an interesting and newish book by Wendy Gan called Women, Privacy, and Modernity in Early Twentieth-Century British Writing. My curiosity piqued, I got hold of the novel and read it, and isn’t it good? I don’t know if I’m last to the party on Rose Macaulay. I had read some of her letters, but that was it, so forgive me if everyone else has read everything she ever wrote. Those whom I’ve asked seem to have been almost universally put off by The Towers of Trebizond…
Crewe Train (1926) takes its name from the popular rhyme:
Oh, Mr. Porter, whatever shall I do?
I want to go to Birmingham, but they’ve sent me on to Crewe!and is about Denham, who has got onto the wrong path in life. Brought up by her clergyman father in Andorra, she has instincts and a lifestyle which are fairly primitive. Or so they seem when her father dies, and she must move to live with relatives in London, the Greshams, who live in high society and all write or publish or at least read books. That sort. In Denham’s view: Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable. The Greshams all read them, but then they appeared to be so constituted as to be able to read anything. It was nearly a disease with them.Imagine! Denham is mystified by most of their activities, which seem to her to make no sense – the solemn dancing, the table manners, most of all the need to visit each other and hold conversation all the time. She is at a loss to either initiate or join the sorts of conversations that her relatives’ circle expects of her – the only successful topic she lands upon is puddings – and she believes that people should stay in their own home, and not bother each other all the time.
But nothing is simple, of course, and Denham finds herself in love with (thankfully distant) relative Arnold – and they marry. The tidal wave of first love is enough to get them through a lot, but then the differences start to spring up. She is desperate not to live in London, and he can think of nowhere else to live. She never reads anything but maps, he writes stream-of-consciousness novels (one, Lone Jane, is a cruelly funny pastiche of Joyce et al, to which comes the response: “I suppose,” said Denham doubtfully, “Jane did think like that. I suppose she was a little queer in the head.”) Though never openly antagonistic, their marriage becomes a struggle – whose lifestyle and wishes will be sacrificed for the other, or will they reach an unhappy compromise?
If this sounds bleak, then it’s only really bleak for the characters. The author and the reader are mostly having a whale of a time – Rose Macaulay has that affectionate, ironic voice which is so characteristic of the time, able to expose the ridiculous aspects of her characters without making them wholly ridiculous people. She uses the extremes of society to comment wryly on all of it, and uses Denham’s unusual perspective on good manners and protocol for good comic effect. For example, when Denham’s mother-in-law is instructing her on good house-management:
“It’s the only way of getting everything done in order. Monday morning clean the silver, Tuesday the knives, Wednesday, the paint, Thursday, the taps – and so on through the week. No day without something cleaned. And one room thoroughly turned out each day, too – that’s most important.” “Turned out…” Denham repeated it vaguely. “Yes, turned out. The things all taken out of the room and put back again, you know.” What for, Denham silently wondered. The same result would surely be achieved, with less effort, by leaving the things where they were. But the maids would not then have done a morning’s work; that was of course important.All in all, as well as being useful for my research, I found this a really fun novel, and I’ll definitely be reading more. In fact, I like Keeping Up Appearances even more so far, it’s very clever. If you haven’t read any RM yet, do give Crewe Train a go. Of course, it’s not in print… but there are plenty of 1p copies available on Amazon. And, who knows, Rose Macaulay might make a last minute addition to my Best Books of 2009, which I drafted the other day….