Tag Archives: Rose Macaulay

The Lives of Books

Rose Macaulay's 1923 novel "Told by an idiot"

Certain objects come into our possession by gift or inheritance. Some come to us as chance or fortune puts them in our way. Still others we search out on our own, with more or less determination, more or less patience, and more or less success. Among those objects I’m always looking for are Rose Macaulay novels. The only one in print in the United States, I think, is The Towers of Trebizond. Beyond that, you’ll have to snoop at length through used bookshops – unless, that is, you want to cheat and place an order online, which is something like driving out to the woods with a hunting rifle but stopping instead at the local grocery store for venison steaks.

In addition to The Towers of Trebizond, which was my introduction to Macaulay, I’ve managed over the years to bag copies of Crewe Train (a personal favorite), The World My Wilderness (not a personal favorite) and They Were Defeated, plus a few of her non-fiction titles. Not long ago, however, one of my fellow Rose Macaulay enthusiasts in Northern California must have died (there can’t be many of us left), because a used bookshop I frequent suddenly had maybe a dozen dusty hardbound titles in the stacks.

Imagine my astonishment, my bewildered joy. Among the non-fiction was a pristine copy of Pleasure of Ruins, as well as her travel books The Fabled Shore and They Went to Portugal. Among the novels there was Potterism – in bad decay – and Told by an Idiot, and I Would Be Private. These last two I brought home with me, though I’m sorry to say that the bookseller knew what he had on the shelf (he was also trying to sell them online) and didn’t part with them cheaply.

I read Told by an Idiot a week or two ago. It was great fun, from Macaulay’s strong, comic period of the 1920s. What I want to comment on, however, is not the story but an ex libris mark I discovered on the first page of the book. In fading ink and a nice, calligraphic hand, it reads: “Alec Waugh, Edrington, Berks.”

Inscription: Alec Waugh - Edrington - Berks

Waugh is not a common name. Did Evelyn Waugh have a brother Alec? A few minutes of research confirmed it. Alec Waugh was also a novelist, though not as successful as his younger brother. Alexander Waugh (Evelyn’s grandson) chronicles several generations of Waugh family gossip in Fathers and Sons and reports that Alec’s wife Joan inherited a great deal of money when her father died in the early 1930s. With it she bought an old house near Silchester in Berkshire, which she named Edrington. Alec and Joan had a troubled marriage but he used Edrington as a sort of home base for several years. He liked to keep a strict dividing line between his possessions and her possessions, his money and her money. He insisted on paying a monthly fee for drinking her wine.

The book appears to have belonged to him, but I still have questions. It’s a first edition (W. Collins Sons, London, 1923), with “Review Copy” stamped on the title page. Was Alec Waugh the first owner of the book? Did he write a review of it? Did he own it for some years but only write his name in it when moving to Edrington (ten years after the date of publication), so as to keep his books separate from those of his wife? And how did the book come to the United States? How did the book’s owner prior to myself get hold of it? None of the other Macaulay titles from the bookshop were inscribed by Waugh.

Books, considered as objects, may be as inscrutable as people. The lives of books may be as various and particular as the lives of people. As artifacts of human culture, over time they become strangely humanlike. Their biographies are perhaps hinted at by outward signs, but these never tell more than a fraction of their story, and the tale of their outward lives may have no bearing at all to the plot and the characters they contain. It’s getting to be an old game, playing the Luddite and bemoaning the rise of electronic books. But this is where they fail. In order to be a human object, a book must first of all be an object.

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Leeches, Balloons, Gods Descending

In 1850 Dr. George Merryweather designed a “Patent Tempest Prognosticator” that used leeches to predict approaching storms. The device, which was lovely to look at, housed individual leeches in a dozen glass bottles partly filled with rainwater. It had long been observed that when the barometric pressure drops, as with the approach of a storm, leeches tend to get excited. The genius of Merryweather’s invention was to harness the muscle-power and barometric consensus of numbers of leeches together so that when the pressure dropped and they all began to skip and frolic in their glass bottles the combined activity would trigger the ringing of a bell. “Leechdom hath prophesied,” the bell said, “now fetch an umbrella.”

I bought a new umbrella this past Monday, a black collapsible one that cost me ten dollars and which in six months or so will give out in a stiff wind or permanently misplace itself. But it was a timely purchase. The local leeches are no doubt cavorting enthusiastically just now. It’s a real event here in northern California when the rain finally comes. It arrives about November or December and continues, sporadically, into May, after which there is no rain to speak of until November comes round again. One can only assume that the merciless summery interlude is a cheerless drudge for the leeches.

I owe my acquaintance with Dr Merryweather’s leech barometer to Richard Holmes and his new book Falling Upwards, which I recently finished. Not that the book has much to say about leeches. It’s concerned instead with the history of manned ballooning from the Montgolfier brothers in 1783 to the Wright brothers in 1903. In his excellent earlier book, The Age of Wonder, Holmes briefly skimmed the subject while exploring the relationship between Romanticism and the second, post-Newtonian scientific revolution. In the present title, he unloads all his ballast and soars into the ether on the subject. It’s a terrific pleasure to read.

