Personal Pleasures by Rose Macaulay

This is a lovely book to dip into, a compendium of short essays and sketches on the things that gave Rose Macaulay pleasure during her life, covering a wide variety of subjects such as Bathing, Candlemas, Chasing fireflies and Driving a car. There are around sixty pieces here (mostly two or three pages in length), arranged alphabetically with a handy index at the front. Originally published in 1935 to sparkling reviews, Personal Pleasures has recently been reissued by Handheld Press (my thanks to the publishers for kindly providing a review copy).

Although Macaulay was in her mid-fifties when the book was first published, some of the most vivid entries reflect her childhood in Italy in the late 19th century. Chasing fireflies, for instance, recounts a midsummer eve tradition in the Macaulay family, high up in the Italian hills, the violet sky glittering with golden stars. Here we learn of summer nights, the air fragrant with the scent of citrus, with fireflies dancing around like ‘leaping gems’, flying amidst the myrtle shrubs and juniper by the light of a golden moon. These reflections on childhood pleasures are especially enjoyable, capturing a time of happiness in the sizeable Macaulay family.

Macaulay’s style is evocative and erudite – quite ornate at times, but always resplendent. In this passage, she is writing about beauty of seeing a flower shop at night, softly lit yet empty of customers, glowing mysteriously like a magical fairyland.

Golden baskets are piled high with pink roses; crimson roses riot in curious jars; hydrangeas make massed rainbows beneath many-coloured lights; tall lilies form a frieze behind, like liveried, guarding angels. […]

It is a scene so exquisite and so strange that it might be a mirage, to melt away before the wondering gaze. We will leave it, while it is still clear and brilliant; turn away and walk down the cold, empty, and echoing street, looking not back lest that bright garden be darkened and fled like a dream before dawn. (Flower shop in the night)

Even relatively simple pleasures, such as soaking in hot bath in winter, are elevated to the status of exalted rituals through Macaulay’s expressive prose – enhanced in this instance by the aroma of pine-scented bath salts.

Soaked in green light, with two small red ducks bobbing about me, I lie at ease, frayed nerves relaxed, numbed blood running round again on its appointed, circular mortal race, frozen brain melting, thawing, expanding into a strange exotic effervescence in this warm pine forest. Bare winter suddenly is changed to spring, (Hot bath)

While many of the essays revolve around familiar pleasures (experiences that will resonate with many of us), others are more unusual or specific to the author, perhaps. Few of us could argue with the joy of things such as Walking, Reading, Meals out and Christmas morning, however, certain entries are more individual. In Taking umbrage for instance, Macaulay waxes lyrical about the experience of being ignored by shop assistants while other shoppers are given precedence, even when it’s not their rightful turn in the queue. For Macaulay, there is something pleasurable about rehearsing a cutting retort in her mind, ready for when the shop assistant finally approaches. Whether or not she ultimately decides to use it is another matter altogether! Other eclectic essays focus on Bulls, Disbelieving, Fire engines and Cows.

Several of the pieces demonstrate Macaulay’s sense of humour, reflecting a wry, witty approach to various aspects of life. In Shopping abroad, she muses on the peculiar lure of searching for tat that many of us succumb to when visiting other countries, falling for various trinkets we would swiftly ignore at home.

How strange it is, this passion that assaults the breast when the foot treads foreign earth; this lust to acquire, to carry away, to convey home in suitcases wretched pelting trifles which in our native land we should be the first (or so we hope) to disdain! (Shopping abroad)

Perhaps it’s the thrill of bartering with the stallholder, the illusion of securing a bargain, that drives us forward in this quest for ‘alien trifles’. All of which have to be transported home, of course, often at the expense of purchasing extra suitcases – ‘cheap exotic suitcases, more, and more and more…’

Ignorance is another very amusing piece, covering various subjects including neighbours, gossip, wickedness and current literature. I couldn’t help but laugh at Macaulay’s dismissal of the latest books, a view that will likely resonate with those wary of the media hype surrounding certain new releases.

 No, I am afraid I have not read that either. It is good, you say? I am sure you are right. But I have no time for all these novels and things. I cannot imagine how you make time for them. You find they are worth it? They do not look good. Not that I see them; but they do not sound good, from the advertisements and reviews. Not that I read advertisements and reviews. I like to keep myself clear from all this second-rate stuff. (Ignorance – 2. Of current literature)

As an aside, lovers of literature are well served with this collection, with entries on Reading, Writing, Finishing a book, and Booksellers’ catalogues, to name but a few. Oh, the joy of booksellers’ pamphlets flopping through the letter-box, ‘alighting like leaves on the passage floor’!

