Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

The English writer Rose Macaulay – whose work spans the first half of the 20th century – seems to be enjoying something of a renaissance at the moment. First with the Virago reissues of Crewe Train and The World My Wilderness, and subsequently with the more recent publication of some of her earlier work by Handheld Press and the British Library. Dangerous Ages – recently reissued by the BL as part of their beautiful Women Writers series – falls into the latter category. It is novel that considers the lives of women at various points in the lifecycle, the perpetual trajectory from birth to death.

Macaulay takes as her canvas various generations of one middle-class family, alighting on each of the women in turn to explore their hopes, preoccupations and in some cases their disappointments. It’s a novel where characterisation plays a prominent role, with emotions and outlook being more important than plot.

Central to the novel is Neville, who at forty-three is considering resuming her studies to be a doctor – an ambition she sidelined in favour of marriage and motherhood some twenty years earlier. Now that her children – Kay and Gerda – have grown up, Neville is conscious of not wanting to end up like her mother, Mrs Hilary, a woman whose life seems empty and purposeless.

Neville looked down the years; saw herself without Rodney, perhaps looking after her mother, who would then have become (strange, incredible thought, but who could say?) calm with the calm of age; Kay and Gerda married or working or both. …What then? Only she was better equipped than her mother for the fag-end of life; she had a serviceable brain and a sound education. She wouldn’t pass empty days at a seaside resort. She would work at something, and be interested. Interesting work and interesting friends–-her mother, by her very nature, could have neither, but was just clever enough to feel the want of them. The thing was to start some definite work now, before it was too late. (p. 21)

At sixty-three, Mrs Hilary is both too old and too young – caught in the no-man’s-land of middle age with little to focus on. Gardening, knitting or other such activities hold no interest for this woman – likewise parish work or other charitable pursuits. It is notable she is rereferred to as ‘Mrs. Hilary’ (and not ‘Emily’) throughout the book, a point that emphasises just how much of her identity has been defined by marriage and motherhood. Stuck in the fusty provincial resort of St. Mary’s Bay, Mrs Hilary bemoans the fact that no one seems interested in her life anymore. This lack of visibility feeds a degree of jealousy, particularly toward Nan, her younger daughter, whose life by comparison seems busy and vivid.

He was interested, thought Mrs. Hilary, in Nan, but not in her. That was natural, of course. No man would ever again want to hear stories of her childhood. The familiar bitterness rose and beat in her like a wave. Nan was thirty-three and she was sixty-three. Nan had men all about her, all being interested; she had only the women of St. Mary’s Bay. Nan could talk about Workers’ Education, even though, being selfish, she mightn’t want it, and Mrs. Hilary could only talk about old, unhappy, far-off things and fevers long ago, and the servants, and silly gossip about people, and general theories about conduct and life which sounded all right at first, but were exposed after two minutes as not having behind them the background of any knowledge or any brain. (p. 72)

Nan is a particularly interesting character in the book. A writer living in rooms in Chelsea, she is by nature an intelligent, cynical, sardonic creature – someone who goes her own way in life irrespective of conventional expectations. Nevertheless, there is a man in Nan’s life – an idealistic socialist by the name of Barry Briscoe, who manages a Workers’ Education Association in the city. Nan has long been the object of Barry’s affections; however, just when Nan decides that she will finally agree to marry Barry, he falls for Gerda (Neville’s daughter), who at twenty represents the modern face of womanhood.

Also featured in the novel is Grandmamma (another woman referred to only by her role), who in the twilight of her life is content for nature to take its course. In her own particular way, Grandmamma is cleverer and more fulfilled than her daughter, Mrs Hilary, with whom she shares a home.

Then there is Rosalind, the spiteful woman who is married to Mrs Hilary’s son, Gilbert – a literary critic of some note. Rosalind – whom Mrs H considers to be ‘fast’ and immoral – seems to delight in taunting her mother-in-law, preying on her obvious weaknesses and insecurities.

