Potterism by Rose Macaulay

There has been something of a revival of interest in Rose Macaulay’s work in recent years. Firstly, the Virago reissues of Crewe Train (1926) and The World My Wilderness (1950) in Feb 2018; then, last summer, the British Library’s publication of Dangerous Ages (1921) a novel focusing on women at various stages of the lifecycle; and last but not least, the release of two Macaulay titles by Handheld Press in November 2020.

Potterism (1920) is one of the two Handheld Press reissues, beautifully produced with a stylish cover design – very much in line with the book’s early 20th-century setting. In essence, the novel is a satire, one that allows the author to cast a critical eye over many subjects including socialism, spiritualism, religion, the ethics of war and, perhaps most importantly, the powerful nature of the newspaper industry.

Central to the novel are the Potter family, whose lives and experiences are explored in the years immediately following the First World War. Heading up the household is Percy Potter, the influential newspaper magnate and the chief proponent of ‘Potterism’ – a term coined by its opponents to describe the type of communications or ‘spin’ founded on fear, suspicion and the protection of specific interests. The parallels with our current media culture are both immediate and alarming.

They’re up against what we agreed to call Potterism – the Potterism, that is, of second-rate sentimentalism and cheap short-cuts and mediocrity; they stand for brain and clear thinking against muddle and cant; but they’re fighting it with Potterite weapons – self-interest, following things for what they bring them rather than for the things in themselves. (p. 57)

Percy and his wife Leila – a romantic novelist with an interest in spiritualism – have four children, three of whom play important roles in the novel. The eldest daughter, Clare, is a fairly conventional young woman, sharing something of her mother’s outlook and romanticism. Her affection for Oliver Hobart – who works for one of Percy’s newspapers, the Daily Haste – plays a key role in the novel’s narrative.

The twins, Johnny and Jane Potter, are bright young things – ambitious, greedy and rather competitive, especially with one another. Complete with their Oxford educations and socialist leanings, the twins are heavily involved in the anti-Potterite movement, a faction that aims to fight against the views being touted by the Potter press – and it is through this association that they come into contact with Arthur Gideon, the leader of a rival newspaper, the Weekly Fact.

Macaulay uses a very interesting structure to convey her story to the reader. The novel is bookended by two sections ‘told by RM’, presumably the author herself; while the intervening parts are given over to Gideon, Leila, and a couple of other characters who are able to observe various developments from the sidelines. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gideon is especially insightful on the language politicians and journalists use to encourage particular sentiments amongst their audiences, drawing on feelings on nationalism and patriotism to suit the messages they wish to convey.

What one specially resented was the way the men who had been killed, poor devils, were exploited by the makers of speeches and the writers of articles. First, they’d perhaps be called ‘the fallen’, instead of ‘the killed’ (it’s a queer thing how ‘fallen’ in the masculine means killed in the war, and in the feminine given over to a particular kind of vice), and then the audience, or the readers, would be told that they died for democracy, or a cleaner world, when very likely many of them hated the first and never gave an hour’s thought to the second. (p. 58)

The character of Lelia – Percy Potter’s silly yet influential wife – enables Macaulay to draw attention to the heinous nature of anti-Semitic views, beliefs that were not uncommon in this country at the time. Arthur Gideon is a Jew of Russian descent, his grandparents having perished in the Odessa pogrom some years earlier – and it is in Leila’s views of Mr Gideon and his heritage that these prejudices come out. While not as damaging as Percy and his newspaper empire, Leila has her own sphere of influence through her cheap novels – a situation that has contributed to her inability to distinguish fiction from fact.

As the narrative unfolds, there are some very interesting developments involving Jane, Gideon, Oliver and Clare. A shocking death occurs, the circumstances of which give rise to suspicion, gossip and unhelpful conjecture. For a while, these characters find themselves caught up in a rather sinister mystery – a situation that is only fuelled by the sensationalist Potter press. What Macaulay does so well here is to allow various characters – both reliable and unreliable – to give their individual perspectives on these events, thereby enabling the reader to construct the picture as they go along.

In summary, Potterism is a fascinating piece of writing with much to say on topics that remain all too relevant today. We have seen how certain elements of the popular/tabloid media helped to whip up jingoistic sentiments amongst the British public during the recent Brexit campaign. The damaging nature of fake news and inflammatory political ‘spin’ are all too familiar to us from our current communications culture. In crafting Potterism, Macaulay has written a timely and rather prescient commentary that continues to resonate one hundred years on.