In a book devoted to a surfeit of pleasures, Macaulay remains mindful of the downsides involved in over-indulgence, that a pleasure overdone can tip over into excess – or might be taken for granted if repeated too often. As such, several essays come with a slight sting in the tail, a note of realism to temper the joy. In Hot bath, for instance, the water will cool if one soaks for too long, with fresh water from the taps feeling tepid rather than hot. Similarly, in Abroad, the thrill of travelling overseas is clipped by increasing bureaucracy and suspicion, a fact that will resonate with many current travellers whose journeys are hampered by cancellations or long delays.

In summary, this is an enjoyable, erudite compendium of pleasures, best experienced in small doses, maybe two or three essays at a time. Collected together like this, these articles give readers a fascinating insight into cultural life in the early 20th century, together with snapshots of various aspects of Macaulay’s life. As ever with Handheld Press, the book comes with an excellent introduction by Kate Macdonald, placing the book in a wider context. I’ve barely scratched the surface of it here, but it’s a delightful read for any Rose Macaulay fan – and for lovers of literature from this period in general.

20 thoughts on “Personal Pleasures by Rose Macaulay

  1. jenniferbeworr

    You’ve done beautifully with this review, Jacqui. I’ve been interested in Macaulay mainly since having read that nonfiction book (that you also read), about Graham Greene, Macaulay, etc…, living through the Blitz. I may well invest in this collection and would like to support Handheld Press. I loved that exhortation not to be swayed into purchase/reading by every latest title to come out, too! Fun and in a healthy spirit, I think.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed – she can be quite playful and irreverent at times, which I like! It’s a lovely gift book (either for yourself or for others). The sort of volume that’s made for dipping into – maybe a chapter or two before bed, another topic that Macaulay touches on in the book.

  2. madamebibilophile

    This sounds such a gem! So witty, and a celebration of simple things. Maybe Macaulay will even persuade me that being ignored in shops is a pleasure – I must admit that one passed me by!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      That’s such a funny vignettes as you can see Macaulay rehearsing the great putdown in her head while she’s waiting for the shop assistant. But when the girl finally notices her, out comes a completely different response. It’s quite a hoot!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Gorgeous, isn’t it? According to the note on the back cover, it’s from a Pratts High Test Petrol advert, published in Good Housekeeping in 1934.

  3. inthemistandrain

    I’ve looked at this book for sometime, I think you might have pushed me over the edge. Great, also, to support an independent publisher.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, indeed! I’m sure they could do with our support, especially given the current pressures on household budgets etc. If you like the passages I’ve quoted here, there’s a good chance you’ll enjoy the book. It’s an eclectic collection!

  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely review as always, Jacqui! It’s such an enjoyable book, isn’t it? I totally agree that it works best in small doses, ideal for dipping into, and the mixture of humour and those more feeling passages, with her beauutiful writing, is very evocative. Such a fascinating author!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I don’t think I could have read more than three pieces in the same sitting as they’re best spaced out. Her writing is quite ornate, I think, which suits quite a few of her topics and lifestyle. As you say, there’s a lovely mix of humour, spirit and poignancy here. A sparkling dinner companion, I suspect, but quite opinionated too!

  5. heavenali

    I am a big Rose Macaulay fan and have read quite a number of her books now. This has been on my radar for a while, but I shall have to get a copy soon I think. The quotes you have selected show the strength of her prose. I particularly like the sound of the childhood memoirs. Her writing can be so evocative.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      The childhood pieces are lovely and especially evocative with their Italian settings. I think you’d love this book, Ali, it’s right up your street.

  6. gertloveday

    Some wonderful quotes here. I have been reading some books of essays lately but this sounds head and shoulders above them all. I will definitely seek out. Thsnks Jacqui.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      You’re very welcome, Gert! If you like the passages I’ve quoted here (and it sounds as if you do), then chances are you’ll enjoy the book. Plus, all the essays are quite short, so there little danger of getting bored as long as you don’t read too many of them in the same sitting. I’ll be interested to see how you get on.

  7. Linda Kerr

    I haven’t read any Rose Macauley but have read *about* her in an issue of Slightly Foxed. Thank you for the review. I do like those worldly itty women of early last century – they seem so glamorous..:)

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

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.