Over a writing career that spanned fifty years, Rose Macaulay produced twenty-three novels. She understandably came to regard the earliest of these—including The Furnace, The Secret River, and The Valley Captives—as immature and rather badly made, and she did nothing to encourage their republication. In her novels, she utilizes a wide variety of carefully rendered settings (some of which are quite exotic); her prose is beautifully cadenced and richly detailed. Occasionally, however, the exuberance and ornateness of Macaulay’s prose can be distracting and, occasionally, her plots bog down beneath the weight of the descriptive digressions and authorial intrusions that pepper her texts. Many of her characters are both convincing and memorable. Some, however, are both stereotypical and stiff and appear to be exchanging speeches rather than engaging in spontaneous conversation. Macaulay recognized that, as a novelist, she was least skilled at characterization; indeed, she was sometimes urged by friends and critics to concentrate on the essay form. Yet Macaulay also recognized that her fiction had a large and rather devoted readership and that, moreover, fiction could provide her with an entertaining vehicle for disseminating, and dissecting, a wide range of stimulating ideas.
As a novelist, Macaulay returned again and again to the same provocative themes. It is plain that, on the whole, she very much liked human beings. Still, she was severely critical of the intellectual laziness that she found epidemic in the human race. Repeatedly, her novels mock and sometimes savage characters who unthinkingly digest easy answers to the questions of life and who are prone, then, to sentimentality and cant. Though she is not generally ranked among her generation’s more overtly feminist authors, Macaulay frequently reveals in her work a deep disdain for a social system that continued to deny women equal access to education and adventure. She regularly features as central figures young women who are witty, well read, and intellectually ambitious.
Many of Macaulay’s recurring concerns are overtly stated in Potterism, one of her most enduring novels—and the first to sell impressively in the United States. Potterism is, in fact, dedicated to “the unsentimental precisians in thought, who have, on this confused, inaccurate, and emotional planet, no fit habitation.” It features among its five epigraphs Samuel Johnson’s injunction to “clear your mind of cant.Don’t think foolishly.”
At the core of Potterism is the abrupt death of a young newspaper editor recently wed to Jane Potter, whose father is the publisher of a string of superficial, cant-spewing newspapers, and whose mother, under the pseudonym of Leila Yorke, churns out foolish and schmaltzy novels that enjoy huge sales. In order to discuss and analyze this somewhat suspicious demise from varying perspectives, Macaulay presents “extracts” from the “private journals” of several characters who knew the young editor, including his novel-writing mother-in-law. Employing clichéd and rather empurpled prose, Mrs. Potter shows herself to be quite capable of the sort of overemotionalism and muddled thinking that Macaulay, throughout her career, so thoroughly disdained. The three authors of the other journal entries are the friends of the Potter twins, Johnny and Jane, who have sought to distance themselves from what they disparagingly refer to as the “Potterism” of their parents. Macaulay demonstrates that Johnny and Jane and their university-trained friends are not without their own pretensions and illusions, but she makes it clear that their crusade against vulgarity and stupidity—though quite probably quixotic—is well worth the taking.
Told by an Idiot
Macaulay’s thirteenth novel, the highly praised Told by an Idiot, is set in England between 1879 and 1927 and takes its title, and its epigraph, from Macbeth’s well-known observation that life is a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ Signifying nothing.” In this work, Macaulay focuses on the family of Maurice Garden, whose continuing struggles with faith and doubt have made him at various times a Catholic, a Baptist, a positivist, an Anglican, “a plain agnostic,” and, when the novel opens, an enthusiastic member of the Ethical Society.
Garden’s theological gyrations are well tolerated by his calm wife and his bright children, whose ranks include lively daughters named Imogen, Stanley, and Rome. Through her portrait of Maurice, Macaulay not only conveys something of her sense of the futility of most conflicting “isms” but also provides an acute portrait of the mental landscape of Victorian England. Through her depiction of the Gardens’ daughters, she is able to portray young women who, though by no means perfect, possess energy, perspicacity, and a desire for independence.
(The entire section is 2054 words.)