Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Dangerous Ages - Rose Macaulay

After enjoying 'O, The Brave Music' so much it felt like a good time to read Rose Macaulay's 'Dangerous Ages' - another book that I've been carrying around with me from pillar to post (or maybe more accurately, pillow to pillow) since late last summer. I was filled with enthusiasm for it after reading 'Potterism' after years of being not especially bothered about Macaulay. Other books kept getting in the way though.

'Dangerous Ages' is interesting. It takes an upper middle class family and looks at them primarily via Grandmamma - who is I think 84, her daughter, Mrs Hilary who is 63, her eldest daughter Neville - the book opens on her 43rd birthday, her youngest daughter, Nan who is 33, and Neville's daughter, Gerda, who is 20. There is another sister, Pamela, a daughter in law that everybody hates, and a variety of male characters who both do and don't matter. The men are prizes to be won, something to be measured against, jobs to be done, there to be loved, or missed - central to everybody's life apart from Pamela's, and perhaps Grandmamma's but of limited in their own right.

To be strictly accurate neither Grandmamma or Gerda are particularly significant in their own right either. Grandmamma mostly observes, and Gerda - I might have a different view of her if I'd read this book 20 years ago, but she's something of a blank. Young, pretty, privileged, and self absorbed in the way that only that combination allows. Mrs Hilary is similarly self absorbed, but at 63 it invokes impatience rather than being seen as charming.

It's Nan and Neville who are really interesting as middle age comes for both of them. For Neville it's a mix of personal vanity and lack of immediate purpose - she gave up medical school where she excelled to marry when she was 21. Now her children are grown, her husbands political career is thriving, and she wants to excel again. 

At 43 her capacity for learning has dimmed though, and that personal vanity doesn't want to accept second best, or merely being useful. I'm very much of an age to feel the truth of Macaulay's observations about Neville. Everything is much harder work, be it mentally or physically. Illnesses take longer to recover from, you start to need lists or you forget things, and it's very easy to be distracted. Not least because as Neville finds whilst family might not need you enough for it to be the job that raising small children is, the demands don't entirely cease and responsibility for the older generation creeps up on you.

For Nan it's about facing the compromises that youth has no conception of and the bitter pill of realising that she's lost an opportunity that she had taken for granted. For both women there's the fear of turning into their mother. Mrs Hilary takes up Freudian psycho-analysis - mostly for the pleasure of having someone listen to her for an hour twice a week. It's nicely handled - Macauley consistently mocks Freudian ideas, especially as they relate to sex - Pamela's calm happiness in her relationship with another woman certainly gives a different perspective on everybody else's unhappiness about the men around them. She does not mock Mrs Hilary's loneliness or boredom even as she shines a less than flattering light on it. 

What is a bored woman on the edge of old age (certainly for 1921) to do with herself as a not especially well off widow? She doesn't have much in common with her children or her mother, or much interest in good works as a way of keeping busy. It's a bleak enough prospect with the uncomfortable, unspoken truth, that the same fate will not be waiting for her sons or son in laws.

The easy prosperity that all the extended family enjoys to some degree is not easy to relate to right now, I don't quite understand why the brilliant and gifted Neville gave up on her studies (in what would have been about 1898) however much in love she was, and it feels like there's a reluctance to mention the War, which at times feels like a bit of a fudge - it feels much further away than the slightly less than 2 years the continued references to the summer of 1920 suggest - but in other ways it's almost incredible that a century has passed since this was published. It's an absorbing, witty, still truthful book that's been a joy to read (I'm really coming round to Macaulay). 


  1. The more praise I hear about this - and it has only been praise so far - the more intrigued I am to read not just it but also all of the other Macaulay reissues that are coming out from Handheld Press. Quite the Macaulay revival!

    1. I think I liked Potterism more - but only by a narrow margin and the two make really good companion reads as Macaulay explores a couple of the same themes in both books - mostly around a how youth can carry all before it. I really like the way she tackles all the complexities in human relationships too. Dangerous Ages feels like it would repay re reading. There's a lot going on in it and I'm sure I'd pick up on even more of it if I read it again.