Sunday, 18 March 2012

Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

I'm not that familiar with Rose Macaulay's work, having only read The Towers of Trebizond which I enjoyed enough to re-read a couple of times.  Dangerous Ages, first published in 1921, is very different to that book both in theme and in style.  The dangerous ages concerned are all the possible ages of woman, as experienced in one English family during the summer of 1920.  Neville Bendish celebrates her forty-third birthday in the opening chapter; Neville is married to Rodney, a Labour MP, and has two fairly grown-up children, Gerda and Kay.  Neville has two sisters: Pamela, a social worker who lives in London with a woman friend; and Nan, the youngest, who works as a writer.  Their mother, Mrs Hilary, is sixty-three and very bored and fretful; she lives in a seaside town with her mother, in her eighties and always known as Grandmamma in the text.  Gerda, Nan, Neville and Mrs Hilary will all go through forms of crisis during the novel, while Pamela and Grandmamma seem to have the secret of enjoying life without despairing over it.

Neville's crisis is over her need for work.  She was a promising medical student when she married, and determines to return to her studies, desperate to avoid becoming like Mrs Hilary.  Her family are generally discouraging and assume she won't be able to do it; there are lots of portentous comments about the inability of a woman in her forties to do serious "brain-work".  I'm even older than Neville, and frankly I found this discouraging.  Family circumstances, as well as her decrepit brain, scupper Neville's plans, but the novel ends with a glimmer of hope for her.  Most of the women in the novel, even old-fashioned Grandmamma, are keen on the idea of work (paid or otherwise) as a means to promote energy and interest in life; Mrs Hilary's tragedy is that she feels the need of this, but has not the intellect or the drive to achieve it, and sinks into ennui while criticising her daughters for dissipating themselves in social work or literary endeavour.   She hopes for rescue through psychoanalysis, an expensive form of attention-seeking at a guinea a session.  Nan, a successful writer,  and the ingenue Gerda have a shared crisis over the rather unlikely love object Barry Briscoe, energetic administrator of the Workers' Educational Association; this crisis provokes another, as Nan flees to Rome and the attentions of a married, consumptive artist, and her mother seeks to repair the damage.

Rose Macaulay's narrative tone through the novel is archly humorous, mocking her characters when they deserve it, and shining a light on their petty egotisms and vanities.  Sometimes this goes a bit far; her handling of Gerda, who writes awful poetry (we get to read a little of it) and is firmly committed to a set of fashionable principles, was not unlike an upper-middle-class version of Cold Comfort Farm's Elfine.  I wasn't sure if Gerda was really supposed to be that ridiculous.  Compared to The Towers of Trebizond, the novel is considerably more detached and ironic, although that may be because of the third-person narration, and the mostly English setting gives fewer opportunities for quirky comedy.  The satire of Mrs Hilary's psychoanalysis is, however, extremely funny, as is Nan's hazardous challenge to Gerda's love for Barry.  There is a lot more detail in the text than I've been able to do justice to here, as Macaulay lets her satirical eye rest on the tastes and choices of four generations of women.

Great War Fiction reviews this novel favourably, as does Frisbee: A Book Journal.  Unfortunately, the book is out of print, but it is available online at Project Gutenberg.

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