Review Essay | New Editions from the Space Between | Reviewing Reissues: Rose Macaulay
Debra Rae Cohen
University of South Carolina
Non-Combatants and Others: Writings about War, 1916–1945. By Rose Macaulay. Introduction by Jessica Gildersleeve. Handheld Press, 2020. xxviii + 300 pp. £12.99 (paper).
Potterism: A Tragi-Farcical Tract. By Rose Macaulay. Introduction by Sarah Lonsdale. Handheld Press, 2020. xxvii + 247 pp. £12.99 (paper).
What Not: A Prophetic Comedy. By Rose Macaulay. Introduction by Sarah Lonsdale. Handheld Press, 2019. xxix + 195 pp. £12.99 (paper).
Is now the time for Rose Macaulay? Given her acute satirical treatment of bureaucracy, prejudice, the popular press, eugenics, propaganda, populist hysteria, and the post-fact culture, it would seem an arguable proposition. And such indeed is the argument of Handheld Press’s recent and incredibly welcome spate of Macaulay reissues. A prolific and successful middlebrow writer whose career spanned six decades, Macaulay was most widely known in America for her last novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), an eccentric travelogue that is also, in Joanna Trollope’s words, “a picaresque account of the search for salvation.” But it’s her earlier topical satires, ranging from her searing and mordant depiction of the British Great War home front (Non-Combatants and Others, 1916) through her send-up of interwar gender roles and battles of the brows (Crewe Train, 1926; Keeping Up Appearances, 1928) that have been receiving recent attention. These canny and unsentimental novels—so suffused with commentary on their own moments, so “contemporary” in their tonality—are likely to be both valuable for scholars and resonant for readers more generally. And the editions themselves raise intriguing questions about the legibility and function of reissues and their repackaging for these disparate audiences. Macdonald has augmented her editions with helpful notes, and enlisted for her introductions accomplished scholars of the period, both contributors to her own groundbreaking volume of essays on Macaulay. But these introductions, though full of useful contextual information, sometimes suffer from a kind of defensiveness, perhaps grounded in a perceived need to make the case for Macaulay to a wider readership.
Non-Combatants and Others (which has already seen reissues by Capuchin and Methuen) has received the most scholarly attention of these novels, as part of the past few decades’ boom of work on women’s war experience. Published at the beginning of 1916, the novel delivers a bleak survey of home front attitudes though the eyes of a skeptical and “nervy” young artist, Alix Sandomir (81). The daughter of a Polish dissident, now deceased, and a terrifyingly energetic pacifist organizer, Alix recoils from the thought of the war, of war-work, and especially from the thought of those she loves at the front. Marked by her childhood limp, and by her traumatic relation to the war, she is constructed by Macaulay as an ambulatory marker of woundedness, destabilizing the categories of combatant and non-combatant. Shuddering away from her relatives, who are all “living busy and useful lives, full of war activities” (11), Alix criss-crosses London in search of respite, sheltering for a while at the home of petit bourgeois, blandly platitudinous cousins, and finally, at novel’s end, opts for the seemingly unreconcilable affiliations of both pacifism and the Anglican church. The final outcome of this anguished and exhausted search, and Macaulay’s own later membership in the Peace Pledge Union, has often led to an identification of the novel as unproblematically “pacifist” (rather than “anti-war,” which, of course it viscerally, violently, is)—as if, as in a conversion narrative, the destination redeemed the journey. (The inclusion in this edition of some of Macaulay’s other writings on war, dating from twenty years later—though one is very pleased to see them in print, and Jessica Gildersleeve’s excellent introduction does much to historicize them—works to further ratify this preemptive tagging of the novel.) Affectively, however, the novel undercuts this triumphalism. Rather, as I’ve argued elsewhere, the text enacts the logic of conscription, tied to the pervasive anxieties about its inevitability in the latter months of 1915; and its ending, as war continues, underscores its own irresolution.
What links this anxious chronicle to the satiric landscapes of What Not and Potterism is Alix’s observation of the workings of internalized propaganda. She notes, in the bickering of her cousins, and imagines as the daily fodder at breakfast-tables across the nation, “Not arguments, not ideas, not facts. Merely statements, quotations rather, of hackneyed and outworn sentiments, prejudices second-hand, yet indomitable, unassailable, undying, and the relation of stories, without relevance or force, and...a burst of bitterness and emotion to wind it all up” (65).
