Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay

Reviewed by Harriet

Another very welcome addition to the new British Library Women Writers series, Dangerous Ages was published in 1921. It’s a fascinating novel because it is both a timeless treatment of relationships between four generations of women in the same family and an acute and revealing insight into the issues that people of that era were struggling with.

The ‘dangerous ages’ of the title are the twenties, thirties, forties, sixties and eighties. The first person we encounter is Neville (who, despite her masculine name, is a woman). It is a glorious June morning, and her forty-third birthday, and she wakes at five o’clock feeling great joy in her slim, strong and active body, happily forgetting that she had lain awake the night before, thinking ‘Another year gone, and nothing done yet. Soon all the years will be gone, and nothing ever will be done’. Of course Neville has done plenty, not least having raised her twins Gerda and Kay, who are now twenty-three. But she had been studying to be a doctor before she married and had the children, and now they are grown she is starting to regret the loss of a worthwhile career. Meanwhile she is in many ways the kingpin around which revolve both the younger and the older generations of her family. There are the twins, of course, and Gerda in particular: a rather ethereal beauty, she worries her mother because she has refused the chance to go to university and spends dreamy days absorbed in drawing and writing. Then there’s Neville’s younger sister Nan, at thirty-three a strong, independent woman writer; she ‘lives in rooms in Chelsea’, and has an admirer who wants to marry her, if only she could make up her mind to say yes. Neville’s mother, Mrs Hilary, is sixty-three (though she doesn’t look it).  Her family regard her with an amused affection. Essentially she is not very bright, though she likes to try to appear so. If anyone mentions a book they have been reading, she immediately claims to have read it, though nobody is fooled. Finally, there’s eighty-three year old Grandmamma, the only person who doesn’t agonise in various ways about life and its demands: she’s cherished and cared for, but happily goes her own way, pottering in the garden or sitting quietly in her comfortable armchair.

As the novel begins, all of these people (apart from Grandmamma, of course) are facing decisions in their lives. Gerda, out for a walk in the pouring rain with Nan’s admirer Barry Briscoe, makes a sudden decision to go to work in his London office, in which he manages the Worker’s Educational Association. She has no training in any kind of office work, but Barry agrees to give her a try. Nan, meanwhile, takes off for Cornwall on her own, to do some writing and to make a final decision about marrying Barry. Mrs Hilary becomes enthralled by ideas about the newly fashionable practice of psychoanalysis, and manages to arrange weekly meetings with a practitioner, with mixed results. And Neville decides to resume her medical studies, despite the discouragement of her husband Rodney:

“But,” Rodney said, “you don’t mean ever to practice, surely? You won’t have time for it, with all the other things you do.”

“It’s the other things I shan’t have time for, old man. Sorry, but there it is…It’s all along of mother, you see. She’s such an object-lesson in how not to grow old. If she’d been a doctor, now…”

“She couldn’t have been a doctor, possibly. She hasn’t the head. On the other hand, you’ve enough head to keep going without the slavery of a job like this, even when you’re old”.

“I’m not so sure. My brain isn’t what it was; it may soften altogether unless I do something with it before it’s too late….After all, Rodney, you’ve your job. Can’t I have mine?”

Meanwhile, perhaps predictably, Gerda and Barry have fallen in love. This is unfortunate for Nan, who, in her Cornish retreat, has finally made up her mind to accept him: when the twins and Barry join her for a walking holiday, she suffers mental agonies, which she is forced to conceal. But all is not plain sailing for Gerda and Barry, as he desperately wants to marry her, but she is convinced that marriage is an outdated institution and will have nothing to do with it. As a modern young woman, she is preoccupied with things that bemuse her mother: ‘Polygamy. Sex. Free love. Love in chains’. Neville thinks this is all absurd; at Gerda’s age, she and her friends were discussing ‘the Limitations of Personality, the Ethics of Friendship, and the Nature, if any, of God’. But Gerda is unwilling to sacrifice her principles just to make her mother and Barry happy.

Will Neville succeed in her medical studies? Will Gerda change her mind? If she does, will she be happy with Barry? Will Nan find a fulfilling future without Barry? Answers to some, at least, of these questions are forthcoming. But Macaulay teases the reader with not one, but two apparent endings – or at least the first one seems to be the ending but proves not to be. The final chapter – and I’m not giving anything away here – returns us to a character we met earlier but who we’ve almost certainly forgotten. This is Mrs Hilary’s other daughter Pamela, who has no part at all to play in the adventures of the rest of her family. She lives a quiet, contented life, on good terms with everyone: ‘keen, debonair and detached, ironic, cool and quiet, responsive to live and yet slightly disdainful of it’. Now we find her in conversation with Grandmamma. She’s philosophising about the fact that life is so short, it doesn’t seem worth making a fuss about it. Grandmamma is surprised that her granddaughter is expressing a view she herself has only held for about ten years.

“Age,” returned Pamela, negligent and cool, “has extremely little to do with anything that matters. The difference between one age and another is, as a rule, enormously exaggerated. How many years we’ve lived on this ridiculous planet – how many more we’re going to live – what a trifle! Age is a matter of extremely little importance”.

So yes, this is a fascinating book, enjoyable, intelligent, and thought-provoking. Macaulay is getting a well-deserved airing at the moment, with two more of her books from Handheld Press (Potterism is reviewed here). Watch this space!

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages (British Library, 2020). 978-0712367868, 214pp, paperback original.

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