Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Not a Bucket in Sight

It's always nice to feel oneself in like-minded company, so I was pleased (and not entirely surprised) to see that a lot of you felt the same way that I do about Catcher in the Rye. I rather think today's book will be more up your street...

Although I read Keeping Up Appearances (1928) by Rose Macaulay back in December (around the time I reviewed Crewe Train) I've recently been using it as part of an essay, so hopefully it'll be fresh in my mind... Those of you familiar with a certain BBC sitcom of the same name may recognise the reference in today's subject title - but while Hyacinth doesn't make an appearance, Macaulay's novel has similar ideas of class and how pretending to be above one's station will only end in complications...

The central characters of the novel are half-sisters Daisy and Daphne, who are worlds apart in character. Daphne is 25, a cultured intellectual who is never put-off by any situations, and moves through high society with ease and grace. Daisy, 30, is plagued by self-doubt and comes from rather commoner stock. Though she tries to engage in the same social circles as Daphne, and is far more snobbish and class-conscious, she has none of Daphne's confidence, bravery, and charm. She also lives in constant fear that her secret life as popular novelist Marjorie Wynne will be unearthed by the highbrows and intellectuals amongst whom she moves. But she realises that this isn't likely, as (when she tests the water) they seem completely unaware of Marjorie Wynne's existence. Macaulay uses these bits to satirise her own position as popular novelist (though one read by middlebrow and highbrow alike, I believe). In fact, throughout Macaulay's writings (including the novel of hers I've recently started, Staying With Relations) she is very teasing of novelists, and quite amusingly so. This, for instance, is in a collection of her essays called A Casual Commentary:
Novels are among the queerest things in a queer world. Chunks out of the imagined life of a set of imagined persons, set down for others to read. For this is what you have to produce if you are a novelist. You will find it quite easy. Anyone can write novels, and most people, at one time or another, do so. One novel is much like another, so you need not worry very much about what kind of novel to write.[…] The great advantage of writing novels is that some people read novels. They are not, on the whole, very clever people, so yours need not be clever novels, and, indeed, had better not be.

I read the Keeping Up Appearances as part of my research about the development of the concept of 'middlebrow', and it is a very interesting look at the interaction of different social strata, especially when it comes to literary circles and their inability to understand each other. It's also a lot about perspective - for example, Daisy considers her role from two different vantages:
Mother’s clever girl, earning her living by writing for the London papers, writing such bright, clever pieces, that people always liked to read. One of those vulgar little journalists who write popular feminine chit-chat in that kind of paper that caters for mob taste. Oh, what matter? She was either, according to her environment. Go to East Sheen, be Mother’s clever girl, petted and admired; go to the newspaper office, be one of the smart young women journalists, writing good live articles; move along Folyots and highbrows, and be as one not realised by nice highbrows, and only recognised by less nice highbrows as a target for unkindly jests.

Though Keeping Up Appearances isn't as funny as Crewe Train, nor quite as
memorable, it does present a clever idea. Because, dear reader, I haven't told you the central concept which surprises the reader and twists the interpretation completely, which comes about halfway through the novel. And I'm not going to, you'll have to read it yourself (carefully avoiding reading the blurb on the inside, if you have my edition - which is that pictured above. I don't know about you, but it reminded me of Picasso's The Three Dancers, left.)

Without giving that away, I can say little more - except that Rose Macaulay deserves a wider audience. Capuchin Classics have recently republished one of her novels, I believe, and perhaps other publishers will take up the baton. But there are plenty of secondhand copies available of Keeping Up Appearances and Crewe Train, and I daresay that libraries will have them - for a funny, clever, and well-written view of 1920s class issues and literary society, you can do no better.


7 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. Hi Simon, such a fascinating post. I love fiction where the novel and writing itself is discussed and will add Keeping Up Appearances to my Rose Macauley collection in due course. I would love to hear more about your research into the middlebrow concept, although I understand if you need a break from your study and don't want to mix business with pleasure too often! I know I've mentioned it before but you MUST MUST MUST read Towers of Trebizond before another year goes by. Not sure if will help your thesis but it is otherwise very you.

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  3. Aaaaaaccccckkkk! Your NOT telling the twist? That's mean. Now I've got to go hunt up a flyleaf on Amazon or somewhere. Of course, as would be expected, my little *lame* local library has nothing by this author.

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  4. I think you might enjoy E.F. Benson's Secret Lives if you haven't already read it, for its variation on this theme.

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  5. Thanks Kristi! My usual response - I have it, but I haven't read it! I've heard very good things about it from several people now, so I will unearth it...

    Susan - do try and find it, and keep yourself from reading the twist!

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  6. Have no fear, since it is out-of-print, I can't find a flyleaf anywhere in cyberspace -- yes, the internet does indeed have its limitations at times. :)

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  7. Such a dilemma. I have The Towers of Trebizond sitting here unread. Keeping Up Appearances, once I waded through all the DVD collections on amazon is not easily available in the US. But it sounds good. Do I read the one I happen to have or go on a hunt for this one? Decisions, decisions.

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