Rose Macaulay in the Great War

Rose Macaulay youngerWhen Britain declared war on Germany, Rose Macaulay was in Canada, with her father, visiting her brother Will in his farmhouse in Alberta. Will brought in his harvest, and then followed the others back to England; he joined the King’s Royal Rifles. Rose’s sister Jean joined the French Red Cross, and became a nurse in France. Rose did nothing as yet, although her poem “Many Sisters to Many Brothers” was anthologised in a volume which was raising funds for Belgian refugees. It expressed her envy of those who were at the front:

In a trench you are sitting, while I am knitting
A hopeless sock that never gets done.
Well, here’s luck, my dear;—and you’ve got it, no fear;
But for me … a war is poor fun (quoted LeFanu, 105).

In May 1915 she signed on as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) at Mount Blow, in Great Shelford: it was a military convalescent home. She did a menial job, which she did very badly; as LeFanu put it, it was as if she was in “a comic film about the hopelessness of the middle classes who have always had servants to do their dirty work” (LeFanu 197).

Early in 1916 she published what was one of the first Great War novels, Non-Combatants and Others. It was far removed from her fantasy about longing for the trenches; in the meantime she had seen the wounded, and the shell-shocked. Her heroine was a nervous art student, who has a brother and a cousin in France. The cousin is shell-shocked; the brother eventually kills himself at the Front, after seeing his best friend blown to bits. The heroine throws herself into working for peace. The book was not well-received.

In February 1916, while still working at the hospital, she started work as a land-girl on a local farm. Despite the hardships (“I think no soldier is as cold as we / Sitting in the Flanders mud”) (quoted LeFanu 113) she enjoyed it much more than the work as a VAD.

In January 1917 Macaulay started work in the War Office, in the department that dealt with exemptions from military service, and with conscientious objectors. A year later she was transferred to the new Ministry of Information, under Lord Beaverbrook. Because she knew Italian, she was in the Italian section, which was run by an Irishman,  ex-priest called Gerald O’Donovan. He was 46, married, the author of two novels. Rose would be deeply in love with him until his death from cancer in 1942.

Two volumes published after the war relate to this period. In 1919 she published Three Days, her second and last collection of poems, some of which talk about her war experiences, notably “On the Land, 1916”. Also in 1919, according to LeFanu, she published What Not: A Prophetic Comedy. The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction says that the book was published in 1918 and had to be re-published in a revised version in 1919, with the possibly libellous passages deleted. A few copies of the 1918 edition exist, one in the signed copy belonging to Michael Sadleir (then Sadler), the director of Constable at the time. This annotated copy indicates that pp. 204 and 208/209 needed to be changed, and there was a handwritten note to the effect that this was an “uncancelled” copy. Those potentially libellous pages relate to a newspaper proprietor: there is more than one powerful newspaper baron of 1918 to whom they may refer (the most likely was Lord Beaverbrook, the Minister of the ministry in which she was working, but another possible one was Lord Northcliffe).

What Not was a novel about illicit love, in which a young woman works in a government office and falls hopelessly in love with her boss. They marry; but this is illicit, because in this future world he is not allowed to marry. It is a world of social control, rather like Huxley’s Brave New World of 1932, and a world littered with abandoned babies that are the result of illicit love. As LeFanu comments, “There is only one loved, wanted and happy baby in the whole story, and he is the illegitimate child of an adulterous union. […] [I]t is inconceivable that pregnancy and giving birth to a child was not at least an imaginative possibility for a thirty-six-year-old woman engaged in her first passionate sexual relationship.”

My information comes from Sarah LeFanu’s brilliant biography Rose Macaulay (London: Virago, 2003), with additional information from John Clute.


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