She [Rosalind] was pouring out tea.

“Lemon? But how dreadfully stupid of me! I’d forgotten you [Mrs Hilary] take milk…oh, yes; and sugar…”

She rang, and ordered sugar. Mothers take it; not the mothers of Rosalind’s world, but mothers’ meetings, and school treats, and mothers-in-law up from the seaside. (p. 75)

Rosalind has a habit of taking things up and dropping them just as quickly when they bore her, psychoanalysis being her current preoccupation. In short, she wishes to use the technique to analyse her mother-in-law’s ‘case’ with a view to identifying any underlying complexes. Initially, Mrs Hilary is disgusted by the notion; although ultimately, she experiments with analysis herself in the hope that it might illuminate a path to personal fulfilment.

What Macaulay does so well here is to capture the interactions between these individuals, with all their nuances and subtleties. She really is very skilled at conveying the challenges for women at different stages of their lives – the ‘dangerous ages’ of the book’s title.

In essence, the novel explores how best to find fulfilment in life, especially for a woman in middle age. Along the way the narrative touches on several topical issues of the day from the desirability or not of marriage (Gerda and Barry have opposing views on this point) to free love and lesbianism to the value of psychoanalysis. The novel was first published at a time when Freudianism was in fashion.

It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print as part of the ongoing Macaulay revival. My thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

44 thoughts on “Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. We definitely see the stirrings of feminism in this book. I think you’d find it an interesting read. Plus, Macaulay can definitely write, so it’s a good one from a stylistic perspective too.

      Reply
  1. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    I’ve never read anything by Macauley and this sounds like a good place to start. Your review made me think a bit about Anita Brookner, whose Hotel du Lac you reviewed last August; both Macauley & Brookner seem to be asking what/how women should fashion their lives when those lives revolve around something other than conventional marriage (many differences exist between the two writers, of course, as Brookner’s protagonists are all unmarried but still . . .). Aside from all the substance, the novel just sounds fun to read — the scene with the tea is brilliant! So much personality revealed in so few words.
    I had gone on quite a little binge a few months ago with the British Library Women Writers series; I can’t imagine how I missed this title. My omission must be rectified!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, that’s a great point about the similarities between the two writers in terms of themes. There’s definitely a focus on life choices here, a sense of the central characters contemplating the types of women they would like to be – other than being defined by marriage and motherhood. And yes, there are some great social observations too – some wonderful touches of sly humour alongside the more poignant reflections!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thank you! Yes, I very much enjoyed it. You’ve done a great job as consultant on this series, Simon, helping us to rediscover these unappreciated women writers from the past. I still have a few to read, including the Mary Essex and Chatterton Square. It’s been quality all the way so far, so my hopes are high for the remaining titles!

      Reply
  2. heavenali

    Excellent review, so glad you enjoyed this one, I think Rose Macaulay is such an interesting writer. Such a beautifully written book, and as you say, the interactions between characters is particularly well done.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I think she’s particularly insightful about the challenges of middle age, certainly for women. It’s interesting how both the oldest and youngest generations seem relatively content with their (very different) lives while the two in the middle feel much less fulfilled!

      Reply
  3. Jane

    Aah, fulfilment in middle age – this seems a good place to start with Macaulay and written in 1921, a good reason to put it on a list for next year!

    Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post Jacqui – I think Macaulay really deserves the attention she’s been getting with all these reissues – an excellent author. I particularly like the fact she’s considering women no longer young, and also appreciate you labelling Mrs. Hilary as middle-aged – so often women of her age are dismissed as “old”. The stereotyping is terrible. Shall have to get to this one soon!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen! That’s such a good point about Macaulay’s ‘definition’ of middle aged – and quite a contrast to some other novels from the mid 20th century where women in their thirties and forties (spinsters in particular) are often portrayed as being passed their sell-by date. I shall be very interested to hear what you think of it, as and when!

