Virginia Barton

To Mass on the back of a camel

Catholic Herald, 10 May 1991

 

Review: Rose Macaulay: A Writer’s Life by Jane Emery (John Murray, £25)

 

n53769Unlike in poems, there are precious few immortal opening lines in novels. But “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass” must rank as one of the best.

The memorable quotation is from Rose Macaulay’s last, bestselling novel, The Towers of Trebizond.

This funny, clever, bittersweet book, published in 1956, secured for its elderly author a permanent place in English literature. Rose Macaulay was 76 when Trebizond took the bookish world by storm. Fame, honours and prizes came late, although she was well-known as a broadcaster, had 22 other novels and dozens of publications to her credit, and was everybody’s favourite dinner guest.

We, the public, came to know her face late in life, so tend to think of her as forever old. But, as Ms. Emery shows in this detailed biography, many decades preceded the triumph of Trebizond.

Against the patchwork of distinguished Macaulay relations and connections, the tomboy Rose develops into a clever and complicated young woman, needle-sharp and prone to fantasy. The scene shifts down from Rugby (where Rose was born in 1881) to Italy (halcyon years), Wales and Cambridge. Ms. Emery makes use of many contemporary sources which recreate the rather stormy and emotionally fraught atmosphere in which the six Macaulay children grew up.

This biographer is particularly sound on Rose’s personal relationships: with her parents, siblings, and the heaven-sent Uncle Regi. Rose’s long friendship with Gerald O’Donovan, ex-Catholic priest and married man, is described with sensitivity, although I personally found it difficult to understand what on earth Rose could have seen in him.

Gerald’s death, ending this affair, allowed for Rose’s reconciliation with the Anglican church – quite one of the most significant facts in her life. The conflict of an illicit love and the demands of Christianity, are the stuff of Trebizond.

Ms. Emery does not really get to grips with Rose’s spiritual experience, despite meticulous accounts of Rose’s lengthy correspondence with Fr. Johnson, the churches she favoured, and so on.

The outer facts are there, the inner conversion evades Ms. Emery. But perhaps only Rose herself could accurately describe what had happened.

The book is replete with anecdotes and insights concerning Rose’s life. She moved in the high, magical circles of books, society and politics, and everyone has something to say about her – the Woolfs, Betjemans and Sackville-Wests, Rupert Brooke, E.M. Forster and Gilbert Murray, to name but a few.

 

 

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