For many readers, biographies—especially literary biographies—provide more insight into how people actually live their lives than does any contemporary fiction. No fiction could conjure up a figure as contradictory and exuberant as Rose Macaulay, whose writing career developed over fifty years from slim satirical comedies to the creation of one of the finest novels of the twentieth century, The Towers of Trebizond (1956). This biography clearly describes Macaulay’s development using extensive documentation of her literary family and friends. Happily, Macaulay’s art flowered with her last writings, thus giving dramatic shape to the work of biographer Jane Emery. The twists and turns of Macaulay’s intellectual life trace the complexities of the twentieth century, revealing her as an oddly stoic figure; as her friend Alan Pryce-Jones stated, “Nobody ever zig-zagged more, either driving a car or walking through life; yet the essential part of her was still.”
Emery artfully skims over the complex religious and intellectual heritage of the iconoclastic Macaulay family to focus attention on the particulars of Rose’s parents and her two brothers and three sisters. Her father, George, was an independent scholar noted for his translations of John Gower and the Anglo-Saxon poets, yet he considered his failure to achieve a Cambridge fellowship in his youth a lifetime disappointment. George’s independence, however, enabled him to transplant the family from Cambridge to a tiny fishing village outside Genoa, Italy, when his wife’s ill health demanded such a move. This village, Varazzo, was the scene for seven years of idyllic childhood for Rose. Outside the restraints of any British institutions, she played fantasy games along the deserted coast with her favored two brothers and two sisters. “The Five,” as they called each other, were a society unto themselves, an “island colony” isolated from the Italian locals by language and culture. They created their own world. This “desert island” theme was to pop up in many of Macaulay’s novels, particularly in Orphan Island (1924).
It was in Italy that Macaulay began her lifelong infatuation with the sea. She was an avid swimmer who wrote rhapsodic odes in many of her novels to the glories of bathing. An unrepentant tomboy, she consciously tried to live up to her mother’s desire for a son. As a “boyish daughter,” she was like one of her female characters whose aim was to be “a naval lieutenant who wrote poetry.”
Emery is a bit insistent on attributing Macaulay’s public asexuality to her behavior in these early years; there is no direct treatment of sex in any of Macaulay’s breezy social comedies. Throughout her life Macaulay avoided any special pleading for members of her own sex; she sidestepped feminism, believing that individuals are controlled and restricted more by temperament than by gender. Her insistence on individuality in all matters kept her from being associated with issues and causes; her life is a paradox, a “tragic farce,” in which political ideas inevitably backfire and turn counterproductive.
In 1900, Rose’s precociousness prompted an uncle to pay for her education at Somerville College, which, although affiliated with the University of Oxford system, still at that time could not award degrees to women. As Emery states, Macaulay took from that experience a muddled feminism which “perhaps too easily accepted the battered intellectual status of women in Victorian society without emphasizing their potential.” Macaulay blossomed socially at Oxford, making friends outside her family for the first time. Her skill at lively conversation made her a “known diner out”; despite her proud status as a loner, she delighted at being treated as an “amusing bachelor.” She was already dead set against conforming to a conventional woman’s role, repeatedly stating, “better a house unkept than a life unlived.”
Despite her happiness within the university system, she froze at her exams, leaving all the questions in her field of modern history unanswered. Like her father, she had failed to find a place for herself within academia. She was to examine the theme of failure repeatedly in her fiction. Miserable and directionless, she retreated back to her family’s home. As an adult, she encountered new problems with her mother, Grace, finding her fickle enthusiasms and mood swings an irritation. She began writing novels as a way of exploring her emotions and revealing her own pain. Her first novel, Abbots Verney (1906), was an earnest bildungsroman; only gradually did comedy...
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