Well, I do hope that my post on Monday whetted your appetite for Rose Macaulay and her wonderful books. However, as I mentioned, today I’m going to be focusing on a book not by, but about, Macaulay – and an intriguing one at that. “Dreaming of Rose” by Sarah LeFanu is subtitled “A Biographer’s Journal” and it was a fascinating read from start to finish.

LeFanu is, of course, biographer of Rose Macaulay, but she’s also the author of a number of other interesting works (her book “In the Chinks of the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction” sounds most intriguing); and as well as this, she was also editor at the Women’s Press, who published a number of volumes of women’s sci fi writing which I recall exploring. The Women’s Press books, with their distinctive design, were always favourite purchases alongside Virago Modern Classics, and I still have a number on my shelves. But I digress…

LeFanu’s biography of Rose Macaulay was published in 2003 by Virago, and the journal entries reproduced in “Dreaming…” run from 1998, when she embarked on the biography, up until December 2002, just before the biography came out. In it, LeFanu explores more than just the process of writing a book about Macaulay and the journal is facinating from start to finish.

Part at least of what attracts me to Rose is her secretiveness.

As I mentioned on Monday, it’s a puzzle as to why Macaulay’s work is not more appreciated, and LeFanu’s explorations of Rose’s life perhaps throw light on this. The latter was certainly an intriguing woman who lived such an interesting life; childhood in Italy, a long-term affair with a married ex-priest Gerald O’Donovan; various religious fluctuations; many travels and a wide range of writing. As I opined, it may well be that the variety of that writing and a refusal to be pigeonholed which has kept her a little under the radar.

The trouble with doing research is that half the time don’t know what it is you’re looking for, or at least what you might want to know, until after you’ve packed up your books and gone home.

“Dreaming of Rose”, however, certainly throws light on a number of different aspects of the writer’s life. The element I found most fascinating, I think, was LeFanu’s explorations of the biographer’s art and her experiences whilst researching her book on Rose. Research in itself can be very appealing, with the thrill of the chase and the unexpected random finds part of the joy of delving into archives. LeFanu captures this aspect quite brilliantly, but also meditates on more problematic issues.

When she begins her research, she imagines many of those who knew Rose are no longer alive; this turns out to be anything but the case, and LeFanu is able to make contact with many people who were part of Rose’s life. However, this creates its own problems, particularly when she meets relatives of those close to Rose; suddenly, she’s dealing with living people and writing about their relatives, needing to find a balance between wanting to know everything and respecting their privacy. We all keep secrets – LeFanu references Dorothy L. Sayers and her son, who was brought up by foster parents – and sensitivity is needed when dealing with anyone’s experience, a sensitivity LeFanu displays. I imagine this must be something that all biographers tackling the lives of recent people have to face, and LeFanu captures the dichotomies she had to deal with brilliantly.

She takes her meditations on the art of the biographer further than this, considering what it is that drives someone to undertake the task of writing about another’s life, and indeed what a mammoth task that is. Citing author Richard Holmes and his pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson, Lefanu understands how it’s possible to become so absorbed in another person’s life that you find yourself almost becoming a part of their story, imagining you’re chasing their ghost. And as she chases after Rose, she visits the locations of events in Rose’s life, seeking for a glimpse of Rose and what she saw.

Part of the biographical urge comes from wanting to experience the world as someone else experienced it, seeing it through someone else’s eyes. Doesn’t it? Wasn’t that the desire that in 1964 drew Richard Holmes to the Cevennes in the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson and his donkey Modestine?

“Dreaming…” also captures vivdly the ups and downs of life as a woman writer; LeFanu often finds herself struggling to juggle her home responsibilities with the demands of her work, in a way that a male writer surely never would. When you add in the problems of being a freelance writer, waiting for essential payments to come in for work done, sending out proposals and then having to meet deadlines, it certainly seems that romantic concepts of what it’s like to be an author go out of the window! The book is sprinkled with fascinating references, from memories of the author’s own life, encounters with old friends, comments on the difficulties of times at the Women’s Press, social gatherings with Virago’s Lennie Goodings, and a mention of the much-missed Silver Moon bookshop.

Rose Macaulay pencil sketch (Jburlinson, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons)

LeFanu’s book was originally published in 2013, and has been revised for this reissue; the epilogue, concerning the publication of some letters of Rose Macaulay, is particularly fascinating, and throws another discussion topic into the ring, that of whether a person’s personal letters *should* be published and who has the right to do so. Macaulay had left instructions for all of her papers to be burned unread on her death, so publication of these letters may well have been very much against her wishes; another difficult issue for the biographer to tackle.

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.

“Dreaming of Rose” was a fascinating read from start to finish; as well as divulging so much about her process of researching and constructing her biography, LeFanu’s explorations of a woman’s writing life were extremely revealing. I was left in awe at her achievements with the book, particularly as she had to balance all her different commitments, as well as dealing with the inevitable self-doubt which hits any creative person from time to time. The Handheld Press edition is beautifully presented, as you would expect, with illustrations within the text, a helpful family tree plus lists of Macaulay’s books and works cited. You might think that writing a biography would be relatively straightforward; but as LeFanu reveals it really isn’t, and this wonderful and engrossing work gives a privileged view of the writer at work. If you want to know more about the writing of Rose’s biography or explore the struggles facing women writers this is definitely the book for you – highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thaks! There was a lovely online launch for the book recently, which I was fortunate enough to attend, and a recording of the session is now available online – you can find it here!)