Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay

Non-Combatants and Others by Rose Macaulay was first published in 1916, and that really is the most surprising thing about it. It’s described as a pacifist novel and I find it amazing but also heartening that it was allowed to be published at a time when the government was exhorting all males to join up and do their bit. There’s quite a lot about the waste and ghastliness of war.

Alix Sandomir is a young art student who has been living at Wood End with her aunt and cousins. Both of her parents had been political peace campaigners and her father had died in a Russian prison. Her mother is busy in America giving speeches on pacifism. Alix isn’t really interested in anything like that.

‘Life at Wood End, as at other homes was full of letters from the front. They seemed to Alix like bullets and bits of shrapnel crashing into her world, with their various tunes. She might, from her nervous frown have been afraid of ‘stopping one’.’

When she is given the chance to move to a villa in Clapton which is nearer her art school, she takes it. The house is called Violette and is peopled by various relatives who are all busy getting on with their own lives. In truth though life at Wood End had become too much for Alix to cope with. The war was too close for her liking as John, a relative, had been wounded and was back at Wood End, scarred and unable to speak properly, a nervous wreck, prone to sleep-walking and talking, and crying in his sleep.

Alix is also worried about her younger brother who had gone straight to the army instead of to Oxford where he had got a scholarship. She thinks that they shouldn’t be sending children to war.

As time goes on and bad news from the war gets closer and closer to Alix, she realises that she can’t stay aloof from it all, it has changed her profoundly.

This is a really good read if you’re interested in the Great War and the social history side of it. The book ends on the last day of 1915 and it’s probably just as well that as the author wrote it she was obviously unaware that that there were almost three whole years more to go before the armistice.

Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay – 20 Books of Summer 2022

Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay was sent to me to review by British Library, it’s part of their British Library Women Writers series. I was really happy to receive it as I’ve enjoyed other books by the author. It was first published in 1928 and there’s an afterword by Simon Thomas.

This one is a really interesting and entertaining read although I must admit that it took me a wee while to realise what the author was doing.

Daphne and Daisy are half-sisters with five years in between their age, and they’re both attracted to the same man. At the beginning of the book they are living abroad with the Folyot family who are somewhat higher up on the social scale, but an incident leads to a return home to London where Daisy, who is far less socially poised than Daphne is, becomes embarrassed by her rather common mother. Daisy’s mother is so proud of her daughter, Daisy is a journalist but she is only given silly articles to write for the newspaper about what the ‘modern girl’ thinks about this and that. She also writes novels which are popular, but Daisy still isn’t impressed by herself.

It’s Daphne who easily fits in with other people, she’s popular mainly because she bends herself to agree with whomever is speaking to her. Things get completely out of hand for Daisy.

It’s difficult to review this one without giving too much away, but I will say that Macaulay’s father George Campbell Macaulay comes from a Scottish (Lewis) family – and Rose Macaulay must have been influenced by him quite a bit when she thought of writing this one!

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

 Dangerous Ages  cover

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay was first published in 1921 but I read a British Library Women Writers reprint. It’s quite different from the other two books I’ve read by the author – The Towers of Trebizond and The World My Wilderness. I really enjoyed this one too, but it couldn’t be called a comfort read.

The story features four generations of women within one family and it begins with Neville’s 43rd birthday. Neville is actually a woman which is slightly confusing to begin with, her son is called Kay which is of course normally a girls name – apart from in Scandinavia. Birthdays can be depressing and Neville looks back on her life. Now that her son and daughter are grown up she is regretting that she had given up her medical studies to get married. Maybe if she resumes her studies after 20 odd years she would would regain the confidence that she had had back then. Neville is worried that she’s beginning to turn into her mother (Mrs Hilary).

‘I don’t like being merely a married woman. Rodney isn’t merely a married man, after all … But anyhow, I’ll find something to amuse my old age, even if I can’t work. I’ll play patience or croquet or piano or all three, and I’ll go to theatres and picture shows and concerts and meetings in the Albert Hall. Mother doesn’t do any of those things. And she is so unhappy so often’

Mrs Hilary who is 63 years old has always been consumed with self-pity, but since her husband’s death she has got worse. Her family is well used to her self-centred moods and silliness, especially her own mother who is 83 and obviously knows her best and has put up with her for so long. She had tried to interest her daughter in parish works, art or handiworks to no avail, with the result that when her children became adults she had nothing to fall back on. She doesn’t even like her children to communicate with each other or with their grandmother without her being there. As Freud and psychology in general has become fashionable Mrs Hilary decides that she might feel better if she sees one. It’s exactly what she wants, someone who will sit and listen to all her moaning.

