Potterism by Rose Macaulay

Reviewed by Hayley Anderton

Handheld Press are fast becoming my favourite independent press. Their book choices are consistently interesting, their editions well produced with particularly good introductions. I’m also going to take a moment to recommend a Handheld gift voucher or book as a present; they will send beautifully wrapped books to or for you, and if the Shiny editors will bear with me, the newsletter is informative too, and frequently alerts you to either to special offers, or slightly battered books which are being sold at a discount.  

I have tried and failed to get very far with Rose Macaulay in the past, giving up halfway through The Towers of Trebizond in an edition that didn’t come with an introduction. I honestly think any older book should have some sort of introduction, and that Macaulay not only deserves some context, but needs it. She isn’t the sort of pleasantly fluffy writer the blurb in the backs of some of her books had led me to expect, and Potterism was much easier to read armed with an idea of what was coming. This edition provides that context, with a particularly valuable discussion on the way anti-Semitism is handled in the book. Some of the language is deliberately shocking and both Sarah Lonsdale’s introduction,and Kate Macdonald’s notes are useful for unravelling that. I suppose this could be seen as a sort of spoiler, and to be fair by the time you’ve finished the book you can probably work out Macaulay’s position, but as my experience has been that without the foresight you don’t necessarily finish the book I’ll take the mild spoilers every time. 

For a book written in 1920, it’s almost startling how relevant Potterism still is in the ways that it presents the press, the opportunities available to women (compared to men) and racism. Johnny and Jane Potter are twins, the children of a successful self-made newspaper owner and his wife, who writes successful sentimental novels. They both go to Oxford where they fall in with a crowd who stand against everything the Potter press represents, and to the amusement of Mr Potter happily join them.

Of the two, Jane is the more intelligent, but as a woman her opportunities are curtailed. The twins are also greedy for the good things, and the good times in life that their more idealistic friends are perhaps not – but then as all of them come from financially comfortable backgrounds they can afford their idealism. Jane is also the heroine of Potterism whilst Johnny is almost a bit player, his purpose mostly consisting of being someone for Jane to measure and compete against

The book is broken down into a series of sections with different narrators – RM who sits outside the story and reports it, a section for each of the Potter twins’ closest friends, and one by their mother, Leila Yorke. It’s also built around a sort of whodunnit and a couple of love stories – the whodunnit is a fun way of exploring the different personalities Macaulay has presented us with rather than a serious thing in itself. The love stories (although that’s possibly a misleading description) are perhaps rather more central, but not I think by much.

The consistent theme throughout is satire against the popular press, and against the dangerous hypocrisy of people like Leila Yorke, whose prejudices and privilege’s threaten to do real harm to all around her. Her section is both funny – as Macaulay really satirises her character – and terrifying. The reason to read Potterism, though, is that it’s far more than the sum of its parts. It’s slyly funny, perceptive, clever, compelling, relevant – everything you might want to read over a lazy weekend.

It’s also full of razor sharp observations, which makes it a book I want to re-read (possibly with a pencil for some underlining) with attention to tease out some of the things Macaulay has to say for more lengthy consideration. Which is the hallmark of a Handheld book – they all have a lot going on just under the surface. In this case that includes some observations about the first world war, and its poets, from a 1920 perspective, which seem almost iconoclastic compared to the way we’re now taught think, mostly based on work which came substantially later than 1920.

There’s also Jane who is the sort of main character I love. She’s imperfect to the point of being arguably hard to like. She scoops the man her sister has fallen in love without perhaps even realising how much her sister would mind – not that Jane would be likely to care much if she did. She’s a woman who wants to have her good time, and very little is going to stop her grabbing for it, and there aren’t really enough women in fiction like this who can be seen as heroines rather than villains. Just as the men in her life find Jane unexpectedly attractive, so do I.

With Potterism I’m also hugely grateful that I finally get the enthusiasm around Macaulay that others have and that I’ve previously lacked. I don’t know if I’ll become a huge fan – the new edition of Dangerous Ages from the British Library Women’s fiction series (reviewed here) will probably determine that. Sarah Lonsdale’s introduction tells me that both are part of a body of five works that are worth considering together so it’s also something of a bonus that they’ve both come back into print at the same time.

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Hayley blogs at Desperate Reader.

Rose Macaulay, Potterism, (Handheld Press, 2020). 978-1912766338, 247pp., paperback.

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