Such post-fact prejudices are the focus of Potterism (1920), which satirizes the early twentieth-century rise of the pandering press magnate. But the credulity of the masses is a key element, too, of Macaulay’s previous novel, What Not. Slated for publication in 1918, but held back for several months due to a threatened libel action, the novel projects into an unspecified postwar near-future the domestic interferences of the Defence of the Realm Acts; in an attempt to eliminate the kind of stupidity that leads to wars, the newly-formed Ministry of Brains regulates marriage, and touts its Mind Training course, complete with testimonials: “From a famous financier: Since I began the Course I have doubled my income and halved those of 750 others. I hope, by the time I have completed the Course, to have ruined twice this number” (33). The success of the Ministry in selling its policies to the public is more germane to the satire of the novel than are the policies themselves: while Macaulay derives some comedy from the rather thin plot about the hypocrisy of the head of the ministry in contracting an unapproved marriage, it is in her parody of the specifics of department regulation that the novel sparkles. This makes it all the more surprising that much of Sarah Lonsdale’s introduction turns on the extent to which What Not anticipates Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four.
While it’s perhaps a useful selling point to note points of convergence between What Not and these better-known novels, to play up the connection is both to overstate the dystopianism of Macaulay’s satire, and, paradoxically, to undervalue its specificity. The “uncanny resemblances” between What Not and Brave New World add up to the idea of the state use of eugenics—something that, as Lonsdale points out, was much in the air during the early decades of the century—and the depiction of an alphabetic grading system. In fact, Macaulay’s novel is less “about” the eugenic ideals propounded by the Ministry of Brains than it is about the workings of state bureaucracy tout court, grounded in her own wartime experience at both the War Office and the Ministry of Information. The bureaucrats of the Ministry of Brains seem far less convinced of the value of Brains-building than do the more credulous members of the public; though we are told that the Minister is a true believer in the marriage regulations, it never rings true enough to make his fall from grace more important than the political fall of the Ministry. Indeed, as Macaulay’s own sarcastic distance extends to all shades of opinion within the novel, it is never made clear whether we are meant to read the Ministry’s program as inimical, useful, or merely bureaucratic overreach. What Not concludes with a rueful eye on the intrinsic messiness of human emotions—a messiness to which even the best and most well-intentioned of all possible Ministries cannot possibly bring order.
This messiness expands to encompass a worldview in Potterism; the title term stands in for all those attributes to which Percy Potter, Macaulay’s press baron, caters in his newspapers: sentimentality, credulity, cant, the desire for romance and entertainment, crudity of mind. The novel chronicles the revolt against this worldview, whether perfunctory, temporary, strategic, or deeply felt, on the part of the members of the “Anti-Potter League,” which includes the magnate’s grown children. Macaulay’s journalistic experience, and her intimate familiarity with the various “brows” of the periodical marketplace, enable her to sketch a convincing and amusing map of the postwar media landscape and its denizens, from the vapidly sentimental novelist of “life and love,” Leila Yorke, to the “intolerant precisian” and editor of the Daily Fact, Arthur Gideon (10, 215). The Fact is a “scientific, not a sentimental paper,” whose governing idea is “to be absolutely unbiased on each issue that turned up by anything it had ever thought before” (56); naturally, it eventually succumbs to the undertow of Potterism.
Insofar as there is a “hero” in Potterism, it is the idealistic Gideon, and yet the book does a great deal to unsettle any impression that it is advocating for his policies, including moments where he himself recognizes—as we saw, too, in What Not—that the sensible and unsentimental embrace of fact precludes most affective human relations. Musing on the inexplicable desire of everyday people to read about personalities and scandal, rather than the important issues of the day, Gideon concludes that “[t]he relation of states one with another are the product of civilisation, and need an at least rudimentary brain to grasp them. The relations of the human brain are natural, and need only the human heart for their understanding” (211). But he takes some comfort from the fact that popular enthusiasm can extend, at least, not only to “divorce, suicide and murder, but [to] light and space, undulations and gravitation. . . .Even though people might like their science in cheap and absurd tabloid form, they did like it” (211–12).
