‘Abroad … is it worth the trouble of getting there?’ So begins Rose Macaulay’s alphabetical journey through the mixed pleasures of existence. First published in 1935, this reissue comes at a moment when Abroad is once again hedged about with difficulty. The bureaucratic obstacles ‘that crouch and snarl before you’ like dragons no longer include traveller’s cheques, and reservations are much simpler with the internet, but PCR tests and passenger locator forms demand the same combination of ‘industry, negligence and guile’ which Macaulay advises the tourist to deploy in order to get across the Channel. A ‘little flavour of bitterness’, she believed, added savour to enjoyment. All the pleasures in this collection of essays, dramatic monologues and miniature stories, which ends at ‘W’ with ‘Writing’, are at some point clouded. A few are even ruined. In ‘Hot Bath’ she sits in the gradually cooling water as she remembers that ‘I sent the bath towel to the wash this morning, and omitted to put out another.’ There are opposing pleasures. ‘Not Going to Parties’ is followed two pages later by ‘Parties’, and common subjects for cheerful rumination, such as ‘Christmas Morning’ and ‘Eating and Drinking’, are interspersed with the less usual ‘Cows’, ‘Heresies’ and ‘Doves in the Chimney’.
Macaulay was 54 when Personal Pleasures was published and well known as a novelist and journalist whose range extended from Good Housekeeping to an essay on the work of E.M. Forster, a book on Some Religious Elements in English Literature and a biography of Milton. Like her ancestor Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose History of England was intended to appeal to the common reader (and particularly to women), she disliked intellectual snobbery. In ‘Parties’ she surveys the foibles of the literary world represented at a gathering: the novelists, ‘rather noisy … Let us move out of earshot’; the poets, who ‘have coined more derogatory names for other poets than any other professional men have done … That is because they feel very strongly about poetry and about other poets’; and the publishers, who ‘all speak, none harkens.’ She was, according to Kate Macdonald’s introduction to this edition, ‘a natural champion of 1920s middlebrow culture’, but the book is also veined with her scholarly preoccupations. She had a passion for words and especially for logomachy. She liked to invent new terms to see if they would catch on, and prided herself on finding usages not recorded in the OED, which she considered ‘the most readable book in English’. One of her personal pleasures is ‘Improving the Dictionary’: ‘I feel myself one of its architects.’ Examples here that did not get into the OED include ‘cantiferous’, ‘sedilian’, ‘empatining’ and ‘hagiary’, though each is clear in context. Less familiar usages include ‘journal’, in the sense of daytime, and ‘panache’, in its original meaning of a tuft or headdress. Her other loves, Milton especially and the early moderns more generally, emerge in embedded quotations from Comus and Paradise Lost, and allusions to Montaigne, Thomas Browne and Congreve as well as such less remembered figures as the sea captain Robert Knox, and John Chilton, who, Macdonald speculates, was ‘probably’ the author of Voyage to the West Indies … in the year 1560.
The penalty for wearing so much learning lightly was, at this midpoint in her career, to be patronised by the more severe and humourless schools of criticism. In 1932 Queenie Leavis, in a virtuoso display of the sort of snobbery Macaulay most disliked, classed her as an upper-middlebrow bestseller whose books would be found ‘on the shelves of dons, the superior type of schoolmaster (the other type has Kipling, Ian Hay and P.G. Wodehouse), and in the average well-to-do home’. Initial reviews of Personal Pleasures – ‘most amusing’, ‘delightful’, ‘an ideal bedside book’ – were along these lines, calculated to please a publisher but suggesting something altogether slighter than the reality. In her introduction Macdonald is discouraging in the opposite direction, suggesting that what is most likely to strike the modern reader is the ‘palimpsest of dense allusions and quotations, mostly presented without attribution’. This sounds unnecessarily forbidding and would rule it out as a bedside book by Macaulay’s own lights. In ‘Bed’ she issues a firm warning against poetry, history, essays and ‘that peculiar literature which publishers call belles-lettres’ as bedtime reading. ‘You will never, I maintain, get to sleep on Shakespeare.’ The succession of meditations and jeux d’esprit in Personal Pleasures has just that capacity she recommends to ‘hold your attention gently on the page’, to amuse and interest without disturbance, to sooth without blandness, until sleep approaches. Then it is time to put out the light:
the dark bed, like a gentle pool of water, receives you; you sink into its encompassing arms, floating down the wandering trail of a dream, as down some straying river that softly twists and slides … now dipping darkly into blind waves, now emerging, lit with the odd, phosphorescent light of oneiric reason, unsearchable and dark to waking eyes.
