Review: Told by an Idiot

I’d never heard of Rose Macaulay before my housemate lent me her Told by an Idiot, and while I don’t necessarily think it’s the most consequential work of literature out there I’m certainly glad I read it.

Published in 1923, the novel looks back over the last years of the Victorian age, following the Garden family over three decades between 1880 and 1914, roughly. Mr Garden (or papa) is a clergyman who loses his faith and finds a new one on a regularly rotating basis; his six children, Victoria, Maurice, Stanley, Una, Irving and Rome handle this and the various vicissitudes of the years in various ways. Our implied point-of-view character is Rome, a detached and rather cynical observer who, after a brief and tragic love affair, essentially opts out of the sound and the fury of it all, in order to enjoy the circus of life as best she can.

Reading Told by an Idiot, I found myself thinking of Jane Austen’s description of Pride and Prejudice: “light and bright and sparkling” – despite the novel’s apparent pessimism. It’s a witty book, written in wry, pacy prose:

You may, for instance, inquire of a popular preacher, or any one else, who denounces his countrymen as “pagan” (as speakers, and even Bishops, at religious gatherings have been known to do) what, exactly, he means by this word, and you will find that he means irreligious, and is apparently oblivious of the fact that pagans were and are, in their village simplicity, the most religious persons who have ever flourished, having more gods to the square mile then the Christian or any other Church has ever possessed or desired, and paying these gods more devout and more earnest devotion than you will meet even among Anglo-Catholics in congress.

It is not particularly interested in the inner lives of its characters; its main point, made a number of times over the course of the novel, is that there is nothing new under the sun, that young people of each generation are always thought more daring than any young people ever before, that life is, in fact, a sort of inconsequential merry-go-round, ridiculous and occasionally wonderful.

Like many witty novels, it has at its heart a vein of frustration and bitterness. The Gardens are a middle-class family; they never really have to worry about money; they are as privileged, really, as anyone could have been in the late 1800s without actually being members of the aristocracy. And yet they are prevented by their society from fulfilling their potential in a number of ways. Maurice becomes trapped in marriage to a beautiful but selfish woman who won’t give him a divorce until he’s too old realistically to consider marrying again; and Stanley becomes trapped in a marriage to a man who cheats on her repeatedly, only to insist on his love for her. Perhaps most interesting is one of Stanley’s daughters (whose name I cannot at this point remember), a girl and then a woman with a highly developed inner life in which she sees herself as a man – a man who can go sailing on the high seas and fight in wars and battle Red Indians in America. (Stanley’s daughter is, unfortunately, quite racist.) This doesn’t get explored very much, but it’s present enough as a storyline that I wondered if it can’t be read as an early trans narrative.

And yet. I think, ultimately, the novel’s answer to these frustrations is insufficient. It’s essentially a novel about Rome: a woman who chooses to step away from her society, to remain unmarried and cynical and jobless – all the things that a woman isn’t supposed to be. She simply chooses not to participate, in an era that involved among other things the suffragist movement and the Boer war. She chooses apathy, the comfort of telling herself that the world cannot be changed. And, through her, so does Macaulay.

In other words, it’s a novel that’s conservative at heart. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it: it’s a wonderfully light read given its age, and a fresh look at a period that often feels all too familiar. It does mean I didn’t agree with it. And that’s fine! We don’t, after all, have to agree with everything we like.

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