The Misfit

I seem to be determined to read books from 1926 lately. First there was Lolly Willowes, then I’ve just finished Arthur Schnitzler’s Dream Story, and at the same time for the Slaves of Golconda reading group, Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay. I wish this striking similarity had led me on to some significant point of literary criticism, but no. The best I can say is that Rose Macaulay and Sylvia Townsend Warner are both interested in the woman whose nature equips her poorly for society living, the round peg in the square hole, and both treat this inability to conform with compassion and curiosity and gentle good humour.

When Denholm Dobie’s father dies, her English relatives, the Greshams, decide that the right thing would be for Denholm to come and live with them. Denham has been brought up by her deeply anti-social ex-clergyman father and left mostly to run wild. She comes to England as a female version of that famous literary trope, the noble savage, and naturally the family who ‘rescue’ her are supremely civilised human beings. They are publishers and socialites, profoundly enmeshed in the London scene and obsessed with knowing ‘the people who count’. The question is: will Denholm be converted to their ways? Will she learn which fork to use, how to give a review of the latest play, care about keeping things neat and tidy, and restrain herself from bolting out the back door the moment visitor’s arrive at the front? On the surface, as you can see from the level of concerns we’re dealing with, this is a light, comic novel, a kindly satire of the chattering classes. But Macaulay complicates her lot somewhat by making Denholm irredeemable – this Beast ain’t becoming no Beauty – and by having her fall quite genuinely in love with a member of the publishing clan.

Can Denholm truly find a satisfying way of life, one that reconciles her need for isolation with her love of her husband? She is an unusual character, sporty, outdoorsy, cold, private, entirely empty-headed, and really quite selfish. She finds some peace, finally, in a lonely Cornish cottage above a cave, which she sets up as an ideal parlour (where unwelcome guests will never find her) until the society papers ruin her retreat. Much like Lolly Willowes, the restrictive social horizons of 1926 make it difficult for women novelists to imagine what kind of life a woman on her own could actually have, and the results tend to err on the side of the surreal. What struck me now, reading in 2012, is that Denham was born a century too soon. Her energetic and independent personality, all about nature and travel and exercise, bored rigid by the idea of housework, books and other forms of culture, would be entirely unremarkable in this day and age. In fact, she would probably be praised for her healthy preferences. The bizarre misfit of the start of the last century has become the average woman of the new millennium.

The character in the novel I found to be the most intriguing is Evelyn Gresholm, Denham’s aunt. Evelyn is the arch socialite, the biggest gossip-monger of them all, horribly meddling (she spreads the least rumour whilst enlarging upon it and wondering how best to pass it on, plus unwelcome advice, to those concerned) and if all that weren’t enough, a writer to boot, who uses the lives around her as raw material. Yet she is portrayed as the much-loved mother of the family, condoned because she behaves always out of kindness. Whilst reading the book I was caught up sufficiently in Macaulay’s clever and gentle narrative to find her interestingly mixed, but now I come to write about her, I see that really, I found her pretty awful, and I wouldn’t have minded one bit if Denham had stood up to her and told her where to go. But if there is a difficulty with this novel, it’s that Macaulay is too fond of the objects of her satire, being I suspect, one of them herself. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the butt of the joke is Denham or the Gresholms, and by the end it’s still not clear. But it’s safe to say the Gresholm’s come out of it all quite unscathed.

For me, reading the book was a curious game of interrupted identifications. As a notably anti-social person myself, I thought I would sympathise with Denham’s plight. But all that girl guide stuff, not to mention Denham’s deep dislike of books and reading, put a stop to that. Then I felt some intimacy with the Greshams for their love of literature, but of course, I couldn’t possibly condone the endless party-going, being also rather baffled at what people find to talk about for so long of an evening. All in all, I felt doubtful that Rose Macaulay knew what an introverted person was truly like. But this is a beautifully written book, crisp, elegant, witty, and I don’t think the reader is really intended to dig too deep into the social issues raised. She’s more P. G. Wodehouse than Simone de Beauvoir, and this was enjoyable and amusing in equal measure.

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22 thoughts on “The Misfit

  1. After reading Stefanie’s comments on this I’ve resolved to get round to some Macauley sooner rather than later, although from what I know about her work I think I’m going to start with ‘Trebizond’. It’s interesting what you say about the nature of the woman in the 1920s. It may be an overgeneralisation, but they’re very different, aren’t they, from the academic women from just before the First World War? I need to think about this more deeply, but one thing is clear I haven’t read enough from either period and given how much is now available I need to do something about that. Oh lord, another list and another massive TBR pile!

    • Oh I know, the poor TBR! I love this period, well, I am a fan of European writing from 1920 to 1960 and know more about other countries than I do my own. It is very intriguing to read the writing by and about women from the early part of this period, though. Women were more emancipated in the best sense of the term in 1925 than they are nowadays, although I’m sure that’s an outrageous statement lots of people would disagree with. But they seemed to be so forward-thinking, so ambitious and so fearless, so ready to try new things. I just love that.

  2. The character of Denham you describe reminds me of Barbary in Macaulay’s ‘The World My Wilderness’, with a similarly wild girl at the centre of it, in a bombed-out post-war London. I don’t remember much about it (other than thinking it good) but it was rather darker, the wildness of a different order.