The suggestive voice, like a stage hypnotist with its intense appeal to visualisation, makes it difficult to get to the end of the sentence without stifling a contented yawn.
This is one of several voices Macaulay deploys. Another, more often heard, is the brisk, ironical voice of ‘Abroad’ and ‘Flying’, among other pieces. These are the commanding tones of Flora Post, the heroine of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm, published three years earlier, ringing with the confidence of the New Woman, the generation who had got the vote, who wore trousers, cut their hair short and, in the absence of the men killed in the war, broke into the professions at an unprecedented rate. Like Flora, Macaulay has a friend with a plane, a Klemm two-seater, in which the passenger sits in front of the pilot. She is ‘helmeted, goggled, strapped in’ because, her ‘cheerful friend’ explains, ‘there was recently a man not strapped in … who got left in the air two thousand feet up when the plane dropped in a pocket. The man followed, quickly but inaccurately; he reached the earth first. So it is better to be strapped in.’ Macaulay was a keen motorist. ‘To propel a car though space, to devour the flying miles’, is a pleasure that she contrives to return to under several headings. As well as ‘Driving a Car’ there is ‘Fastest on Earth’, occasioned by finding an advertising leaflet with that headline on her windscreen. What joy it would be, she writes, to own such an ‘Atalanta among cars’ and to whizz through the ‘Hyde Park Corner scuffle’. ‘Gongs would sound, police shout, all would be uproar and pursuit,’ as dogs bark, children scream, ‘up fly the windows’ to a universal cheer. ‘She carries weight, she rides a race!’ In my mind’s eye, and possibly in Macaulay’s, is Tamara de Lempicka’s art deco self-portrait of 1925 showing her red-lipped and sultry-eyed at the wheel of a green Bugatti. Macaulay, however, has only an elderly Morris. She reflects that she is often stuck in traffic, occasionally lost, and at the end of ‘Fastest on Earth’ she gets a parking fine in St James’s Square.
Many of the pleasures are urban and precisely located in the area around Macaulay’s Bloomsbury flat off Chancery Lane, but there are rural pleasures too. In ‘Easter in the Woods’ she contemplates a finely detailed landscape as she lingers in hope of hearing the first cuckoo of spring. From the ‘steep shoulder’ of Wheatham Hill, she looks down on the curving wood – or ‘hanger’ as she calls it, typically preferring the more arcane term – ‘coiled like a great snake of beech and oak’. She is there again on New Year’s Eve, ‘walking in the fields on the last of those brief, chill and gentle afternoons that run the old year out’, contemplating ‘the year’s turn, the sun’s birth, the earth’s cold saturnalia’. There is also a great deal of Abroad. The second part of ‘Meals Out’ takes us to Mexico in a paragraph. The orange and blue awning of the restaurant, the yellow ochre cathedral ‘built by Spanish missionaries’, the violet sky, and against this backdrop Macaulay and her companions sitting after dinner ‘drinking coffee, sipping cognac, eating lumps of sugar, smoking, talking’. The economy is brilliant.
