“Why did not anything do?” Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

Crewe Train is the first novel by Rose Macaulay I’ve read. I can’t decide if it makes me want to read another! It was easy to read: the prose is brisk, the tone is lightly satirical, the characters and incidents are quirky but mostly engaging. It has something of the flat quality I’ve noticed in other non-modernist novels I’ve read from the twenties and thirties: everything’s just narrated in order, one thing after another, artlessly. Yet of course there is an art to this too: it’s just not an art that makes itself felt.

Crewe Train tells the story of Denham Dobie, the daughter of a widowed English clergyman who can’t stand chatter and sociability and so tries to find a place to live where he can avoid people who “insist on conversing with you.” Unfortunately for him, the English “cannot stay at home” and his quest for perfect peace is ruined by cheerful, well-meaning, annoying people who “insisted on making friends with him and his grave, square-faced, brown-legged girl.” They end up in Andorra: “enquiring about it, he ascertained that it was very difficult of access, being snowbound from November to May, and mountainous all the year round, and that the approach to it was by mule.” Promising as that sounds, Mr. Dobie nonetheless is still unable to cut himself off from life, and ends up remarried and drawn back into society in spite of himself. The irresistible pull of relationships with other people turns out to be a central idea of the novel.

Denham takes after her father in her dislike of “that strange love of human intercourse, of making talk.” She finds other people mostly just puzzling and troublesome in their demands and expectations: “when she saw anyone whom she knew approaching, she plunged aside off the path and lurked hidden until they were passed by.”

Mr. Dobie dies and Denham is taken back to London by her mother’s family, the Greshams. And so the stage is set for the fish-out-of-water comedy that makes up the bulk of the novel. Denham is a perfect device for Macaulay to poke fun at the conventions and morés of high society. She can’t see the point of all the rules–what to wear, what to say, where to sit, when to stand, how to pass one’s time. Since, of course, most of these really are perfectly arbitrary rules, it’s not that hard to satirize the mindless compliance of the Greshams and their friends–but once you get the idea, it’s also not really that interesting or sophisticated a critique. Here’s Denham newly arrived in London, for instance:

London. The problem was, why did so many people live in it? Millions and millions of people, swarming all over the streets, as thick as flies over a dead goat, as buzzing and as busy. Why? Did they all agree with Uncle Peter that nothing was like London and that they must, therefore, be in London, this unique spot? Did they all have to be here? Had they been adopted by relations and brought here, or did they do something here which they couldn’t do elsewhere? . . .

And then the streets. Thousands and thousands of omnibuses, taxis, vans and cars, all roaring down the streets together, like an army going into battle, mowing down with angry trumpetings all human life that crossed their path. Were they all necessary? Was human life in London so cheap? Denham, after the first, had no personal anxieties on this head, for she felt competent to evade the assaults of these monsters; neither had she much pity for the victims, for they could probably well be spared, and certainly the population needed thinning; but it seemed a curious way of doing it.

Funny, right, especially that deft little jab at the end? And the theme is funny in all of its variations, even as its underlying point is serious and well-taken:

With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn’t do, mustn’t wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less, you could have got artificial silk or Lisle thread. Why?  Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?

The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. . . You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.

It’s not only expensive living up to these standards, but it is also a lot of trouble, and if there’s one thing Denham hates, it’s going to any trouble. She dreams “of a life in which one took practically no trouble at all. One would be alone; one would have no standards; there would be a warm climate and few clothes, and all food off the same plate, if a plate at all. And no conversation.” Awash  in the trivial chatter and clutter of London society, Denham goes along to get along, but it’s all folly, as far as she’s concerned.

The novel follows Denham to marriage (to Arnold Chapel, a writer) and then a pregnancy that (happily, from her perspective) ends in a miscarriage — imagine how much trouble motherhood would be! Despite these gestures towards normalcy, she still craves escape, and she finds what she thinks is the perfect alternative to the Greshams’ lifestyle in an ill-kept Cornish cottage complete with a smuggler’s passage to the sea and a cave she sets up as her parlor. Then, when her privacy in this not-so-bucolic retreat is destroyed by a news story about her eccentric choices, she heads off on a bicycle tour, believing that in constant motion she can free herself from the constraints of society.

No such luck, however. Just as her father was drawn into a second marriage by “madness of the blood” and Denham herself also into marriage by her own passionate response to Arnold’s kisses, so once again it’s passion that thwarts Denham’s plans as she has an affair with a fisherman and becomes pregnant again. Her return home feels something like a failure, as she’s clearly capitulating, of necessity, to the trivialities and domesticities she has always hated. For all that human relationships are troublesome and social conventions pointless, life outside them is an impossibility, a fantasy. “Love,” reflects Denham, “was the great taming emotion”:

Oh, life itself was the trap, and love the piece of toasted cheese that baited it, and, the bait once taken, there was no escape.

It’s a potentially poignant moment, but I felt disoriented at the end of the novel about how Macaulay really meant to steer us. So society is silly and superficial–but Denham’s life and thoughts hardly offer us an exhilarating alternative. She’s no untamed genius, no blooming wildflower ruined by her new unnatural environment, no free spirit caught and tragically tamed. She’s dull, sluggish, literal, unimaginative, anti-intellectual, and, in her own dogged way, entirely selfish. She can’t see any motive for doing anything other than for personal pleasure or satisfaction. She holds up no positive value except individual freedom–and not freedom of a high order (political freedom, freedom of the mind, freedom from oppression, freedom to create or worship or love) but just freedom to do what you feel like doing and nothing else. She thinks books are pointless, plays are “tedious stuff,” children are a nuisance. At times I thought perhaps it was Denham who was being satirized (“What a trade it was, increasing the number of books in a world already stocked with them! As bad as parents, who increased the number of people”). I suppose there’s no reason why the scoffing couldn’t go in both directions. Society: can’t live with it, can’t live without it! But the novel would have been more compelling to me–it would have seemed like more than an eccentrically amusing story–if there had been a clearer sense of what the costs are of the two options. I guess I like my social comedy to have a stronger undercurrent of moral seriousness. Vanity Fair, this isn’t.

Crewe Train is this moth’s reading for the Slaves of Golconda reading group. I’m posting here a bit early because I have another big deadline at the end of the week; I’ll cross-post it over there on November 17th. I’m looking forward to seeing what the other readers thought of the book!

5 Comments to “Why did not anything do?” Rose Macaulay, Crewe Train

  1. November 12, 2012 at 4:53 am | Permalink

    If this is the same Rose Macaulay who was a travel writer, may I recommend
    Fabled Shore? It is wonderful, even if you have no plans to set foot in the places she wrote about! See http://wp.me/phTIP-1B5

  2. November 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

    You seem to be going through my own shelves of unread books at the moment, so I’ve decided to read along with you after agreeing with you on Holtby and Dorothy L Sayers. So Crewe Train it is next!

  3. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    November 13, 2012 at 3:11 pm | Permalink

    Lisa, it appears to be the same Rose Macaulay! Thanks for the suggestion: your post makes the book sound very appealing.

    PV: I’m curious to know what you think, it’s such an odd book. (I seem to be saying that a lot these days. Maybe I’m the odd one and I just don’t get it!)

  4. Min's Gravatar Min
    November 16, 2012 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Ah, I’m with you on the moral element – must be relatively strong to have any impact. And the heroine sounds rather like what I know of RM herself (which isn’t much, admittedly :-)).
    You might like ‘Towers of Trebizond’ better …
    Bon courage for your deadline, Rohan.

  5. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    November 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    Thanks, Min! And it’s nice to have you commenting again: welcome back.

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