Friday, 2 August 2013

Rose Macaulay and biographical ghost-hunting

“I think this is what a biography is meant to be: a folding-in of all the ingredients, the living, the loving, the writing, to make a rich pudding. Oh dear.’
So writes Sarah LeFanu in her biographer’s journal Dreaming of Rose, which chronicles her researches, writing and rewriting of her book on Rose Macaulay’s life, which involved travels to the Macaulay homes in Wales, Cambridgeshire and the Ligurian coast as well as foot-stepping Rose to Herrick’s Devon village for They Were Defeated and her trip to the Black Sea for The Towers of Trebizond.  She also goes to Ireland, where Rose’s long-term secret lover had been a popular priest before leaving the church for marriage and fatherhood.

There’s something of Macaulay’s own clear-eyed rejection of romance and glamour in LeFanu’s wry observational style, as well as a touch of her subject’s abjection, as when both authors deprecate their own books or (silently) envy others’ success. Above all it’s a beguiling mix of literary pudding, detective scholarship mingling with daily life and paid work, current reading and personal memories such as when she and a friend sneaked from Cheltenham Ladies College to Brian Jones’s funeral, hiding their uniforms in a hedge behind the public lavatories.
There’s local tragedy too, in the suicides of a neighbour and his son, and snatches of friendship with other writers, intermingled with radio broadcasting and creative writing for visually-impaired students.  The narrative thread, almost invisibly woven in, covers long hours in libraries, copying ancient letters and microfilmed newspapers, obtaining inter-library loans and talking or failing to talk to those who knew Rose Macaulay.  Oh, and dreams, of course – of Ivy Compton Burnett, ‘hair sculpted as ever like an over-turned chamber pot … a silent but powerful presence’; and of being handed a book by RM in bookshop with a title like Veruca of which Sarah  had never heard, its pages stuffed with edibles like olives, so that even wearing gloves as she turned the pages her fingers were smeary with oil.

I expect most biographers are familiar with these vivid dreams invaded by one’s subject in incomprehensible guises. I also often used to dream of writing the perfect paragraph that conveyed exactly what I wished to convey,  and even repeating it in the dream so it would be remembered…. I began a similar journal when writing about Christina Rossetti, only to find life and research so uncannily full of coincidence and correspondence that I desisted for fear of what might happen. 
LeFanu writes wittily and economically of writing as wrestling; of searching for a non-chronological opening only to eventually settle on ‘Emilie Rose Macaulay was born on…’; of the ethics of telling other people’s stories irrespective of what they wished to conceal; and of completion, when finishing a book is more like divorce than like sending a child on its first day at school, least of all like giving birth. Endless niggling details backward and forwards, letters of supplication over quotations and illustrations – ‘a hundred tiny ties to the book I want to cast off’.

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