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Archive for the ‘Rose Macaulay’ Category

I began 2012 with Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay, a rather wonderful book with a strange and unique heroine.  I wasn’t particularly engaged by the plot or any of the characters but the style in which it is told, the bluntly humorous indictments of how ‘civilised’ people behave and the frustration experienced by the violently anti-social Denham Dobie in trying to mix with them, make it quite marvellously funny.  It also has novelty appeal in that it is the only book I’ve ever come across that takes place at least partially in Andorra.

When the uncivilised, almost primitive Denham (named for her mother’s favourite Buckinghamshire village) is ‘rescued’ from her carefree life in the Pyrenees after her father’s death by her London relations, the twenty-one year old is in for quite the culture shock.  Her relatives, the Greshams, are a clever, cultured lot, London sophisticates who see Denham as a backwards simpleton who needs their guidance in matters of grooming and education.  And, truly, Denham could not be more different than these charming, outgoing, intelligent relatives:

She was a long-legged, lounging, loosely-built young woman, brown-skinned, blunt-featured, with small dark eyes sunk deep under sulky black brows and a big mouth screwed up into a whistle.  She looked and was a loafer.  She was untidy; she was probably stupid; she might well be sullen.  From the immense quantity of bread and cheese she had just devoured you might infer her greedy.  She was obviously no lover of her kind; when she saw any one whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by.  If you had asked her why, she would have replied, ‘Dunno.  It’s a bother speaking to people when you’re out.’  And so, of course, it is.

Denham had thought people in Andorra were bad enough, always wanting to talk, particularly about themselves and the people they know, but, to her, these London relations seem even more stupid, living in the cramped, dirty city when they have beautiful homes in the country, always attending plays – no matter how awful -, never dining along when they could be at someone else’s home or hosting others in their own and, worst of all, obsessively reading all sorts of pointless books – even literary criticism:

Books were mostly dull enough, but criticisms of books were quite unreadable.  The Greshams all read them, but then they appeared to be so constituted as to be able to read anything.  It was nearly a disease with them.

Denham cannot see the point in any of it but she is fond in her own quite emotionally detached way of the Greshams and so does her best to fit in for their sakes and, once married to amiable Arnold, another mystifyingly bookish sort who not only helps to publish unreadable novels but also writes them, for his.  But she can only keep up the effort for so long and soon finds herself reverting to her normal, independent ways, to the despair of her conventional family.

Though the back cover of my Virago edition refers to Denham’s “moving story”, I can’t say that I found any of the characters or events particularly touching.  Denham is too much of an oddity, too concerned with herself and too oblivious to the feelings of those around her to elicit much sympathy.  In fact, if I formed an attachment to anyone, it was her deluded husband Arnold who, initially bemused by his wife’s quirks, is eventually left frustratingly confused, helpless to deal with this wife he cannot comprehend.  I was also very fond of Denham’s aunt, Evelyn Gresham, a chic, observant, gossiping woman who sees and knows (and imagines) more about those around than she would perhaps like.

But it is not at all necessary to like these characters in order to enjoy the book.  It is a comedy of manners and most of the fun comes at the characters’ expense, either directed at specific persons or society in general.  Some of Macaulay’s most wonderful passages were the most generalised ones, such as:

…English gentlewomen are hardy as to cold air, though hot air or close air routs them at once.  As to their mania for admitting cold air into rooms, it is shared by no one; even their brothers, English gentlemen know better than that.  Gentlemen know that fresh air should be kept in its proper place – out of doors – and that, God having given us indoors and out-of-doors, we should not attempt to do away with the distinction.  But ladies will have meals out and fresh air in, and generally confuse the universe.

Or:

Here is one of the points about this planet which should be remembered; into every penetrable corner of it, and into most of the impenetrable corners, the English will penetrate.  They are like that; born invaders.  They cannot stay at home.  So that even in the desert heat of hottest Africa you shall see little wigwams bearing the legend ‘Grand Hotel of London.  Five o’clock tea,’ and if you visit the Arctic regions, you shall find Esquimaux infants babbling broken Anglo-Saxon, and huts inscribed W.C.  Every train running over the globe is full of them, and the world’s roads, plains and mountains are dense with knapsacked British walkers, burnt brick-red by sun and air.

There is nothing awkward or laboured about Macaulay’s writing.  She gracefully and skilfully infuses each page with perfect satirical observations, making the novel both highly amusing and seamless to read.  Structurally, I did find the story a bit drawn out and my interest waning in the middle.  If I had formed an attachment to the characters perhaps I wouldn’t have felt this way and would have been more invested in their trials but, for me, the beauty of this novel is the style of its telling and that could have been even more effective if certain sections had been curtailed.  But even with that said, my pleasure in Macaulay’s witty observations and the clarity with which she expressed them, not to mention my amusement with the incomprehensible but entertaining Denham, made this a highly enjoyable book with which to start the new year.

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