      Reply
  5. Grier

    What Kaggsy said! I read this very recently and also liked how Macaulay included older women in the story. I have a different edition and wish I had the new edition to read Simon’s afterword.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      So glad to hear that you enjoyed this too, Grier, The constants between the ages, with their different challenges and preoccupations, are beautifully done. It was interesting to read Simon’s afterword, especially given his work across the BL Women Writers series as a whole. Plus, he talks about the fashion for psychoanalysis and Freudianism at the time, which helps to put that element of the novel into a wider social context.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You know, it’s been such a long time since I read To the Lighthouse that I couldn’t give an informed view on that! Ali might have some thoughts on it though, especially given her Woolfalong project from a few years ago…

      Reply
  6. madamebibilophile

    I went and googled the publication date – I should have read the comments first :-) It seems remarkably forward-looking for 1921. I’ve not read Macaulay yet but she’s definitely on the list! I do love an interwar novel…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Me too! Yes, there’s a distinctly feminist flavour to the novel’s main themes and observations, something that makes it feel quite progressive for the time. I’ve certainty been impressed with the Macaulays I’ve read so far – albeit only a very limited selection of her work. Plus, there’s a lot of love for her across the bookish blogosphere and Twitter, enough to convince me that she’s well worth exploring further. You’d really like her, I think…

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    The thing I like best about this review is that 63 is middle-aged!
    Actually, it sounds like it has a really interesting cast of characters – I can’t help but think it would make a good TV series.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, although that’s probably partly my positioning of Mrs Hilary’s age within the overall spectrum – alongside Macaulay’s own perception of course! One definitely gets the feeling that society considered women in Mrs H’s position to be invisible / over the hill well before their sixties. And yes, you’re right – it would make a good mini series, with interesting parts for woman at various life stages!

      Reply
  8. Julé Cunningham

    A few years back a bookseller friend recommended this book after I’d read and enjoyed the Towers of Trebizond. From your wonderful post it really does sound like a fascinating character study and one I’d enjoy reading.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it really is very absorbing, despite the fact that very little happens in the way of plot. I can imagine Trezibond being quite transportive, especially in the current time when traveling anywhere exotic in person is pretty much off-limits!

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  10. moirar2

    What struck me was – Kay and Gerda? the children in the Snow Queen. Does that have any signficance?
    I don’t warm to Rose MacAulay as I know many people do, and I haven’t read this one, but she is never less than interesting.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ooh, I don’t know, but it seems too much of a coincidence to be accidental! I have an old copy of The Snow Queen somewhere, so I shall have to dig it out. Macaulay is an acquired taste, I suspect – not everyone’s cup of tea. I’ve tried and failed to read Told By an Idiot (one of her earlier novels) a couple of times, largely on account of the style… Nevertheless, this one was very good – less ‘mannered’ than ‘Idiot’, I think.

      Reply
  11. Caroline

    I would this too. It’s so interesting the names authors choose for their characters, isn’t it. It conveys so much meaning. It sounds like all of the characters are very well drawn.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, the names are interesting. I recall someone else, possibly Ali, remarking on Macaulay’s tendency to give some of her female characters seemingly masculine names. Maybe that was a function of the times, when the early stirrings of feminism were startling to emerge. You’d like this one, I think. It’s an interesting look at woman across the ages and the various challenges they tend to face.

      Reply
  12. BuriedInPrint

    I love stories about midlife being centred around beginnings! I’ve got a few Macaulay novels around but haven’t yet settled into one (oh dear, I realize I’ve just said essentially the same thing about Margaret Kennedy in your previous post LOL).

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha! No worries at all. There’s never enough time to read all the books (or authors) we’d like to try. It’s taken me ages to get to Margaret Kennedy, five or six years at least…

      Returning to Macaulay for a minute, I thought Dangerous Ages was excellent, just the sort of novel that deserves to be back in print in a lovely new edition. Her insights into middle age are very perceptive. As you say, it should be seen as the beginning of a new phase of life, not an end or gradual decline.

      Reply

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