Friday, August 21, 2020

Potterism A Tragi-Farcical Tract - Rose Macaulay

Handheld Press are fast becoming my favourite independent press. Their choices are consistently interesting, and their editions well produced with particularly good introductions. I'm also impressed by Judith, who chases me up when I've had a review copy and asks me when I'm going to hand in my homework  I don't know how thankless a task that is, but as a born procrastinator her polite enquiries have been a welcome prod. I'm also going to take a moment to recommend a Handheld gift voucher or book as a present. They will send beautifully wrapped books for you, and I'd be delighted if anybody chose to give me a voucher (not least because I've got my eye on British Weird at the moment and there will be more things on their list before I know it).

Much as when I first read the Handheld edition of Sylvia Townsend Warner's 'Kingdoms of Elfin' I had tried and failed to get very far with Rose Macaulay in the past. I got halfway through 'The Towers of Trebizond', which looks like it was her last book, and when I bought  it more or less the only one in print and easily available, before losing interest. I have a couple of old Virago modern Classics editions looking hopeful on a shelf as well, and the British Library's reissue of 'Dangerous Ages' (which arrived more or less the same time as 'Potterism') which I'm now considerably more enthusiastic about.

My edition of 'The Towers of Trebizond' doesn't have an introduction which is a shame, Macaulay deserves some context, she isn't the sort of pleasantly fluffy writer the blurb in the back of that book led me to expect. Handheld's 'Potterism' provides all of that, with a particularly valuable discussion on the way anti-semitism is handled in the book. Some of the language is deliberately shocking and both Sarah Lonsdale's introduction, and Kate Macdonald's notes are useful for unraveling that.

Written in 1920 it's almost startling how relevant this book still is in the ways that it presents the press, the opportunities available to women (compared to men) and racism - in this case particularly anti-semitism. Johnny and Jane Potter are twins, the children of a successful self made newspaper owner and his wife - who writes successful sentimental novels. They both go to Oxford where they fall in with a crowd who stand against everything the Potter press represents, and to the amusement of Mr Potter happily join them.

Of the two, Jane is the more intelligent, but as a woman her opportunities are curtailed. The twins are also greedy for the good things, and good times, in life that their more idealistic friends are perhaps not - but then as all of them come from financially comfortable backgrounds they can afford their idealism.

The book is broken down into a series of sections with different narrators - RM who sits outside the story and reports it, a section for each of the Potter twins closest friends, and one by their mother, Leila Yorke. It's also built around a sort of whodunnit and a couple of love stories - the whodunnit is a fun way of exploring the different personalities Macaulay has presented us with rather than a serious thing in itself. The love stories (although that's possibly a misleading description) are perhaps rather more central, but not I think by much.

The consistent theme throughout is satire against the popular press, and against the dangerous hypocrisy of people like Leila Yorke who's prejudices and privilege's threaten to do real harm to all around her. Her section is both hilarious and terrifying. The reason to read 'Potterism' though is that it's far more than the sum of it's parts. It's slyly funny, perceptive, clever, compelling, relevant - everything you might want to read over a lazy weekend.

It's also full of razer sharp observations which makes it a book I want to re read (possibly with a pencil for some underlining) with attention to tease out some of the things Macaulay has to say for more lengthy consideration. Which is the hallmark of a Handheld book - even something as seemingly light and frothy as 'Business as Usual' has a lot going on just under the surface. In this case that includes some observations about the first world war, and it's poets, from a 1920 perspective which seem almost iconoclastic compared to the way we're now taught think, mostly based on work which came substantially later than 1920.

With 'Potterism' I'm also hugely grateful that I finally get the enthusiasm around Macaulay that others have and that I've previously lacked. I don't know if I'll become a huge fan - 'Dangerous Ages' will probably determine that. Sarah Lonsdale's introduction tells me that both are part of a body of 5 works that are worth considering together which is a bonus.


  1. So glad you liked this one - people talk a lot about The Towers of Trebizond and The World My Wilderness, but I much prefer her stuff from the 1920s. So I hope that Dangerous Ages also works for you, and look forward to finding out :D

    1. I really liked it, and have gone from being interested in difficult ages to properly enthusiastic about reading it. I think you've said a few times that you didn't love 'Told by an Idiot' which is one of the others I've got, and The World my Wilderness didn't really grab me any more than Towers of Trebizond did when I tried to read it. After Potterism I might get on better with all of them though as it's alerted me to her general charm.

  2. I'm reading Dangerous Ages at the moment and started off really well, but I'm losing interest; there are longueurs! I think I'd have done better if I'd kept up momentum but I had to put it down for work and now I'm not interested enough to jump back in.

    1. That's why I was grateful for the push to read this one in a timely way. It might have been easy to put down, but mindful that I'd set a deadline I did keep up the momentum and was rewarded for it. I'm planning on reading dangerous ages soon and am feeling very hopeful about it - I'll try and be as disciplined about that too.