    How interesting what you say about the misfit of a century ago being today’s average! Maybe the awkward bookworm’s moment will come in 2112, we are pushing at frontiers don’t you know.

    • Oh Helen, the end of your comment did make me laugh. I do so hope we are pioneers in our way, we awkward bookworms! How interesting that you have read other books by Macaulay. I’d definitely read her again now.

  3. I think there are aspects of Macaulay in both Denham and the Greshams, so perhaps that’s why she couldn’t quite come to ‘condemn’ either set. Evelyn is an awful busybody, kind of funny really, but very bad in the trouble she causes. And Denham is interesting–likable in the way she does her own thing happily, yet maddening in that she can’t seem the other side of things. I very much enjoyed the story, but appreciate your insight into the way it works and in the way it didn’t quite come off in the end. The other book I read by her earlier in the year had a main character much like Denham–another noble savage. I’m looking forward to reading more of her work. Really lovely post–you always get to the heart of the matter so well!

    • That’s so interesting what you say about other noble savages in Macaulay’s novels (and Helen above would agree, I think). I would certainly read more by her, too. I completely agree that Macaulay is too strung between Denham and the Greshams to fully critique either, but on the whole I quite like that, as books are so much more pleasant to read when the author seems to appreciate her characters and to treat them all with some gentleness. I felt this was an excellent choice for the Slaves!

  4. It’s amazing how such gentle, topical satire can still be amusing long after the topics of the day are hardly even remembered. I love the phrase “the chattering classes.”

    • Jeanne, isn’t it interesting what lasts and what doesn’t? This didn’t feel all that dated at all – maybe no matter how sophisticated we become, people don’t change, not really.

  5. I thought it was interesting too that Denham was an introvert but not a bookish one, while the bookish ones in the novel are the chatterers. I wonder if that’s why some of us have found her an odd figure — we might relate to her withdrawal from foolish sociability, but she also rejects our preferred alternative!

    • Rohan, absolutely! I can’t imagine a non-bookish introvert – but that of course says more about my imagination than about the book! Although I would gladly give up society any day. :)

  6. Wasn’t this a fun book? I read it at the same time as Room with a View and I had to orient myself before picking up each one to make sure I was in the right book. To be sure, Forster is much more complex but there is a certain light touch that both employ that when switching between the books made me a bit disoriented. Anyway, though I couldn’t get on with Denham’s not liking books, I do so ever want her smuggler’s cave. It’s better than the blanket forts I used to make as a kid!

    • Lol! I can quite see why you would wonder whether it was this or Room With A View you had in your hands! And I love the fact you want Denham’s cave – that’s delightful. Hmm, I now wonder whether Forster wasn’t actually trying to create something like Denham’s cave in A Passage to India, only something went a tad awry! :)

  7. If you’re determined to read books from 1926 it might be a good excuse to reread Kafka’s The Trial (not that an excuse is needed.)

    • Oh I like the way you’re thinking. I didn’t realise The Trial was also 1926 – what an incredible time this was for literature! So much interesting writing being put forward.

  8. >>Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the butt of the joke is Denham or the Gresholms, and by the end it’s still not clear.

    When something like this happens in a book I find it quite disorienting. I suppose this is my failure at negative capability but I do not like it when I can’t tell whether the author is self-aware on behalf of her characters. Is that a reasonable way of putting that? I mean I like to know that the author recognizes the characters’ strengths and weaknesses, even if the point of view character doesn’t (or even if none of the characters do).

    • I know just what you mean – it’s a question of the narrative frame, in fact, whether the narrator is in on the joke, or in favour of one viewpoint rather than another, and so on. The French writer Michel Houellebecq plays with the frame in a way that really upsets his readers, who do not know whether he condones or ironises the use of misogyny in his novels. Not a writer for you, my friend. But he does realise how upsetting messing with the frame can be!

  9. I hadn’t really considered Denham as born a century too soon but it’s a fascinating point to consider. I’m not sure she’d be bothered enough to go on long distance adventures but at least the option would have been there!

    • As a bookish, indoorsy sort of person, I am painfully aware of how much we are encouraged to get outside and do sporty energetic things, so I couldn’t get behind the criticism of Denham in a purely personal way! But yes, she certainly wouldn’t have been considered strange in the new millennium!

    • Caroline, I am always happy to give you a laugh! Yes, of the two books I did like Lolly Willowes best – the quality of the writing was just wonderful in that. But this is a very enjoyable novel too!

  10. This is my favourite of the Macaulay novels I’ve read – I loved the view on society she could get by putting someone in who was essentially a savage, when it came to social mores.

    Wendy Gan, in a book called Women, Privacy and something (sorry, forget the exact title) does write a chapter comparing Laura Willowes and Denham, which I hadn’t thought about before, and was rather interesting.

    • Ooh I love the thought of a comparison between Laura Willowes and Denham. I think next time I’m in the UL, I will have to try and track that down, just for curiosity’s sake, so thank you! I am so interested to have your opinion of this novel, too. I felt sure it would be something you might have read. I’m so pleased that you liked it – always good to have the Simon T stamp of approval! :)

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