I’ve been wanting to read Rose Macaulay ever since she appeared in Nancy Pearl’s Booklust. Pearl recommends The Towers of Trebizond for the notable opening line, ” ‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” That was back in 2003 and here we are nearly at the end of 2012 and I have just finished reading my first Rose Macaulay. It did not turn out to be Towers of Trebizond but Crewe Train. My copy of the book came from the Minneapolis Public Library and was a gift to the library in July 1942 from one Rufus Rand, a most delightful name don’t you think?
The book is the story of Denham who, at the age of seven, was dragged abroad by her recently widowed father who had thrown up his hands at being a clergymen and was looking to live cheaply and as far away from the English as possible. We zip through Denham’s unconventional childhood to begin the story when Denham is a young woman living in Andorra. Her mother’s sister, Evelyn Gresham, and her adult children are visiting and it is at this point Denham’s father dies. Her Aunt Evelyn decides to take Denham under her wing, bring her back to England, and civilize her into a proper English girl. Denham goes along because she has nowhere else to go, but she firmly resists being turned into a proper lady.
All these do’s and don’t and should’s and so many forks and different kinds of plates and why can’t she use one fork and eat her entire dinner at once on one plate? But worst of all, in Denham’s opinion, everyone talks too much and they talk about things that don’t matter. Denham unexpectedly falls in love with Arnold Chapel, a young man who works in Mr. Gresham’s publishing office. They get engaged and are soon married and for Arnold, Denham makes an effort to live up to the “high life” as she calls it. Talking for the sake of talking, talking in order to entertain one another, is an art beyond Denham. She tries though, and fails spectacularly. Talking, she determines, is a creative art
for by it you build up things that have, until talked about, no existence, such as scandals, secrets, quarrels, literary and artistic standards, all kinds of points of view about persons and things. Let us talk, we say, meaning, let us see what we can create, or in what way we can transmute the facts that are into facts that are not yet. It is one of the magic arts.
Denham is much too practical and literal-minded to be able to carry on much conversation at all. She is unable and unwilling to leap from “facts as they are” to “facts that are not yet.” She ends up asking questions that make people uncomfortable and, not being interested in gossip or politics or art or most any topic, she sits dumb and bored as people babble on around her.
Of course Arnold falls in love with Denham because she is so very different but it also becomes the source of their disagreements. Why can’t Denham be like everyone else? But Denham doesn’t care what other people do and think, everyone should be allowed to carry on as he or she likes:
‘It’s such rot,’ Denham protested, ‘doing things we don’t like doing because someone else does them.’
And Denham protests and does her own thing right up to almost the end when she and Arnold compromise and find a house in the far suburbs of London and Denham becomes pregnant. The book leaves the end up in the air. Does Denham give in and become like everyone else or does she continue on in her silent and resisting ways? I like to think she does not give in, that she remains true to herself in spite of the overwhelming pressure to conform.
A good part of the delight of this book comes from Denham’s outsider viewpoint. She inadvertently points out to Arnold and the Greshams and everyone else, the absurdities of middle class and upper-middle class life as it is lived. The other thing that makes Crewe Train so much fun is the writing itself. It sparkles and trips along. Macaulay has a wonderful comedic eye and like any good comedy, serious truths are uncovered but we are whisked away from being able to think about them too much or grow too serious over them. Only when we stop reading and close the book are we allowed to pause and think.
I am so happy to have finally gotten around to reading Macaulay. She has quite an oeuvre that includes novels, biography and travel writing. The Towers of Trebizond is considered her fiction masterpiece and since I enjoyed Crewe Train so much I know I will be in for quite the treat when I get to Trebizond, and I will get there most definitely.