Dame Emilie Rose Macaulay (muh-KAW-lee), although only a fringe member, was perhaps the most versatile author among Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group. She was born in Rugby, England, on August 1, 1881, the second of seven children. Both her father, George Macaulay, and her mother, Grace Conybeare (they were second cousins once removed), were descended from generations of clergymen and scholars. When Macaulay was six years old, George Macaulay moved his family to Italy for his wife’s health. Seven years of living frugally but happily in Italy, roaming hills and beaches with her siblings, left her a lively, slender tomboy with a lifelong love of travel and the sea.
At age thirteen, Macaulay moved back to England with her family. Entering a rather stormy adolescence, she was painfully shy and for a time agnostic, as was her father. When her godfather enabled her to attend Somerville College, Oxford, she bloomed, plunging vivaciously into conversation, correspondence, and companionship, while she studied history, political science, and literature. So stimulating was her life at Somerville that when George Macaulay accepted a three-year lectureship at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, she felt almost exiled. To entertain herself, she wrote poetry, and her first novel, Abbots Verney, a Bildungsroman, was published in 1906 to good reviews. That same year, the family returned to England when George Macaulay received a lectureship at the University of Cambridge, his alma mater, and she happily reentered society. Macaulay continued to write and publish until tragedy struck the family in 1909: Her brother Auley, working in India, was murdered by thieves. In the aftermath of his death, one sister became an Anglican deaconess, another a missionary; when Macaulay also volunteered as a missionary, her impulsive offer was rejected, and in a year or two, she wisely returned to her writing.
In 1912 Macaulay’s sixth novel, The Lee Shore, won first prize in a contest held by a publishing firm. In that same year, she took the first of several cruises to Greece, many of which would be reflected in later writings. By 1913, which she later considered her annus mirabilis, Macaulay was spending much of her time in London and meeting numerous poets, novelists, and journalists because of her friendship with Naomi Royde-Smith, the literary editor of the Westminster Gazette. Many of these new acquaintances were either members or friends of the Bloomsbury group—hence her later friendship with Virginia Woolf, who considered Macaulay promising but “too political.” In 1914, while doing volunteer war work near Cambridge, Macaulay published another Bildungsroman, entitled The Making of a Bigot, and her first book of poetry, The Two Blind Countries.
After her father died in 1915, her mother left Cambridge for Beaconsfield, and Macaulay moved permanently to London, taking a job in the War Office in the Ministry of Information. There she met, near the end of the war, the novelist Gerald O’Donovan, a former Catholic priest in Galway who had resigned,...
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