Critical Context

Told by an Idiot was written in Macaulay’s most fertile period; she published virtually a book a year during the 1920’s, many of them best-seller Her earlier novels tend to be gloomy and despondent, with personal failure as a dominant theme. It was with Potterism (1920) that she first found his true voice: a gently teasing, satirical style which, coupled with her astounding wit and erudition, made her one of the most popular authors of her day.

As in most of her novels, there are many identifiable autobiographic; elements in Told by an Idiot. Macaulay was born into a religious family, and the novel, written soon after she had become an agnostic (she later returned to the Church), reflects her own agony of religious doubt. Like Rome, she had a single romantic attachment in her life: to a priest-turned-writer who was already married.

Some critics have posited a close identification between the author and Rome, but the portrait drawn of her by Constance Babington-Smith in his biography Rose Macaulay (1972) could lead to the surmise that while Rome represents her voice and aspects of her life, Stanley symbolizes her ideal and Imogen reflects the doubts and ambiguities in her personality. Many of the characters were inspired by real-life acquaintances of the period. In Letters to a Friend (1961), Macaulay explains that Mr. Garden was based very sketchily on Tom Arnold, brother of the author Matthew Arnold and father of the novelist Mrs. Humphrey Ward, who “spent his life migrating from one church or no church to another and back again.” Well-known figures from the real life of the times also wander in and out of the story.