Mostly, however, Abroad is Italy, where Macaulay spent the happiest years of her childhood. Between the ages of six and thirteen she lived in the seaside town of Varazze, near Genoa. Her father, George Campbell Macaulay, was a schoolmaster, and later a lecturer in English at Cambridge; in Italy she was educated mostly by her parents. She said later that as a child she had assumed she would grow up to be a boy, and her fiction touches on themes of gender fluidity. Her novel of 1923, Told by an Idiot, was compared to Orlando. In these pieces the tone is closer to The Waves. Her six brothers and sisters, to whom Personal Pleasures is dedicated, appear often but undescribed, as if just out of the field of vision, a kind of Greek chorus sitting on the roof queasily smoking woodbines, chasing fireflies among the olive trees, or celebrating Candlemas, a more important festival in Catholic Italy than in England (and one offering exotic treats). On the previous day, 1 February, the parish priest would bless the house, sprinkling holy water and bringing ‘a tall and lovely candle of entwined and multi-coloured wax’, and the children had candles of their own for the picnic of oranges and dates they ate in their ‘rock houses’ up ‘past the carob tree’, from where they look out over the bay of Genoa ‘through a pink shimmer of almond blossom’. The festival procession could be heard, ‘harshly chanting’, in the town below. Not every childhood memory is lyrical. In ‘Canoeing’, the piece which follows, the siblings’ voices ‘plain like gulls’, protesting that Rose took the boat out by herself when they wanted to come. Only she knows that she has been out too far and grown afraid. For perhaps the first time in her life, imagination had failed and ‘peril assume[d] the sterner face of reality.’
Personal Pleasures isn’t a memoir: the shards of autobiography buried in it make up only a fragmented picture. The closest thing to a portrait of Macaulay’s parents comes in ‘Astronomy’, another recollection of Italy. Her father has set up his telescope on the beach on a summer’s evening. He describes the constellations to his children and Macaulay picks out the easier ones: ‘the Milky Way … even I can find that’. ‘From milk in Greek,’ her father replies. They see a shooting star and Macaulay wants to know what will happen when it lands: ‘Like Lucifer falling from heaven … will it make a splash if it falls in the sea, could it sink a ship?’ Her father says that stars don’t fall into the sea. ‘But they might,’ she persists. Her father is no longer listening. She thinks how much more rewarding it would be to put the question to her mother, who told the children ‘very interesting and wonderful things’, including that the mountains on the promontory of Spezia, which they could see on a clear day, were made of marble. ‘If we were to ask her what would happen if a whole star hit the earth, we should have a tremendous blaze and conflagration in a minute.’
There is a warmth in the recollections that comes from the enchantment lent by distance. By 1935 Macaulay’s childhood was safely in the Victorian past. But it hadn’t been easy to shake it off, to make a life for herself as a single woman. It was her uncle and godfather Reginald Macaulay who set her on an independent course by helping to pay for her studies at Somerville College, Oxford, where she read history. She left with an aegrotat (women were not yet awarded degrees) in 1903 only to return to her parents’ home, where she began her career as a writer and had some success as a poet and novelist. In 1912 she published The Lee Shore, her breakthrough book. It won the Hodder Stoughton novel prize of £500, and with that and another helping hand from Uncle Reginald she bought her own flat. The years after the First World War, when she worked as a publisher’s reader at Constable, saw her improve as a novelist, and by the mid 1930s she was enjoying life. She had a sizeable readership and, as she wryly recalls in ‘Flattery’, a few letters of praise from ‘an American professor’ or ‘a sympathetic intelligent woman’ were enough to make up for the critics who found her books ‘sadly trivial and unconvincing’. Even flattery, however, has its drawbacks. The ‘ardent’ students wanting to write theses on her work in ‘German, Italian, French and Scandinavian’ are a nuisance: ‘All request lengthy and informing answers … It is obvious that they write to all authors. Has any so far answered them?’
Her private life was complicated, if not unhappy. For more than twenty years she had a lover, Gerald O’Donovan, another novelist, ten years older than Macaulay and married with children. They met in 1918 when both were seconded to the War Office. O’Donovan wouldn’t leave his family and Macaulay wrestled with her conscience before entering the relationship. While it lasted she stopped taking communion, a decision born of a deep if ambivalent relationship to Christianity, to which the Catholic background of her Italian childhood and her own family’s Anglicanism contributed. One of the longest essays is devoted to the most mixed of the pleasures, ‘Church Going’, which considers Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Quakers and Unitarians in turn. The interplay of aesthetics, culture and spiritual experience can’t quite be untangled, which makes for complications. If only the churches would ‘give religion a rest and concentrate on ethics’, she suggests. Unitarianism, which doesn’t accept the doctrine of the Trinity, is good on ethics, and at first she was inclined towards it. ‘If one could believe at all … It seemed so easy, so comparatively reasonable,’ but in its actual manifestation she found it terribly dreary. The Unitarian church she visits, with its ‘varnished deal seats and green paint’, depresses her. The Quaker meeting house dates from the 17th century and has a simple austere beauty. She sits contentedly in silence until the spirit moves a Friend to speak – his earnestness is unbearable. No wonder, she reflects, that in less tolerant times Protestants and Catholics worked together to put the Quakers in the stocks. How uncomfortable such goodness makes one feel. Much nicer to be in a Catholic or High Anglican church where you can ‘sing psalms, hymns, anthems, swing censers, praise the Lord’ and carry on as usual afterwards. The little Italian churches she remembers from childhood will always be for her the ‘very concentrated essence of what we mean when we say “church”’. The language of faith, however, is Anglican: the King James Bible and the Prayer Book, ‘so gentlemanlike, so suavely urbane’, have run through the veins of generations of Macaulays.