‘Grandmamma’ is the happiest member of the family, she has attained contentment as many do when they have reached a great age and outlived so many acquaintances. Hearing a distant Salvation Army band playing a jolly tune in the distance is enough to make her happy – just don’t think of the rather violent words that go with the tune.

But it’s Gerda who at 20 is the youngest woman in the family who is going to cause grief within the wider family as Gerda has been spoiled and it looks to me like she’s the one who will turn into a self-pitying updated version of her granny Mrs Hilary.

This makes it all sound rather grim and as I said earlier it isn’t a comfort read, there’s a lot of angst, but such is life. This book was written just after the First World War which was a time when women of all ages and classes had been ‘doing their bit’ for the war effort, whether it was knitting balaclavas or making munitions. At the end of the war when the surviving men returned, going back to the way things had been pre-war must have been a difficult transition for all concerned, historically the suicide rates for women were very high, gas ovens were such handy things and many stuck their heads in them, right up into the 1950s. Being able to work outside the home went a long way to improving their mental health and I suppose anti-depressants helped too!

Anyway, this is a really good read. My thanks to the British Library who kindly sent me a copy of this book to review. I was really pleased to see that the Afterword is by Simon of Stuck in a Book.

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

The World My Wilderness cover

The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay was first published in 1950, her second last novel with The Towers of Trebizond being her last.

The book begins in post war France at the Villa Fraises where Maurice Michel had lived with his English wife, but Maurice had drowned and as the rumours were that he had been a collaborator it’s assumed that the maquis had dealt with him in retribution. Maurice’s step-daughter Barbary had been on the fringes of the maquis (French Resistance) along with his son Raoul and they had led a fairly wild life dodging the Gestapo and causing mayhem whenever they could. The end of the war hasn’t made much a of a difference to their behaviour.

Barbary had been very close to her mother Helen but since the birth of a son to her and Maurice she’s not really interested in her teenage daughter and decides to pack Barbary off to her father who lives in London. Barbary is appalled at the thought of going there and living with her father and step-mother, but she settles down to life there in her own way, enjoying the many bomb sites and continuing to kick against any authority, and embarking on a career as a shoplifter.

As Barbary’s father is a high flying lawyer she’s a real liability to him, she’s not going to fit into his upper middle-class London society, but she can’t cope with the ruffians of London either.

There are various wildernesses in this book which moves from rural France to the Highlands of Scotland then to the bomb sites of London, and also the wilderness that a family can be when it’s torn apart and re-made in a different guise.

I think the only other book by the author I’ve read is The Towers of Trebizond and I enjoyed that one more with its quirky characters and humour.

Aberdeen book purchases – part 2

Yet More Books

The second bookshop in Aberdeen that we visited is a charity one right in the Merkat Square and as the books are all donated they sell them very cheaply. I bought:

1. The Century’s Daughter by Pat Barker
2. The Rendezvous by Daphne du Maurier
3. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
4. Beautiful Just! by Lillian Beckwith
5. Green Hand by Lillian Beckwith
6. Bruach Blend by Lillian Beckwith
7. The Spuddy by Lillian Beckwith
8. The Road Home by Rose Tremain
9. A Pack of Lies by Geraldine McCaughrean
10. Young Bess by Margaret Irwin
11. The Cockle Ebb by Isabel Cameron
12. The Herries Chronicle by Hugh Walpole This is an omnibus consisting of four books which are set in the Lake District/Cumbria area, and first published in 1939 although mine is a 1955 reprint.
Rogue Herries
Judith Paris
The Fortress

Visiting St Andrews just after Christmas I bought a lovely edition of Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, illustrated by Arthur Rackham. You can see some of the illustrations here. – also from St Andrews – Young Bess by Margaret Irwin, and the postman brought me –
In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella S. Haasse.

That lot should keep me going for a while. Have you read any of them?

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel

The Love-charm of Bombs  cover

The Love-charm of Bombs by Lara Feigel is subtitled Restless Lives in the Second World War and it’s mainly about the lives of authors during the war – Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Rosamond Lehmann, Henry Yorke, Hilde Spiel and various others pop in and out. I think that it’s well known that when people think that today might be their last day on earth they throw caution to the wind and grab what life they can – while they can. All of the authors survived the London blitz of August 1940 and were really in the thick of it having volunteered as ambulance people, firemen, ARP wardens and the like and it seems they really grew to love the excitement of it all. They were just about all promiscuous so this book might come as a shock to those who thought that such sex didn’t exist before the 1960s.

