21 OCTOBER 1972, Page 15

Learning from experience

Storm Jameson

Rose Macaulay Constance Babington Smith (Collins 0.25).

Few writers attract from their contemporaries the same mindful attention, interest, affection, for their human qualities as they do for their work, unless they happen to involve themselves in scandal or tragedy. Rose Macaulay did, does still. This is the more unlikely in that there was something not wholly human in her temperament. She could disconcert suddenly by the sense that she was observing and judging by some habit of thought, some measure, not quite that of the society she happened to be moving in. There was a slight gap between her intense curiosity about human beings and her dispassionate view of their surprising ways — the two never quite met. Anatole France might have cast her for one of his rebellious angels, detached, searching, amused. She looked like one, too, with her short curled hair, quick movements and sexless elegance.

Every quality she had was paired by its opposite. She took an unceasing delight in parties, hating to miss one, even unpromising, yet needed solitude and sought it in religious retreats and long journeys taken alone. A patient scholarly researcher shared her skin with the author not only of mocking, even derisive comedies but with a popular journalist able to be easily and wittily sensible on the most trivial subjects. To less than intimate friends she gave an impression of being essentially cool, poised, incisive, capable of administering formidable snubs, and almost everyone who knew her cherishes at least one comment so lethal that it took the hearer's breath away. Cruelty is not the right word for these retorts; they were rather the flash of a blade splitting a less than tolerable pretension, or, sometimes, a defensive gesture. (" I always hope that victims beneath the ruins are a little stupefied by their odd predicament, and don't feel their position quite so acutely as one might suppose... ") And they played like lightning over the surface of depths of compassion and gentleness. She was Physically fastidious without softness,

accepting any discomfort, any danger, as a -member of an ambulance unit during the blitz and on the journeys she took alone, in Spain when she was sixty-ix, in Turkey when she was seventy-five.

A great virtue of Constance Babington Smith's quietly-written biography is that the figure of Rose stands out vividly and changing, against the carefully detailed background. The child born into a cultivated upper-middle-class family in Victorian England, taken to Italy when she was six and living there with contented delight until her fifteenth year, began her life as a writer during the years before 1914, in that brief interval when a new age of freedom and social progress seemed just round the corner, to be touched by an outstretched hand. An undergraduate friendship with Rupert Brooke opened doors to her in literary London, in the lively well-mannered circle which had formed round the editor of the Saturday Westminster, Naomi RoydeSmith. Very quickly, rather too quickly for her hostess and friend, she became its bright centre. But — it was characteristic of her — gayly conscious as she was of the new freedoms offered to her, she continued dutifully to divide her life between London and a mother living in Beaconsfield who often irritated and vexed her by unacceptable demands. She was forty-four, the author of fourteen novels for which the epithet ' brilliant ' had become obligatory, when her mother's death set her free to establish herself finally in London and her chosen world of hard work, travel, social triumph.

Before this happened her life had changed, deeply. Miss Babington Smith's account of the love affair Rose kept a secret from all but her closest friends can displease no one. Moreover it would have been absurd to evade or make little of it; it was the most profound emotional event in her life, and without the experience she would have been a lesser writer. She was thirty-seven when she met Gerald Donovan in the course of her war work at the Ministry of Information; he was forty-five, married, with children, and a divorce not possible. It was stronger in her than her strong religious beliefs; to be "living in mortal sin " (her own words) cut her off from the church, from her reliance on confession, from Communion. She accepted habits of secrecy and secret travels that, if they offended her honesty, left her absorbed happiness untouched. And — cruelly and undeniably — the agony of her lover's death in 1942 cut down to a so far unreached or inactive level of her mind, as only grief can — when the mind is still young enough to stand the operation. What the woman suffered, the writer learned from.

Her finest novels were written after this. The first of them, The World My Wilderness, has a maturity and penetration, a sureness of understanding of human nature, much beyond that shown in the novel many critics think her best: They Were Defeated has the qualities of a brilliant tour de force; what it lacks is precisely what the later novel had, the sense that a living mind, that of the writer of the 'thirties, is rethinking, re-enacting, the thoughts and gropings of men and

women of the seventeenth century: a depth Is missing. Her non-fiction, too, written between 1946 and 1953, the two books on Portugal and Spain, the long and splendidly moving Pleasure of Ruins, have a richness and an energy quite unlike and infinitely more satisfying than the liveliness, sardonic gaiety, wit of earlier work in which the energy is more a product of well-mannered high spirits than of spirit.

Her return to the Church, to Christian practice, was no easy slipping into an old comfortable coat; it exacted a mental effort repaid in a serenity that saw her through the rest of her life. Her sudden quiet death in October 1958 was, for her, a final mercy, the swift end she had hoped for. For others it was the silencing of a voice never more needed that it now is. We need her instinctive respect for the of ordinary human beings, and we need the sharp edge of laughter and contempt she would have turned against the fathomless vulgarity and shoddiness, material and intellectual, of our age.

.Constance Balaington Smith's book will be indispensible in future appraisements of Rose Macaulay. Having with a wholly admirable candour and politeness, politesse de coeur, given us a portrait of Rose as she lived, smiled, wept, learned, worked, her biographer stands quietly aside, leaving us alone with the writer of The World My Wilderness, Trebizond, and Pleasure of Ruins.