Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay: An Introduction

"Wist ye not that your father and I sought thee sorrowing?", ca. 1865

This photograph by the pioneering Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron puts one in mind of the multi-generational aspects of Rose Macaulay`s 1921 novel Dangerous Ages.

Rose Macaulay, a British novelist who lived from 1881 to 1958, is one of those very intelligent writers who seem to flourish in their own age only to vanish into relative obscurity after their death, despite occasional attempts at resuscitation by literary historians or wide-ranging readers. It is true that Macaulay’s 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond still enjoys some modicum of fame, but her other novels are largely unread today, despite the popularity many of them had upon their first publication. It is also true that much of Macaulay’s work directly addressed the concerns of her era, and thus the pet passions and interests of her characters can seem dated, confined to one time and place, and that time and place the past. But most of Macaulay’s satire transcends the particular customs or events which engendered it to reveal some eternal truth about human nature and character; and a number of the issues which Macaulay examines are as relevant today as they were in her time.

Macaulay’s 1921 novel Dangerous Ages is a fascinating work, one which is highly recommended not only as an entertaining book but also as a good introduction to the works of a highly intelligent human being. The novel, which narrates the events of several months in the lives of five related women–ranging in age from eighty-four to twenty–showcases both the strengths and the weaknesses of Macaulay’s writing. Like most of her novels, it is premised on an idea, a observation which is demonstrated and evolved through a story.

Probably the most technically successful part of the novel is its opening, which describes Neville’s birthday awakening and early-morning swim in terms which leave her age unclear, yet lead the reader to picture her as a little girl. (Macaulay is fond of giving her female characters gender-neutral names, which can lead to enormous confusion as readers begin her novels. Here Neville is used as a feminine name.) Then, however, Macaulay reveals the fact that Neville has just turned forty-three, thereby brilliantly setting up the central problem of the book; while Neville may be forty-three and thus old by the standards of youth, she is still young enough to need some goal or purpose to inform the remainder of her life. Her initial choices, marriage and motherhood, no longer demand all her time, energy, or mental capacities. Neville’s husband, Rodney, has a flourishing political career,  while her twenty-year-old daughter Gerda and son Kay are themselves adults, or nearly so. (It is worth noting that Gerda and Kay are the names of the children in Hans Christian Anderson’s “Snow Queen,” but whether that borrowing of names is symbolic or merely a joke on Macaulay’s part is unclear.)

Neville’s predicament is mirrored in that of her sixty-three-year-old widowed mother, Mrs. Hilary, who is faced with the prospect of several decades with nothing to do, now that she is bereft of that role as wife and mother which filled most of her life. And living with her, in a tranquil acceptance of old age and approaching death, is Mrs. Hilary’s own eighty-four-year-old mother.

In opposition to these characters, we have Mrs. Hilary’s other daughter Nan, who is thirty-three and must decide whether to marry the idealistic, public-spirited Barry Briscoe and settle down to life in earnest or continue to lead an existence “without roots.” Meanwhile, Nan’s earnest and socially-conscious twenty-year-old niece Gerda falls in love with Barry, seriously jeopardizing her aunt’s newly-realized feelings for Barry. And it is on the basis of  this unique romantic triangle that the main drama of the book unfolds.

It is only fair to say that the book does not function terribly well as a novel per se–there is far too much predictable melodrama in the Nan-Barry-Gerda department, and the Nan-Mrs. Hilary episode which should form the story’s climax feels both dramatically insufficient and overly talky. One feels that Macaulay was driven to chose so hackneyed a plot either for lack of more original ideas or due to an inability to find a better way to contrast the two youngest women in their quest for happiness. Yet strangely enough, the characters do remain vivid and well-realized, even when they are rather obviously symbols of different approaches to or stages of life (Barry and Gerda being the two most obvious instances of this). Several minor characters are also well-drawn and memorable; these include Rosalind, Mrs. Hilary’s very modern and morally dubious daughter-in-law, who “looked a superb and altogether improper creature, like Lucrezia Borgia or a Titian madonna.”

Yet the true heart of the novel, its best parts and most sharply realized scenes, are mainly concerned with Mrs. Hilary, upon whom Macaulay trains the formidable battery of her satire. There is pathos in Mrs. Hilary’s incurable egotism, her fierce, possessive love for her children, and her ridiculous jealousy of their love for others; but Macaulay misses no chance to convey the comedy also present in the situation . Mrs. Hilary’s self-adoration and desperate search for meaning lead her into the dark and fashionable embrace of psychoanalysis, after having rejected such unsatisfactory alternatives as God and good works:

Mrs. Hilary passed a church. Religion. Some people found help there. But it required so much of you, was so exhausting in its demands. Besides, it seemed infinitely far away–an improbable, sad, remote thing, that gave you no human comfort. Psycho-analysis was better; that opened gates into a new life. “Know thyself,” Mrs. Hilary murmured, kindling at the prospect. Most knowledge was dull, but never that.

After Mrs. Hilary, Neville is probably the most interesting of the women whose “dangerous ages” are examined during the course of the novel. It is in the case of Neville that the strongly humanist side of Macaulay emerges. Feminists have often claimed Macaulay as their own, but it may be that Macaulay is less easily classified than that. She does not seem to deny the validity or worth of traditional female roles in the life of a woman (i.e., those of wife and mother), but she does not believe that a woman should be restricted by them to the ultimate detriment of her intellectual dimension. Indeed, it is here that Macaulay is most in line with such illustrious forebears as George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte, who also insisted on women’s need for an intellectual and mentally rewarding life. Neville’s attempts to find a new path in life include the book’s clearest declaration of Macaulay’s creed, one which acknowledges the evils of life and the dangers of each stage but insists on the need to push onwards and accomplish one’s best work:

To be aimless: to live on emotions and and be by them consumed: that was pitiful. To have done one’s work for life, and to be in return cast aside by life like a broken tool: that was tragic.

The thing was to defy life; to fly in the face of of the fool nature, break her absurd rules, and wrest out of the breakage something for oneself by which to live at the last.

The five women in Dangerous Ages may choose wisely or foolishly, but they are ultimately bound by no restrictions of gender or convention which cannot be overriden by native intelligence and integrity; Macaulay is aware of the difficulties imposed by “the fool nature” upon every person, but she remains confident that those who wish to succeed will be those who are capable of aligning their personal desires with some worthy use of their talents. Yet her grasp of the ludicrous side of this eternal quest adds a joyous wit to her work, lifting it above didacticism and placing it in the ranks of comedy.

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