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The Shining City

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Picture the scene: a heavyweight London literary event in the 1930s. Two well-known women novelists, chatting. ‘My novels won’t live, Ivy,’ says Rose Macaulay to Ivy Compton-Burnett. ‘Yours may.’

How wrong she was on both counts. Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, much admired in their time, have disappeared even from the shelves of charity shops. She found her style early and stuck to it and when she went out of fashion, there she stayed. Dame Rose Macaulay (as she became) has been overshadowed by her more famous contemporaries, appearing now on the edges of other people’s stories. But as a writer and in her life she was an adventurous risk-taker, forever trying something different.

She wrote her first novel in 1906, followed by twenty-two more, and finally in 1956 her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond. Though early critics found it puzzling (surely Rose Macaulay wrote comic novels, what to make of this?) it has survived triumphantly. I think it’s a great book, wise, light-hearted, funny – and very sad. I’ve read it many times and always find something different to absorb me.

It’s a book that defies categorization. Semi-autobiographical (Macaulay referred to it as ‘my own story’), it has a first-person narrator, Laurie. An ill-assorted group – a high Anglican priest, Laurie’s Aunt Dot with her camel, and a Turkish woman academic – are on a road trip through Turkey to the Russian border, their aim to con- vert Turkish Muslim women to Christianity. Aunt Dot and Father Chantry Pigg disappear into Russia, while Laurie returns to Trebizond to wait for her aunt, has some drug-induced visions of its imperial past (five centuries earlier it had been the last unconquered fragment of the Byzantine Empire) and then rides the camel to Israel where she meets her married lover, Vere. There’s also a sub-plot about literary plagiarism and the ongoing saga of Aunt Dot’s Russian escapade.

That’s a brief summary of two-t

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Picture the scene: a heavyweight London literary event in the 1930s. Two well-known women novelists, chatting. ‘My novels won’t live, Ivy,’ says Rose Macaulay to Ivy Compton-Burnett. ‘Yours may.’

How wrong she was on both counts. Ivy Compton-Burnett’s novels, much admired in their time, have disappeared even from the shelves of charity shops. She found her style early and stuck to it and when she went out of fashion, there she stayed. Dame Rose Macaulay (as she became) has been overshadowed by her more famous contemporaries, appearing now on the edges of other people’s stories. But as a writer and in her life she was an adventurous risk-taker, forever trying something different. She wrote her first novel in 1906, followed by twenty-two more, and finally in 1956 her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond. Though early critics found it puzzling (surely Rose Macaulay wrote comic novels, what to make of this?) it has survived triumphantly. I think it’s a great book, wise, light-hearted, funny – and very sad. I’ve read it many times and always find something different to absorb me. It’s a book that defies categorization. Semi-autobiographical (Macaulay referred to it as ‘my own story’), it has a first-person narrator, Laurie. An ill-assorted group – a high Anglican priest, Laurie’s Aunt Dot with her camel, and a Turkish woman academic – are on a road trip through Turkey to the Russian border, their aim to con- vert Turkish Muslim women to Christianity. Aunt Dot and Father Chantry Pigg disappear into Russia, while Laurie returns to Trebizond to wait for her aunt, has some drug-induced visions of its imperial past (five centuries earlier it had been the last unconquered fragment of the Byzantine Empire) and then rides the camel to Israel where she meets her married lover, Vere. There’s also a sub-plot about literary plagiarism and the ongoing saga of Aunt Dot’s Russian escapade. That’s a brief summary of two-thirds of the book – impossible to do justice to the jokes, sharp observations and general gaiety. Part of its distinctive flavour comes from the many digressions. I am a second- hand scholar but Macaulay was a real one. I much admire the way she can start a section with, say, the pleasure of fishing for Black Sea turbot and end, via early Church history and landscapes, with a query about the kind of honey that drove Xenophon’s 10,000 mad. She never loses her way. Her friends said this was how she chatted, skipping with light erudition from one interesting, tenuously connected subject to the next. In the early stages The Towers of Trebizond could be mistaken for a travel book, which it definitely isn’t, unless you consider riding a slightly mad white camel through Turkey, Syria and Jordan a realistic proposition. It becomes clear that although the book pulls in all the things Macaulay found most interesting – travel, history and legends; magic, ruins, the BBC, folk music, fishing, women’s emancipation, wild swimming, food, literary scandals and gossip – the main thrust is the conflict between earthly love and religion. Laurie, like the author, is deep in an adulterous affair, torn by guilt and remorse but unable to give up her lover. ‘Love’, she says, ‘kept me outside the Church . . . it drove like a hurricane, shattering everything in its way . . . the only thing was to go with it, because it always won.’ But as Father Chantry Pigg warns her, there will be a price to pay: one day she will want to return to the Church, but it will be too late. ‘Still the towers of Trebizond, the fabled city, shimmer on the far horizon, gated and walled and held in a luminous enchantment.’ I saw the shimmering towers a few years ago – white blocks of flats smothering whatever remains of the last little bit of the Byzantine Empire Macaulay found so fascinating. I knew it wouldn’t be the same even as she’d seen it in 1954 but I had a hopeful dream that some of the enchantment might have survived. I found a lively little Turkish port, short on magic, with a four-lane highway roaring between the town and the Black Sea where Jason and the Argonauts sailed and Xenophon’s troops slept on the sand after their long march. But, of course, I had to keep reminding myself that for Laurie – and Macaulay herself – Trebizond was not just a city, it was a metaphor for the Church she longed to re-enter but couldn’t. ‘That strange bright city on the hill, barred by its high gates . . . barred from all who do not desire to enter it more strongly than they desire all other cities.’