I found the first section of this book to be the most interesting as it’s about the bombing and their experiences, when things settled down and the Nazis turned their attention elsewhere they found life to be rather tame and mundane, the war was just a hard slog and as the authors written about in this book were all rather well off they didn’t have to worry about rationing as most people did, they could always get what they wanted.

There are lots of excerpts from books written by the people involved in this book, but what struck me was considering they were all successful published authors it’s a pity that they had to live the books before they wrote them, instead of using their imagination. Most of them seem to have used their various affairs for copy, they wrote copious love letters to each other but as soon as their backs were turned they were sleeping with someone else and in the case of Graham Greene even habitually using brothels. Yet again I’m puzzled as to why he converted to Roman Catholicism when he had no intention of keeping to the rules, in fact he loved flouting them. Maybe he got a kick out of confessing his sins to priests. But if so then he was sadly mistaken because one of the female authors in this book habitually had affairs with the priests that she had as ‘spiritual advisers’. Honestly it’s all too much for my Presbyterian sensibilities to cope with!

The book carries on into the 1950s when ill health was catching up with a lot of the people involved. For me interest in this book fell off after the early years of the war. I must say that having known a man who was a conscientious objector in WW2 and ended up being an ambulanceman in London, I know that his job was much more harrowing than is portrayed in this book, and his experiences were even worse than those of many servicemen. While others were clearing up rubble and broken glass the ambulancemen cleared up bits of bodies that had been blown all over the place – such as up trees and onto roofs.

Anyway, I’ve digressed-ish, this is quite an interesting read if you read books by these 1930-50s authors, I have to admit that I had never even heard of Henry Yorke and Hilde Spiel, but they were loosely part of the same milieu. I’m quite puzzled by the title of the book because all of those involved were in no need of a war to pep up their sex lives, although it did give them more scope to get on with their infidelities.

After the war Hilde Spiel went back to Germany and Austria and that was interesting, she had done her best to assimilate in England and had been fairly successful. She had had to escape from Austria when the Nazis marched in and she had a harder time socialising with the Germans than the British people had.

I also found the bits about the neutrality of Ireland during the war interesting. Apart from other things apparently they were afraid of being bombed! Rose Macaulay was very lucky in that being Anglo-Irish she had inherited a ‘Big House’ so she was able to go there whenever the bombing in London got too much for her. She was a strange person who believed that she had been accepted by the Irish as being Irish and even had affairs with I.R.A. gunmen, but in reality the fact that she saw herself as being wholly Irish just meant that she was clueless as to how others saw her.

This book is interesting in parts but at 465 pages I felt it dragging in the middle.

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

The Towers of Trebizond cover

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay was published in 1956 and it won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. I’m attempting to work my way through the long list of all the books that have won the prize, it’ll be a long task.

This is a book that some bloggers have been raving about, although I enjoyed it I did find it a bit of a drag at times, it’s definitely curate’s eggish. The thing is though – the good parts are really very good, so funny. I’m not a big fan of organised religions and there are quite a few long passages about Christianity and other religions that were just a bit too long for my liking. It seems it’s all very autobiographical.

Laurie the narrator sets of on a tour of Turkey with her rather eccentric Aunt Dot and a very high anglican priest called Father Chantry-Pigg. Aunt Dot intends to write a book about their journey and Laurie will illustrate it. Dot has an ulterior motive though, she’s a keen supporter of women’s rights and as she regards the Moslem religion as being so controlling of women, she’s on a mission to convert them to Christianity.

Father Chantry-Pigg is Dot’s terrifically intolerant and snooty companion, and Doctor Halide is a female doctor who has been converted to Christianity from the Moslem faith of her upbringing, mainly because she can’t agree with the way Moslem women are treated.

Laurie has been having an affair with a married man for the last ten years, and that has put something of a dampener on her religious life.

Famously this book begins: ‘”Take my camel dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

The reason why she is having to travel on a camel is because while she had been dining with Prof Gilbert Murray and Archbishop David Mathew, her Morris car had been stolen by an Anglican bishop!

With Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg disappearing over the Russian border and Laurie having to continue her travels on her own with the camel, this is definitely worth reading although I can’t say I liked the ending.

You can read Jack’s much more detailed/analytic thoughts on the book here.