Rose Macaulay was ahead of her time

In Crewe Train, the neglected Anglo-Catholic novelist tells the story of a woman who resolutely does not fit in.

Rose Macaulay (1881–1958) was an English novelist with views that were mystical and (eventually) Anglo-Catholic, and moreover passionately feminist. A prolific and once very popular writer who addressed wildly diverse, often daring topics, many of her novels deserve rereading. But one brilliant book in particular clamors for rediscovery.

For many years, Macaulay was chiefly known for one comic novel,  the delicious Middle Eastern travelogue The Towers of Trebizond (1956). It is cherished for its memorable opening lines: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” As so often in her writing, Macaulay uses satire and wild comedy to make deadly serious points, and the book presents a troubling case study of the clash between religious obligation and adulterous sexual desire.

Readers long knew her as the author of that one book, and only recently has there been renewed interest in others among her more than 20 novels. These include What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, published and suppressed in 1918 and then formally reissued the following year, which envisages a eugenically controlled future Britain. Under the Ministry of Brains, all citizens have their life chances and mating opportunities wholly controlled by official assessments of their intelligence, which are graded alphabetically. Aldous Huxley thought enough of the book to plunder it wholesale in Brave New World.