Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Dreaming of Rose - Sarah LeFanu

I haven't read Sarah LeFanu's biography of Rose Macaulay, either of the older biographies on her, half of the books by Rose Macaulay I own, or indeed any more than two of her many books. I haven't read any of Sarah LeFanu's other books either and am not generally a fan of biographies so this book should have been a hard sell. I am a big fan of Handheld Press though so when they suggested I might like to read it I said yes.

Dreaming of Rose is Sarah LeFanu's journal (or at least the edited version that she thought fit for publication) that she kept over the years that she wrote her Macaulay book - it ends in 2002 with an epilogue from 2012 when a previously sealed file of correspondence held in the Wren Library in Cambridge was opened. I'm not generally a fan of published journals either, but I loved this one which is clearly a whole lot of exceptions coming together to prove a rule. 

Part of the fascination is in following the process of writing a scholarly work - the ups and downs, negative and positive reactions from peers, and how you actually live whilst you're doing something like this. For LeFanu this isn't altogether easy as she juggles different contracts and part-time roles with the occasional grant that allows her to go further afield for her research. When she gets a really decent grant I was right there with her celebrating. 

Then there's the way that Rose gets into Sarah's dreams, hence the title of the book, and another indicator of how intense the process of writing a biography can be. Add to that the difficulty of dealing with living relatives, friends, and connections, and an idea of how all-consuming the process is becomes clear. People who are happy to help one day are not the next. There are doubts about how a family member might be seen, family legends that become questionable as a fuller picture emerges - and the difficulty of negotiating all of this when you need to maintain people's trust and goodwill.

Apart from her relationship with Rose, the portrait of Sarah is also beguiling. She had been an editor at the Women's Press for several years, worked for the BBC, and in academia, so there are odd bits of gossip to be picked up here that throw unexpected sidelights in names that are half-familiar, or that connect literary dots. It meant a lot of happy googling whilst I read and a few interesting avenues to explore later. 

There are also some interesting sidelights in upcoming Handheld books including Marjorie Grant's Latchkey Ladies - maybe I will need to read a Macauley biography, after all, it's certainly made me want to read more Macaulay - perhaps starting with Personal Pleasures, Essays on Enjoying Life (also just published by Handheld, and now I see they have Gerald O'Donovan's Vocations too, published a couple of years ago and I'm curious about that as well. Publishing Dreaming of Rose is clearly a smart marketing move!

Seriously though, it's a surprising page-turner with a lot to offer - including a sense of suspense - that I didn't really expect, and the final chapter about the potential revelations (or lack of them) in the newly opened file is fabulous. Absolutely worth reading if you're interested in Rose Macauley and her contemporaries, Sarah LeFanu (and her contemporaries), or the process of writing and what it takes. 


  1. I loved this too! It's a great book, isn't it? You get such a vivid picture of what it's actually like working on a biography.

    I was particularly charmed by her diffidence, and her care for the people she interviewed (it painted a very different picture of a biographer from the one in A.S. Byatt's novel, 'The Biographer's Tale'.

    1. Yes! A lot of things I hadn't really considered, but make a lot of sense when you stop and think about them - like people's hesitance in taking part, and how you get past unreliable family stories without offending people. Finding the hotel was a brilliant moment too - I could really share the excitement of it still being there and still having what looked like the same plates.

  2. Isn't it wonderful when a book defies all the bookish dislikes we usually have?

    1. They're not even dislikes, more a general lack of interest - which I find even harder to overcome than an actual dislike which I'm actively prepared to challenge. I put it down to Sarah LeFanu's personality that following her writing process and life whilst she wrote the book was so interesting. She's made me want to read and read and read.