Introduced by Sarah Lonsdale with notes by Kate Macdonald
Reviewed by Karen Langley
The name of Rose Macaulay is not one that will necessarily be well known to the casual reader nowadays. Prolific and extremely popular during her day, she’s one of those women writers of the twentieth century who’ve perhaps become marginalized; there are whole movements involved in trying to reinstate these authors to their proper position, and so the latest release from Handheld Press is particularly welcome. Macaulay’s works have been reissued by Virago in the past; but What Not hasn’t seen the light of day since 1919 and looking back one hundred years it’s hard to understand why, as it’s a book of enormous prescience and undeniable influence, one that should have been recognised a long time ago.
What Not is subtitled “A Prophetic Comedy” and is set just after World War I. Initially, the setting seems fairly straightforward, until there is mention of an aero bus; and then when it is revealed that the heroine, Kitty Grammont, works in the Ministry of Brains, it soon becomes clear that this is not 1918 as we know it… As a response to the stupidity which caused the war to break out, the Government have formed a Ministry of Brains which is attempting to enforce mental improvement in the populace, as well as classifying everyone according to brainpower and accordingly restricting their ability to marry and breed. This is causing all sorts of problems, from abandoned (and disposed of off camera) babies, high taxation on “idiot children” and unrest amongst the general public. Despite the latter having accepted all manner of controls during the War, it may be that the Government have taken a step too far this time.
Things are complicated by Kitty’s relationship with her boss, Nicholas Chester; because the latter is the Minister for Brains but owing to the fact that he has a sister with learning difficulties and parents who were cousins, he’s uncertificated for breeding purposes. As he and Kitty are very much in love, this presents a major problem and puts the couple in the position of having to eschew each other for the sake of their work and principles, or throw everything up and marry whatever the result. Mix in a hysterical gutter press (sounds familiar, that), Kitty’s complicated family set-up and all manner of rumblings amongst ordinary people and you have a bit of a recipe for rioting in the streets! But will love prevail over all else?
I should say first of all that the subtitle wasn’t lying when it described the book as a comedy; it is indeed very funny and I found myself laughing out loud in places. I could have pulled out any number of witty quotes, but they’re probably better read in context. However, although it’s light in tone, What Not tackles all manner of serious issues from whether government should be controlling all levels of people’s personal lives to the role of the press in the running of the country. It also takes any number of satirical swipes at how easily the population can be controlled and will accept whatever privations are thrown their way with a shrug of resignation.
“No; Britons do not look ahead. They Come Through, instead.”
However where it excels is capturing the mental mood of the nation after the horrors of the First World War. Macaulay was writing the book during the final few months of that War, and there is an underlying anger at the mindless slaughter and the stupidity which allows such a conflict to start in the first place and cause so much devastation. The timing of the writing of the book is crucial to its tone; I sensed resonances with the hidden desperation of Stella Benson’s This is the End; and was reminded in tone of the oddness and flippancy of Stella Gibbons’ later Cold Comfort Farm.
The dominant subject, I suppose, is the eugenics question; and as the excellent introduction by Sarah Lonsdale discusses, it was a subject much in vogue at the time. No-one could have foreseen where the idea of breeding a better human would be taken by the scientists of the Third Reich; but even in this book there are some disturbing concepts. As Lonsdale points out, Macaulay is not without her contradictions. It seems to be a characteristic of her work that she never takes a definite position on an issue, and her view here on the eugenics issue seems fuzzy; at times the book reads as if she’s making a case for a brave new world of engineered and perfect humans.
“Always there was that sense in the background of a possible great disaster, of dancing on the world’s thin crust that had broken once and let one through, and might break again. Its very thinness, its very fragility added a desperate gaiety to the dance.”
That’s perhaps understandable; after all, after the shock of the First World War, society had changed forever and nobody really knew quite where things were going. Nevertheless, several of the viewpoints espoused made me uncomfortable; I’ve worked over the years with children of varying abilities and intelligence, and although we might rue the fact that life is difficult for those with issues, could we allow a Government to have so much power that they could control the personal elements of our lives to that extent? I don’t think so, because we’ve seen where that kind of thinking leads; and in the end the public in What Not decide that enough is enough. At least all the ambiguity gives the reader a chance to make up her own mind…. 😀
As for the characters in the story, they’re a lovely and entertaining bunch. I was particularly fond of Kitty’s brother Cyril and his one-liners, as well as her brother Anthony, his partner Poppy and their baby “The Cheeper”. The affair between Chester and Kitty is actually very sweetly done, and I was glad to see it resolve the way it did. Lonsdale is critical of Chester’s hypocrisy, but I found that quite believable and human; we’re often quite happy to proclaim high-faluting principles but introduce the personal element and mostly they go out the window.
As I mentioned at the start of my review, What Not has been out of print for 100 years which is criminal, particularly because of the pioneering nature of its fiction. Eugenics were, of course, at the root of Huxley’s Brave New World and the latter was apparently a frequent guest at Macaulay’s flat while she was writing What Not. And the element of weird Ministries and Government control does, of course, presage Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Definitely, What Not deserves a place in the canon of utopian/dystopian literature.
However, to look at it only in terms of books it may have influenced is to do it an injustice. What Not is funny, entertaining, profound and thought-provoking. Its clear-eyed view of the hypocrisy of politicians, preaching one thing and doing the complete opposite themselves, is as relevant as ever. As a reaction against the horror and stupidity of war, it’s a powerful piece of writing which deserves a much wider audience than it’s had, and Handheld Press are to be congratulated for bringing it back into print in this lovely edition.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and thinks the personal wins out against the political every time.
Rose Macaulay, What Not (Handheld Press, 2019). 978-1912766031, 195pp, paperback.BUY at the Book Depository (affiliate link)