Friday, 5 July 2013

Keeping Up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

This is a very difficult book to write about, and it's particularly difficult to explain why it is such a good and enjoyable book without giving away its secrets, secrets which are part of why it is so enjoyable.  Rose Macaulay's novel has to do with identity, its construction and presentation, and its sudden dissolution.  Half-sisters Daisy and Daphne Simpson are modern young women in 1920s London; Daisy is the illegitimate daughter of an upper-class man, now dead, and the expansive, lower-middle-class Lily Arthur, now married to a painter and decorator in East Sheen.  She feels every bit of the awkwardness of her position, aware that the upper-class family who employ her are being deceived, equally aware that her much-loved mother knows Daisy is slightly ashamed of her.  Daisy supplements her income by writing novels and journalism under the name of Marjorie Wynne.  Marjorie dutifully turns out articles on various "Woman Questions": can women have genius?  can they have children and a career?  Daisy rather despises this debate, and the way her editor constantly forces her to consider the 'human question'; she dreams of writing about "inhuman things, about books, about religion, about places, about the world at large, about things of which intelligent people had heard".   Macaulay is very funny at the expense of her own profession and gets well stuck in to the debates about highbrow and lowbrow writing that were prevalent when she published this book in 1928.

So the novel plays with ideas and conflicts about class, gender, and literary status, which makes it sound very serious, but the tone is Rose Macaulay's usual one of arch humour, and consequently it is very funny.  The Folyot family - upper-class progressive intellectuals - are very cleverly drawn, just stopping short of caricature, and Daisy's mother Lily is a complete joy, and a terribly attractive character, with her fondness for a little nip of brandy and her sympathetic understanding of her daughter's position.  The frightful (to Daisy, at least) scene where the Folyots and Daisy's East Sheen family are brought into uncomfortable proximity is painfully hilarious.  The narrative asides are also very witty: I particularly enjoyed Macaulay's observation that Lily achieves "comfort in her ugly house  [...] in the only way which it is ever achieved, by extravagance".  So true, and so elegantly expressed.

This novel is out of print, but there are secondhand copies around, as there was a Methuen paperback reprint in the 1980s.  Simon has reviewed this at Stuck in a Book and there is also a review here at Reading 1900-1950 -  do note the spoiler warning at the top!  However, if you do inadvertently read a spoiler (as I did, because the Methuen paperback includes one on the very first page) it shouldn't affect your enjoyment of this book.