*

Rose Macaulay was born in 1881 into a clever, intellectual high Anglican family (Lord Macaulay the historian was a great-uncle). Her father, a teacher, had married his second cousin; they had seven children, and moved to the Italian coast for her mother’s health. It was an idyllic childhood. The children, boys and girls alike, ran wild in glorious, sun-soaked, barefoot isolation. Rose was a late developer – even in her teens she still dreamed of becoming a sea captain. As an undergraduate at Oxford she was shy yet garrulous, an anorexic scholar who left without a degree after having had a nervous breakdown. Returning home as a dutiful daughter, she started to write. There she might have stayed, but the First World War gave her the impetus to volunteer in a London hospital. She was a hopeless nurse who couldn’t even scrub floors efficiently. Fortunately, in 1918 she found herself in the new Ministry of Information, writing Italian propaganda for the war effort. Here, at 36, she finally grew up, and fell in love with her boss, Gerald O’Donovan, an Irish ex-Roman Catholic priest and writer, married with three children. Their affair lasted for twenty years and had to be kept entirely secret – not easy in the gossipy London literary world they both inhabited. Macaulay had a great gift for friendship. A rare combination of sharp wit, generosity of spirit and kindness made her many friends. Tall, skinny and neat as a furled umbrella, she knew everyone in the literary world from Rupert Brooke to Laurie Lee via Gilbert Murray, E. M. Forster, Isherwood and Auden, and Patrick Leigh Fermor. Virginia Woolf – who could never resist a bitchy put-down of a rival who at that time was more successful than she was – called her a faded beauty, so badly dressed, and added, ‘Poor dear Rose, judging by her works, is a Eunuch.’ She was wrong about that last jibe. Macaulay made her name, and a living, by writing – novels, travel books, articles, reviews, even contributing to BBC radio arts pro- grammes. She was a famous party-goer, at every book launch, publishers’ party and literary event, but at the same time was intensely secretive about her private life – and Gerald. For him she fell out with some of her family and left the Anglican Church which meant so much to her. She felt that in maintaining the affair she was committing a mortal sin but she couldn’t give him up. ‘Adultery is a meanness and a stealing . . . a great selfishness and surrounded by lies lest it should be found out. And out of that meanness and selfishness and lying, flow love and joy and peace beyond anything that can be imagined,’ says Laurie in Macaulay’s voice. In 1939 Macaulay was driving Gerald round Scotland. Driving with her was always perilous – everyone agreed she was a lovely per- son and a terrible driver. There was a crash and Gerald suffered serious head injuries. Three years later he died, from cancer, not from his injuries, but Macaulay felt intensely guilty. She wrote in an anonymous obituary for The Times: ‘As a friend he never failed; his wise judgement and unstinting interest were always on tap behind . . . the sometimes sardonic wit that was his Irish heritage. To know him was to love him.’ That love stayed a secret until after Macaulay’s own death in 1958. She had gone back to the Church and her sister published a series of letters she had written to her Anglican confessor, revealing that her affair with Gerald was the reason she had stayed outside for so long. Her friends were incredulous. Evelyn Waugh (a ferocious Roman Catholic) wrote to Nancy Mitford, ‘I thought her sharp but ladylike. Not at all the sort of person to gush to a parson.’ And to Graham Greene (another RC), ‘I always thought of her as the last spinster. Do you think her adultery was an hallucination?’ How much of The Towers of Trebizond is autobiographical? Macaulay said she had put a lot of herself into it, and the tension between Laurie’s love, guilt, remorse and an anguished loss of faith mirrors her own. ‘Never was a novel (by me) more passionately in earnest . . . but perhaps I made too many jokes that confused people.’ One joke of course is the famous opening line: ‘Take my camel, dear, said Aunt Dot as she climbed down from this animal on her return from high Mass.’ One confused review was headlined ‘Mad camel plays big part in unusual book’. There may be jokes at the beginning but the story becomes dark and sombre. It hinges round a fatal car crash. Laurie actually kills Vere on the way home from a furtive holiday, running into a bus that has jumped the lights. I don’t know why Macaulay rewrote her less deadly accident with Gerald in this way. Perhaps it was a cathartic process for dealing with her guilt or perhaps she had ceased to grieve and the event had become grist to her novelist’s mill. As far as I know, no one ever asked her. At the end of the book Macaulay puts Laurie in the same position she herself was in when Gerald died. Their lovers are dead, the way back to the Church open. Macaulay did return but Laurie doesn’t, feeling that to creep back when it was easy would devalue the intense happiness of her love for Vere. But there is still a price to be paid.
When the years have all passed there will gape the uncomfortable and unpredictable dark void of death, and into this I shall at last fall headlong, down and down and down, and the prospect of that fall, that uprooting, that rending apart of body and spirit, that taking off into so blank an unknown, drowns me in mortal fear. Still the towers of Trebizond, the fabled city, shimmer on a far horizon, gated and walled . . . and I stand outside it, expelled in mortal grief.
I always hope when I reach this sombre ending that dear, adventurous, witty and kindly Rose did not herself feel such despair. She had such zest for living. In Laurie’s words,
After all, life for all its agonies of despair and loss and guilt, is exciting and beautiful, amusing and artful and endearing, full of liking and love, at times a poem, and a high adventure, at times noble and at times very gay; and whatever (if anything) is to come after it, we shall not have this life again.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 70 © Amanda Theunissen 2021


About the contributor

Amanda Theunissen believes with Rose Macaulay that travel is the chief aim of Man but has a more mundane approach, thinking decent plumbing beats camping with a camel every time.

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