on 31 July 2003
I've just completed this biography of Rose Macauley. Her name was one I knew, but I had not read anything by her, apart from once flicking through a coffee-table edition of 'The Pleasure of Ruins'. What Ms LeFanu managed for me were all the best things biography can achieve: a clear view of a life (though Rose managed to keep a few things dark, as is only right and fitting); a feeling for the times through which she lived; some surprises, and, above all, an intelligent and exhaustive survey of the writer's work.
I loved the book, and it has done Rose a great service by coaxing people back to the work. I am now in the middle of 'The Towers of Trebizon' and,if the rest of her books are half as good, Ms LeFanu has succeeded in giving me a new 'favourite author'.
On the surface, Rose Macaulay seemed to fit into a particular English type: the intellectual and religious spinster, complete with dowdy clothes, devotion to High Anglicanism and - after years living with her family - a small book-lined flat. In fact, she was an extremely complex character. She and her family spent several years living in Italy during Rose's childhood, where she conceived the ambition to be a sailor or explorer. Italy, and the Mediterranean remained an inspiration for her. A rather nervous woman, she suffered a minor breakdown at Oxford and seems to have had a recurrent mild anorexia. Although Virginia Woolf described her as sexless, she spent many years in a passionate and secret relationship with a married man (a former Catholic priest). Her books are full of unconventional, strong-minded women, sometimes with sexually ambivalent names ('Rome', 'Neville', 'Denham'). She was also an intrepid traveller, making long trips around Europe on her own.
Sarah Lefanu brings out all the complexity of Rose Macaulay's life and character beautifully, writing particularly well about her relationships with her family and with the married ex-priest Gerald O'Donovan. She also writes very well about Macaulay's books (one of the real strengths of this biography is that you want to go and read a lot of Macaulay's novels, now sadly a bit out of fashion, immediately). The one thing I strongly disagree with her about is 'The World, My Wilderness' - Lefanu thinks that this is one of Macaulay's weaker novels, but having read it and compared it to some of her earlier work, I think it's a very strong book indeed, and one that shows that Macaulay was moving in interesting new directions, and away from the elegant social comedy of much of her earlier oeuvre. Still - this is only a small point.
A wonderful biography which should have had more recognition than it did. I hope Lefanu writes some more biographies - she has a gift for it.
on 31 December 2012
I read this book because of my interest in writers who were at their peak between 1913 and 1939. Rose Macaulay fits into this category, although she carried on writing until her death in 1958.
The author of this biography has assembled some meticulous research, and gives a satsfying factual history of the life of the subject, and a summary of the most well-known books.
I was particularly fascinated by le Fanu's lengthy investigation of Macaulay's mid-Victorian childhood, and the influence of this on her writing and thought. Rose M must have caused some shocked reactions when she published books which tackle subjects we now view as interesting but not revolutionary (loss of religious faith, and adultery, for example). It is almost impossible now to imagine how the average person would have reacted to these when they were first published.
The influence of the First World War was, as for her contempories, very great, and the movement for Rose out of a protected and extended childhood was marked by this event. The biography seems to speed up as it moves out of the 1930's and the Second World War is not dwelt upon to any great extent.
Since I have a strong existing interest in her contemporaries, particularly female writers, it was interesting to read quotes from many of them - Vera Brittain, Storm Jameson, Virginia Woolf, for example. The first two looked up to RM as a mentor, the last-mentioned thought Rose beneath her, both in literary and social terms. There was a very strong literary hierarchy during this period, almost exactly aligned to position in the social scale.
Rose did not live a particularly long life, she died at 77, but her life encompassed great social and literary change. This biography certainly whetted my appetite to read more of her novels. Rose's 24 year adulterous affair with an unfrocked Catholic married priest is also a subject one would love to know more about. An archive of letters is referred to at the end of the biography which were due to be released in 2012. Wonder where these are, and what they reveal.