Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal, by Sarah LeFanu

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Review by Helen Parry

Reconstructing anyone’s life poses enormous difficulties, for however copious the evidence of letters, diaries, journals, and eye-witness accounts, the problem of interpretation remains, the problem of the subjectivity of witnesses, and of the basic contradictoriness of the human being. Moods and emotions are volatile, but when recorded on the page are often forced by posterity to carry a much greater weight than was ever intended by their author.

This is the journal Sarah LeFanu kept while writing her biography of Rose Macaulay twenty years ago. You might be thinking, ‘I don’t know much about Rose Macaulay and I haven’t read the biography of her; Dreaming of Rose is obviously not for me’. You might be thinking this but you would be very wrong. Thinking this would be to risk missing out on a fascinating exploration of the making of a biography. If writing about writing is as much catnip to you as it is to me, then Dreaming of Rose is obviously for you too.

For those of us with a limited knowledge of Rose Macaulay, LeFanu provides a preface to Dreaming of Rose outlining her life; it is bolstered with a Macaulay family tree and some information about her published letters (of which more, later). Macaulay was a prolific novelist, essayist, travel-writer and poet. Born in 1881, she seems to have been friends with half of literary London, including her contemporaries the Bloomsberries (on reading her correspondence with Leonard Woolf, who published a number of her books, LeFanu is forced to conclude that Macaulay was ‘the ultimate author from hell’):

She would sign a contract that included US rights, and promptly promise the same rights to another publisher, leaving Leonard Woolf to sort it out; she ‘couldn’t remember’ delivery dates; she would demand that Woolf send her proofs to places all over Italy and Sicily, places from which she had already departed.)

as well as with Elizabeth Bowen, Walter de la Mare, Dorothy L. Sayers, etc. etc.

LeFanu is drawn to Macaulay for ‘the “queer hidden selves” of her writing life’, the ‘playfulness’ that coexisted with the ‘scholarly sobriety’, and in particular by the way she managed to organise a successful writing career around a secret love affair with a married man and former Catholic priest – what we might now call ‘cakeism’, since she was able to enjoy the pleasures of love without the drudgery of domesticity. This love affair was only revealed by the posthumous publication of letters Macaulay wrote in old age to a priest expressing her guilt at her ‘sin’; all so scandalous that an embargo was then placed upon the original letters. Dreaming of Rose ends with LeFanu describing how she finally read them, almost ten years after her biography of Macaulay had been published. Why were they embargoed? What secret do they protect?

But Dreaming of Rose is not a biography of Rose Macaulay; it is LeFanu’s journal of her writing life during the research and drafting of the biography. It is a sort of detective story, the piecing together of Macaulay and her life from scraps of paper and faded photographs, and a ghost story, pursuing an insubstantial version of someone who has long gone. LeFanu details trips to libraries and archives where she immerses herself in collections of letters (always a relief when they’re typewritten not hand-scrawled) and unpublished memoirs, and microfiches which make her ‘horribly nauseous’. With Barbara Reynolds, biographer of Dorothy L. Sayers, she speculates that Aunt Dot in The Towers of Trebizond may have been modelled on DLS herself. She tracks down people who have, stuffed in boxes or plastic bags in their attics, Macaulay letters, and drinks martinis and cups of tea with them. She finds odd anecdotes. She dreams of Rose. She visits places where Macaulay lived, as well as, of course, Trebizond:

Rose was seventy-two when she was here, imagining all this. And here I am, chasing her ghost […] the ghost of a complex, secretive, ageing woman, brave, insouciant and alone.
In a way I feel closer to her here than I ever do to her in London, or Cambridge. Is it perhaps easier to glimpse the fleeting figure of your subject across all the intervening years if they themselves are on the move, disconnected, unmoored from their quotidian, as the biographer is from hers?

She drafts, and doubts herself, and drafts again. Interwoven with her work on the biography are other aspects of her professional life: she writes radio plays and does work for BBC Radio 4, and she teaches creative writing. Her chimney catches fire. She discovers Rose was a terrible driver. She thinks about her own family. She ponders on ‘her’ Rose, alongside other Roses. It is all utterly absorbing; I was hardly able to put it down.

Part of the biographical urge comes from wanting to experience the world as someone else experienced it, seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Doesn’t it?

Inevitably, LeFanu considers the nature of biography. She must come to terms with its moral dilemmas, as all biographers must. Can you pin a person down? Is it ever justified to pry into someone’s private life? In the case of Macaulay, this dilemma is heightened because she specifically asked for her letters to be destroyed. Yet her sister and cousin decided that she didn’t really ‘mean’ this, and published those ‘confessional’ ones. Had they followed the lead given by Byron’s publisher, John Murray, and destroyed them, that affair and that whole important aspect of Macaulay’s life would have remained a secret for ever. Would that have been right? Do artists and novelists give up the right to privacy that the rest of us enjoy after death? There can be no final answers to any of these questions.

And so I recommend this unusual and fascinating book to you, fragmentary record of two writers’ lives, a biographer’s search for her ghostly subject.

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Helen Parry blogs at a gallimaufry.

Sarah LeFanu, Dreaming of Rose: A Biographer’s Journal (Handheld Press, 2021). 978-1912766529, 224 pp., paperback.

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    1. I’ve just seen your lovely post about Rose Macaulay on the Ramblings – how exciting that so much of her work is being republished!

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