The story goes that when anyone told old Pinkerton [aka Percy Potter] he was wrong about something, he would point to his vast circulation, using it as an argument that he couldn’t be mistaken. If you still pressed and proved your point, he would again refer to his circulation, but using it this time as an indication of how little it mattered whether his facts were right or wrong. Someone once said to him curiously, ‘Don’t you care that you are misleading so many millions?’ To which he replied, in his dry little voice, ‘I don’t lead, or mislead, the millions. They lead me.’ (p. 76)

Potterism is published by Handheld Press; my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy.

40 thoughts on “Potterism by Rose Macaulay

  1. jenniferbeworr

    Loved this one! Even if I wait on acquiring this book, it is so important, this topic. I love that it was a woman writing this, even back then. Brava!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Many thanks, Jennifer! Yes, I think it demonstrates just how progressive (and brave) Rose Macaulay was back then, to have spoken out about these issues in the face of so much jingoistic propaganda…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Kate – and thanks again for the book. Ah, yes – of course. I had forgotten about What Not. Thanks for pointing it out. I’m glad to hear that it’s still doing so well!

      Reply
  2. Claire 'Word by Word'

    Potterism, Propoganda, Public Relations, Spin Doctoring, Fake News, so many names for an aspect of humanity, the desire to manipulate, that was once just governments and news media and has now extended to anyone with internet access it seems.

    How interesting to have a potted, plotted novel that explores potterism! :)

    And yes, the ultimate question, who is leading whom?

    I’m watching the first season of The Crown and enjoyed seeing The Queen giving Winston Churchill a ‘talking to’ after they all did their best to keep from her, his ill health. A perfect example to Potterism perhaps?

    A wonderful, thought provoking review Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ha, yes – plenty of potential for tongue twisters with this one! Isn’t it funny how these issues, which we often think of as modern phenomena, have been around for at last a hundred years (if not more)? They’re also very prominent in Evelyn Waugh’s novel Scoop, which would make an interesting companion read to Macaulay’s Potterism.

      Like you, I’m very much enjoying The Crown, partly for the quality — the performances are universally excellent! – and partly for the various policy and communications decisions it explores. All the internal concerns and external ‘positioning’ of Princess Margaret’s relationship with Peter Townsend, for example. It’s fascinating (and somewhat heartbreaking) to observe, even if various conservations have been ‘dramatised’ for effect.

      Reply
      1. Claire 'Word by Word'

        Oh yes, right at the beginning when Group Captain Townsend was mentioned I had to pause and went off to research that liaison because I have a personal family anecdote around him and a letter a member of my family write him about his travels in his book Earth, My Freind, which I’ve since located a copy of. So I knew of him as a world traveller and the giver of advice to this family member, without knowing anything of his connection to the royal family. I wasn’t even sure if it was the same person because my interest was coming from such a different field of interest. What I read about them and what is happening on screen now is indeed heartbreaking and feels quite cruel, causing a sad and poignant division between the sisters. And yes, the insights into the policy decisions and strategising both within govt and the crown is fascinating indeed.

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Wow, how interesting! I don’t know very much about the other aspects of Townsend’s life, only his role in the royal household and subsequent relationship with Margaret. They should have let her marry him, I think; then again, I can see how certain aspects of protocol and the constitution must have got in the way…

          Reply
  3. Julie's Book Cave

    ‘Potterism’ -ha! sounds familiar. This sounds relevant for the times we are living through.I’d love to read this book. Great review!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know! It’s frightening how these issues continue to insinuate their way into the media environment, albeit in different forms as our communications media develop. I guess the underlying motives and behaviours will always be there, looking for an appropriate outlet…

      Reply
  4. Simon T

    Lovely review! I didn’t love all the different narrative voices equally, but it was certainly very clever. And didn’t Macaulay have an eye for issues that would resonate a century later? Dangerous Ages is full of them!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I know what you mean about the different voices as some are more engaging than others. That said, they are all very clearly differentiated from one another, which isn’t always the case in a novel like this!

      Reply
  5. A Life in Books

    I read this last year with Trump still in power and Brexit still filling the tabloids, depressed at how familiar it all seemed a century after Macauley’s novel was first published. I was also interested that Handheld’s introduction tells us it was the novel that turned her into a bestselling author, suggesting that there was a healthy appetite for a takedown of the press in 1920.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I can imagine how you must have felt reading it back then. Trump’s recent defeat casts a slightly different light on things right now, but there’s no getting away from the nonsense of his presidency and its destructive use of media. Handheld do a great job with their intros, don’t they? Always very informative about the broader context of the book and the reaction following publication.