Gideon is Jewish, and that is not an insignificant fact in the novel; much of the violence of the backlash against his anti-Potter campaign is justified by the novel’s characters in relation to his otherness. In presenting the novel to contemporary audiences, Macdonald includes in an editor’s note a kind of trigger warning, noting that characters voice “casual anti-Semitic expressions which are hard, in some cases downright appalling, to read now in different times,” but also that they are important both to Macaulay’s critique and as evidence of an “endemic” discourse in British society at the time (4). This is a useful warning. Lonsdale, however, goes further; anxious to demonstrate to contemporary readers that the antisemitism voiced in the novel is not Macaulay’s own, she overstates the case, arguing that such antisemitism is in fact Macaulay’s actual subject here, and that she puts such sentiments in the mouths of unlikeable characters as a mode of anti-racist intervention. While certainly the most egregious slurs in the book come from the more egregious characters, the novel in fact reveals a more complex picture; there’s an excellent article still to be written, for instance, on the way Macaulay shows Gideon internalizing his own Jewishness—in the absence of religion, community, or culture—as a kind of essential quality, choosing to assume the name his father changed, as a rebuke to snobbishness, while subscribing to the idea that “as a race” Jews are “narrow, cowardly, avaricious, and mean-spirited,” and on how the unsettled placenessness of the character reinscribes contemporary (and current) antisemitic tropes (70).
Lonsdale is a scholar of (among other things) interwar journalism, and her work in limning attitudes towards the post-Great War press in relation to both Potterism and What Not is by far the strongest aspect of her introductions. It’s unfortunate, however, especially given the paucity of serious work on Macaulay, that both the introductions and the recommended additional readings omit mention of Patrick Collier’s chapter on her in Modernism on Fleet Street (2006). Collier is particularly apt, in fact, in noting and explicating the distinctive ambivalences and contradictions with which Lonsdale’s introductions concern themselves: “Though Macaulay seems, in identifying the inanities and dangers of the mass press, to inhabit the head/heart, reason/emotion binary underlying her dedication of [Potterism] to ‘unsentimental precisians in thought,’ she inhabits it ambivalently, less comfortably than many of her contemporaries; she blanches particularly at the blanket generalizations of ‘the millions’ it empowers, generalizations that collect around the construct of ‘Potterism’. . . .Macaulay’s attitude towards the mass audience cannot be reduced to a simple formula, but its ambivalence is consistent. Her attitude towards the mass public is something like Dickens’s attitude towards the working class: the people who comprised it needed defending against theories that would view them as an undifferentiated mass and construct them through stereotypes” (Collier 151, 153).
Penelope Fitzgerald, in her excellent introduction to the Virago reissue of Macaulay’s This World My Wilderness (1950), seeks to highlight the complexity of that “compassionate” late novel by contrasting it with the earlier satires from this period. But in doing so, she misrepresents them, claiming of TWMW that in it, “all the satirist’s air of finding what’s best for everyone is gone” (xi). But this, in fact, Macaulay never displays, even in the early works; these astringent satires are distinctive for their lack of positive alternatives. What Lonsdale identifies as Macaulay’s “infuriating ambiguity” (What Not, xxiv) extends to a reluctance to identify a clear path forward, the courage to display contradictory and equally repellent alternatives—and often, too, equally unlikeable people. (It may be this quality—rather than similarities of content, or the astonishing coincidence of alphabetic ranking—in which these novels most resemble Huxley’s.) This in fact is my argument with most readings of Non-Combatants and Others: in classifying the novel as definitively pacifist, they miss the extent to which Alix’s dual “conversion” is framed as itself only the least objectionable of unpalatable alternatives. Perhaps, in fact, it’s this very unwillingness to concede to the logic of the happy ending or the unshadowed alternative that makes Macaulay feel modern, that makes her a writer for our time as well as her own.
Kate Macdonald’s Handheld Press plans more Macaulay reissues, including her essay collection Personal Pleasures (1935), and the British Library has reissued Dangerous Ages (1921) in its Woman Writers series. The reissues of Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness are still in print from Virago; The Towers of Trebizond was reissued by NYRB Classics in 2003.
Cohen, Debra Rae. Remapping the Home Front. Northeastern UP, 2002.
Collier, Patrick. Modernism on Fleet Street. Ashgate, 2006.
Fitzgerald, Penelope. Introduction. The World My Wilderness, by Rose Macaulay. 1950. Virago, 1983.
Macdonald, Kate, editor. Rose Macaulay, Gender, and Modernity. Routledge, 2018.
Trollope, Joanna. “Joanna Trollope's Book of a Lifetime: The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay.” Independent, 27 February 2014,