Macaulay wrote for readers who would recognise, whatever their own sympathies, these aspects of organised religion with their concomitant social and theological characteristics. Today it is these, rather than her neologisms and submerged quotations, that are likely to seem obscure. Yet Macaulay’s open-eyed account of the nature of belief is so delicately poised between scepticism and compassion that while, as usual, she gives little of herself away, she gives enough to win the reader’s confidence. This is the most intimate of her voices. At the opposite extreme is the dry wit of ‘Album’. A dramatic monologue that might have been performed by Joyce Grenfell, it reflects the awkward fascination her generation felt for the Victorians, still in living memory but somehow incredible. They fascinated her as they fascinated and horrified Lytton Strachey, who described ‘the odd attractiveness of something which is at once very near and very far off … like one of those queer fishes that one sees behind glass at an aquarium, before whose grotesque proportions and sombre menacing agilities one hardly knows whether to laugh or to shudder’.
Macaulay sees them through the dark glass of the plate camera as she looks through a friend’s family album. The rigid 19th-century photo portraits are hard to read. These people ‘might have strange experiences, commit strange deeds and say nothing’. The friend elucidates: ‘Your Aunt Amy, did you say? What long earrings! She is very elegant, mondaine, refined, yet capable, do you not think de tout? Or was she not? Married a curate, do you say? One wonders what life in the curate-house was like, after your Aunt Amy entered it. Nine children? So that was what it was like.’ Among the next generation, the one before Macaulay and the friend, was an eccentric spinster aunt who wrote books but was ‘rather dull’. She outlived her readership and ‘died poor, killed, I think, in an aeroplane smash; she learned to pilot too old … She had grown very tiresome before the end.’ With this hint of what the future might make of her when she is part of ‘posterity’s charming evening’, Macaulay relents somewhat towards the Victorians. ‘Poor figures I feel we shall most of us cut beside them when the Albums shall imprison us too.’
The politics of the 1930s echo from time to time. In ‘Listening in’ (as listening to the radio was called), there are reports on ‘the Italian-Abyssinian crisis’. In ‘Logomachy’ she and her siblings, adults now, sit in the garden on a Sunday making ‘drowsy comments on delphiniums, Marxism, Hitlerism, religion, literature, landscape’, until it comes to the use and meaning of words, when they grow heated. In ‘Ignorance’ she meditates on that ‘real delight in cruelty, such as Nero’s, or Caligula’s, or the Nazis’, which she ‘simply cannot begin to understand’. When war came, four years later, Macaulay, who was approaching sixty, volunteered as an ambulance driver: a dangerous job but one that offered the opportunity to drive fast.
In the years after Personal Pleasures she had two great sorrows and one triumph. O’Donovan was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1942, a loss made harder to bear by the clandestine nature of their relationship. Few people, apart from Macaulay’s friend Rosamond Lehmann, realised what she suffered. An almost equal blow was the loss, in an air raid, of all her possessions, including her books, many of them antiquarian volumes. In 1950 she returned to the Anglican communion and in 1956 published her last completed novel. The Towers of Trebizond was an instant success and soon a classic, not least for its contribution to the list of famous opening sentences: ‘“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’ Macaulay was glad and amused to be invited to lunch at Buckingham Palace and to receive an honorary LittD from Cambridge. The damehood, awarded by Harold Macmillan, came only months before her sudden death, of a heart attack, in 1958.