      Reply
  6. Brian Joseph

    Great review as always.
    Satire is a great way to take on belief systems in fiction. This book sounds like it does so well.

    I really like the cover too. It is perfect for the time period covered.

    Reply
  7. Sarah

    I wasn’t sure if this was worth reading but your review has convinced me to give it a try. Aside from the relevance of this book, I wonder what has driven the revival in interest in Rose Macaulay? I’ve only read one of her books, The World My Wilderness; I suppose that book’s theme of societal ruin(s), which I believe she addressed in other works, feels timely to many?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s great. I hope you find it interesting as a result. As for the revival of interest in Macaulay, maybe Kate Macdonald from Handheld Press would like to comment on this, if she’s following the conversation? I wonder if it’s a combination of a couple of things: the quality of her work (which is very good indeed) and the relevance of her themes to world we live in today? As you say, many of the societal issues remain very topical – sadly so, in several respects.

      Reply
  8. heavenali

    Excellent review. I really enjoyed this one. The way Macaulay explores sensenationalism with gossip and prejudice is spot on and so prescient too. Macaulay is an endlessly fascinating writer.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali, I’m glad to have *discovered* more of Macaulay’s work over the past couple of years – and that’s partly down to your enthusiasm for it, I must admit!

      Reply
  9. Julé Cunningham

    Frighteningly relevant, critical thinking doesn’t seem to be high on human beings’ attributes that are important to acquire. And now the ‘influencers’ are coming at us from so many different directions. Another Macaulay to add to the TBR, thank you for a terrific write-up, Jacqui.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome! There are times when I wonder just how much we actually learn from history as similar issues continue to resurface time and time, albeit in somewhat different contexts. Maybe it’s a function of certain underlying motivations and behaviours which (with the best will in the world) will often prove difficult to change…

      Reply
  10. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review Jacqui – Macaulay was such a good writer and it’s great to see her work being reissued like this. It’s chilling how relevant her words still are – I’ve just been reading Orwell essays from 1946 and he was criticising the same kind of media and hysterical rhetoric. It certainly does seem as if nothing ever changes!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I haven’t read nearly enough of Orwell myself, especially when it comes to his non-fiction work. Hopefully you’ll be able to enlighten me on that front if you write about his essays at some point!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Excellent! I hope you like it. The World My Wilderness is quite different to this – more a coming-of-age story and not at all satirical if you get my drift.

      Reply
  11. 1streading

    You have answered my main question about this (and, in a sense, any older satire) – is it still relevant? Sounds like it very much is. It’s great so many (middle class) women writers are being rediscovered, though I think I can only handle one or two at a time – I’m still determined to get through a few Sylvia Townsend Warners this year!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, it all feels frighteningly relevant, in terms of the principles at least. Macaulay seems to have a sharp eye for these commentaries on society, what with Potterism and her other work from this period. And yes, SWT is another very interesting writer who seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival. Those new Penguin editions are especially tempting with their stylish covers and designs!

      Reply
  12. buriedinprint

    I’ve been admiring Handheld’s books in your posts and Ali’s (maybe Karen’s too?) and thinking how lovely they sound. This sounds almost disturbingly relevant. And you’ve reminded me that I’ve not read Grub Street yet either, which I think is also about newspaper publishing, but perhaps I’m misremembering? Macauley is a writer whose books I’ve collected here and there but I haven’t read her yet. Clearly I should get to mending that gap!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, you’re right! Both Ali and Karen have written about Handheld and their stylish reissues. As for Macaulay, she’s definitely worth reading. (I think you’ve made a wise decision in picking up a few of her books over the years; they’re bound to be interesting reads, both socially and politically.) Good point too about New Grub Street. I haven’t read it either, but I think you’re right about the publishing industry angle – it’s largely autobiographical, I believe?

      Reply
  13. Ella

    Wow! This looks like such an interesting read. I have never heard of Rose Macaulay before but it’s so great that her work is being rereleased.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m glad you like the sound of it. Macaulay was such an interesting writer – quite progressive for that time, certainly in terms of her political opinions. She’s well worth seeking out…

      Reply

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