Reviewed by Karen Langley
Rose Macaulay is mainly known for her 1956 novel The Towers of Trebizond; yet she was an astonishingly prolific writer, publishing her first novel in 1906 and producing poetry, biography and journalism as well. Virago published a number of her books in its Modern Classics range, and more recently her works have been reaching a new audience thanks to reissues by the British Library and, most notably, Handheld Press. The latter have been championing Macaulay and I was happy to cover her What Not back in 2019. However, 2020 has seen them reissue not only Potterism (which has been covered elsewhere on Shiny), but also a new volume collecting together a number of Macaulay’s writings on a particular theme.
The book is Non-Combatants and Others and the subtitle Writings Against War, 1916-1945 will give you more than a hint about the content. Non-Combatants and Others is a novel, first published in 1916; the volume also contains Macaulay’s journalism between 1936 and 1945, covering the rise of fascism and responses to the Second World War; and also included is a short story set in the Blitz, Miss Anstruther’s Letters. It’s an impressive collection, and as well as giving a fascinating overview of Macaulay’s views on war, it also makes marvellous reading.
“Painting and war don’t go together.”
Looking at the novel first, it’s an amazingly groundbreaking piece of work, the first anti-war novel to be published in the UK actually during the First World War itself. The non-combatants of the title are those who’ve stayed at home while the soldiers have gone to fight, whether because they’re female, or not well enough to do battle, or, indeed, they object. Central to the story is Alix Sandomir, an artist living in the country with her aunt and cousins; her father, a Polish liberationist, perished in a Russian prison, and her mother Daphne is a militant woman, travelling round the world and campaigning for peace. Alix has a limp, owing to an illness, and walks with a stick; and as well as being physically restricted, she is somewhat emotionally detached. Unwilling or unable to mentally engage with the realities of what’s happening in the conflict, she moves up to London to lodge with distant cousins at their house, “Violette”. Her argument is that she’ll be closer to her art school, but in reality she’s stifling in the countryside, surrounded by relatives doing war work.
“Those were curious days, those old days before August 1914; or rather it was the days ever since that were curious and like a nightmare. Before that life was of a reality, a sanity, an enduringness, a beauty.”
However, the move to “Violette” is not necessarily a beneficial one. Although Alix is able to catch up with old friends, including a fellow artist Basil, who’s wounded and back from the fighting, the denizens of “Violette” bring their own problems. The matriarch, Mrs. Frampton, is very conventional; her eldest daughter Kate is prim beyond belief; and younger sister Evie will help to bring heartache to Alix.
“War’s an insanity; and insane things, purely destructive, wasteful, hideous, brutal, ridiculous things, aren’t what makes art.”
So Alix tries to live as normal a life as possible; visits her brother Nicholas who lodges with his friend the Rev. West; tries to have days out with friends; and is constantly prey to her emotions. Alix, it must be said, is a nervy girl; and whilst nowadays we would recognise the physical effects her mental state is having on her, back then it does seem as if these were glossed over. There is a selfishness about her, a refusal to think past her own needs and wants, and this is perhaps born of her nervous state. Inevitably, however, as 1915 progresses, events come to a head: Alix witnesses the effects the conflict has had on some people; experiences great tragedy; and is reunited with her mother, the latter still on a quest to save the world. As the year comes to the end, how will Alix decide to approach 1916, and what changes will the new year bring to all the non-combatants?
I think it was remarkably brave of Macaulay to publish this book so early in the war, and it really is a most powerful polemic novel. By necessity, because she’s trying to convey a particular viewpoint, there are sections devoted to the promotion of ideas and it’s fascinating to watch the various characters explore their feelings on the war and how to get past this cataclysmic conflict which is tearing the world and human beings apart. However, as well as this aspect, Non-Combatants is incredibly readable, beautifully written, and often desperately moving and heartbreaking. The truths about the conditions under which the men were fighting are devastating; the descriptions of the effects on those sent home are painful; and witnessing the tragic losses experienced by some of the characters tears you up inside. The First World War was a war like no other had been, and that’s clear here too.
The characterisation is particularly impressive, as Macaulay captures brilliantly all shades of opinion and personality. The suffering soldiers are poignantly portrayed; then there are the ordinary people trying to carry on their everyday lives, believing everything they read in the papers; the intellectual and religious figures trying to make sense of it all; and in the centre of it all the non-combatant Alix. Much about her is perhaps symbolic: her nerviness, her limp and her non-conformity, all of which is in sharp contrast to Evie Tucker, who is beautiful but, I would argue, ultimately shallow. I was very taken with Daphne, Alix’s mother, and glad that she came back into Alix’s life at a crucial point in the book. Non-Combatants is a gripping and involving book from start to finish and a wonderful insight into the world of 1915.
“Education in world affairs is as important as in national affairs; incidentally, it is immeasurably more exciting. Lack of it is, I think, the most serious lack in the BBC today, at one of the most important and fateful hours of history. There seems to be no adequate reason for it.”
As for the rest of the contents, the various non-fiction pieces also made fascinating reading. Starting in 1936, we follow Macaulay through the latter part of that decade, as she witnesses fascism on the rise, not only overseas, but potentially in the UK, as she visits a rally held by Mosley. The Spanish Civil War creeps in; discussions of human nature and neutrality in wartime; and post-war morals. It’s clear that Macaulay was strongly against extremism and conflict, and the pieces are still very, very relevant.
The final entry, Miss Anstruther’s Letters is a quietly devastating short story, set in the Blitz. Published in 1942, it tells of the loss of Miss Anstruther’s flat in the Blitz; her life has been destroyed with her possessions, but as the story progresses it’s revealed why that loss has had so much effect on her. More I shall not say for fear of spoiling your reading experience but apparently the story is particularly poignant because it drew on elements of Macaulay’s own life.
The combined effect of all these different works is powerful, and reading the book I was convinced even more that we as a human race need to learn tolerance and understanding, and also how to rein in our leaders. Non-Combatants really brings home the devastation of war, something we haven’t seen at close quarters in the UK for some time; and it’s a chilling reminder of how easy it is for a country to slip into right wing intolerance with all the awful consequences that brings. The book comes with useful notes by publisher Kate Macdonald, and an interesting introduction by Jessica Gildersleeve; however, I would urge you to read this after you’ve finished the book, as it does discuss plot elements of the fictions in some detail. Reading Rose Macaulay’s writings against war is an emotional and stirring experience; this volume is a wonderful collection and an excellent reminder, if we needed it, of just what a fine writer she was.
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and is more and more concerned lately at how the present is coming to resemble the past.
Rose Macaulay, Non-Combatants and Others (Handheld Books, 2020). 978-1912766307 300pp., paperback.
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