Friday, 1 November 2019

Book review: What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, Rose Macaulay (1918)

This dark comedy is very much of its time and so some of the plotting is a bit clunky. On two occasions, two people are seen together by a third person in awkward circumstances. The same kind of device is used in Jessie Redmon Fauset’s ‘Plum Bun’ (1928; I reviewed it on 2 March). In both cases this “danger” threatens to give away the secret that gives the narrative its impetus and, in this way, the authors keep the reader interested in their stories. This kind of plot device belongs to an earlier era than the one in which we are living now, so to find it used in these two novels – novels published so close together in time – is not surprising.

Having said that, Macaulay’s novel makes good reading and it deserves to be widely consumed. Its publishing history is complicated. It was finished in 1918 and then the edition had to be pulped out of fear of libelling a prominent person. So it came out in 1919, in a redacted edition. The version that is available now is the original one.

While the speculative political novels of others, notably Orwell and Huxley, have gained a great deal of favour in the years since then, Macaulay’s has been almost entirely neglected. This is a shame.

Her story hinges on a Ministry of Brains and the classification of people in categories that allow them to get married. Or prevent them from getting married. Eugenics, the “science” that this idea is based on, was ultimately discredited after the Nazis were defeated in 1945, but for a time it won favour with many people in a number of different countries. (I wrote about eugenics in 2008 in a review of ‘Body Culture’, by Isobel Crombie, which came out in print in 2004.)

Macaulay’s novel is not only a work of speculative fiction, it is also a love story. At the centre of it sits Kitty Grammont who works for the ministry in a clerical role. There are other, secondary characters who add colour and help to flesh out the writer’s themes. Religion is given a good look-in for example, and there are some lovely descriptions of nature when Kitty and the man she loves go on rural walks. The descriptions that show the two of them swimming in the sea off the coast of Italy are particularly fine.

The ideas the book retails in are, like its style, of their time, and Macaulay does a good job of describing the world at the end of WWI (known in the novel as the Great European War; the service medal of my great-grandfather that I possess calls it the Great War for Civilisation). This is especially true of the way people thought about such things as (what we now know as) genetics. At the time, Darwin’s theories had been disseminated but the mechanism by which they operated was not known. There was also a strong antisemitic undercurrent at the beginning of last century – this was true not just in Germany – and Macaulay highlights this in her story.

Macaulay does a competent job of describing the public sphere in this book, from the opening scene where a woman is travelling on a commuter train to get to work, to a populist news editor trying to get a confession from a public servant, to a protest in the streets. The experience of protest and of controversy that derived from WWI, when there was a lot of disagreement about the war in the community in Britain, influenced Macaulay in profound ways, and this novel is the result.

The other thing that strikes the reader is the lack of awareness in the community a century ago of the effect of poverty on such things as educational attainment and intelligence. So you have a nation coming to terms with both a legacy of inequality and the promises of modernity. And while Macaulay shows through her plotting and characterisation that she is dead against the regulations of her invented ministry, she is also, at times, critical of parts of the community. This is the beauty of this work of fiction: its complexity and the nuanced way the author tries to deal, in a novelistic fashion, with ideas that were current in her day. Highly recommended.

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