If you’ll forgive me, it seems that balloons are in the air these days. Julian Barnes’ new memoir, Levels of Life, also has something to do with the history of manned ballooning. I’m currently reading Rose Macaulay’s The Minor Pleasures of Life, a sort of commonplace book of thematically arranged quotations, which includes under the category of “Celestial” several passages about ballooning. The little chapter book I recently wrote for my daughter also involves two cats making an adventurous balloon trip. (My daughter herself, we recently discovered, has a substantial “dead balloon collection” made of up deflated helium balloons from various birthday parties and other events.)

Speaking of cats, according to a pamphlet from 1784 quoted in Macaulay’s Minor Pleasures, the aeronaut Vincenzo Lunardi, on tour in England, “was accompanied in his aerial passage by a couple of pigeons, a cat, and a favourite lap-dog.” Over Northaw, at an undisclosed altitude, “he threw out his cat… which was taken up alive.” The Montgolfiers also used animals in their early test-flights. They preferred sheep to cats, though it’s worth noting that in the 1960s the French space program did send a cat named Félicette up in a rocket. American balloonist John Wise liked to drop cats in little parachutes from his basket. This throwing of cats from airships is not something my daughter would approve of but she might like the image of them descending in colorful parachutes.

It’s difficult to imagine the shock people must have felt in those early days when the first aeronauts climbed into baskets suspended from gas bubbles and flew off into the clouds. It must have been doubly shocking to see them unexpectedly descend in a sky chariot like angels or visitors from the moon. Jean Pierre Blanchard, describing his third flight in 1784, said that when coming in to land he and his companion were met by a group of astonished French field laborers. “The most courageous contemplated us and exclaimed: ‘Are you Men, or Gods? What are you? Make yourselves known!'” To prove their humanity Blanchard and his friend removed their coats and threw them down. “They seized on them eagerly,” Blanchard says, “and began to divide them in pieces,” like holy relics.

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Marginalia, no.276

Talking is one of the creative arts, for by it you build up things that have, until talked about, no existence, such as scandals, secrets, quarrels, literary and artistic standards, all kinds of points of view about persons and things.

~ Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

One of the things I admire most in others is a gift for conversation. I’m an awful talker. Like a bad lover who takes and never gives, I consume, by ear and eye, probably five thousand words for every one that I produce. And the less I have to say, the harder it is for me to say it. I need a blank piece of paper, a day of mental digestion, or a stiff drink to show me what I think. Then we’ll talk.

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Three Paragraphs of Philistinism, Barbarity and Anti-social Behavior

The Russians next door have a new daughter. Wanting to be neighborly, we bought them some baby clothes, but couldn’t bring ourselves to deliver the gift for more than a month. “Once you know your neighbors,” Rose Macaulay writes in Crewe Train, “you are no longer free, you are all tangled up, you have to stop and speak when you are out and you never feel safe when you are in.” I have some hope that our neighbors’ poor English skills will save us from the worst.

Before the Russians there was a Norwegian mother with two children the same ages as our own. The youngest, a girl, had an imperious temper and would storm out at the slightest provocation from my daughter. The oldest, a boy, was always trying to sell us hard candies for a dollar each, or paper airplanes for five. My son was thrilled at having a new neighbor friend, but exhausted too. He never complained when, every night at dinner time, I finally had to throw the boy out and close the blinds.

With her customary charm, Macaulay dedicates Crewe Train to “The Philistines, the Barbarians, the Unsociable, and those who do not care to take any trouble.” I suppose I’m one of these, or I was. I used to like nothing better than to be left alone. Nowadays I consider wife and children necessary society. These are the deplorably civilizing effects of love. You may hide yourself in perfect happiness in a hole in the ground, as Macaulay shows, but love will find some mean way to drive you out of it.

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Marginalia, no.50

Of all the animals, man appears to be the only one who enjoys this peculiar pleasure of writing.  This is unfortunate, as it would be interesting to read the written works of the dog, the cat, the fox, the hog, the hippopotamus, and others, did they commit any.

~ Rose Macaulay, Personal Pleasures

The crows that loiter outside my office are writers after a fashion.  Too often I’ve had the pleasure of reading their generous commentaries on the hood of my car.  They must prefer to compose on Japanese rather than German makes, since my coworkers are always spared – or perhaps it’s just that my coworkers actually wash their cars from time to time.  If my cat were to write a book I think it would read something like Mein Kampf.  She’s a wicked, embittered creature that takes easy offense at her human captors and will blithely resort to tooth and claw even with the children.  Thankfully, she’s shown no particular interest in scribbling down her manifesto.

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