“…a lonely man in a barren household.” #THWhite #SylviaTownsendWarner @katehandheld


Back in my teens and early twenties I went through a phase of reading all kinds of Arthurian inspired works; everything from Malory’s original “Morte d’Arthur” through to modern books which incorporated the legends, such as Susan Cooper’s wonderful “The Dark is Rising” sequence. Mary Stewart’s Arthurian books were possibly the ones which kicked it off for me, as my mum and dad were avid readers and this was probably where their tastes occasionally crossed; certainly “The Crystal Cave” was in the house when I was first moving on to more adult books (YA didn’t exist as a category when I was a teenager!) However, one of my pivotal Arthurian reads was “The Once and Future King” by T.H. White, which I loved; and so when Handheld Books approached me to see if I would be interested in reading their reissue of Sylvia Townsend Warner‘s 1967 biography of White, I jumped at the chance!! I mean, STW and White – what a combination! And it was the perfect book to turn to after finishing my re-read of the Coopers, which left me with a huge book hangover…

The biography itself has a fascinating history. Warner and White never met, but the latter admired the former’s work and the former described the latter as “a friend I never managed to have.” Warner was invited by White’s executors to write the great man’s biography, and besides visiting his home in Alderney, she also had access to all manner of his papers and correspondence, as well as being able to track down and speak to so many who had known him. So Warner was well placed to produce an in-depth book on White, and the result is a lyrical, sentitive and often moving portrait of a troubled and creative man.

White was born in colonial India, and his strongest attachment during his childhood appears to have been his nurse; his mother was an emotionally demanding, cold woman, who sent the nurse away; there was a background of domestic violence; and much of his life appears to have been an attempt to recover from the emotionally abusive early years. In fact, he recalled that his happiest times were when he had a period living with his grandparents. White attended public school at Cheltenham College, and after a year out earning a living, went on to study at Cambridge. His public school years seemed to be traumatic ones, with violence and humiliation from older boys turning into what he described as a “flagellist”; certainly, those years and his difficult early family experiences turned him into a complex person who struggled with personal relationships all through his life.

However, White moved on to teaching and writing, and he was a prolific author from the start; he produced a number of works under an assumed name (so as not to cause embarrassment for his employers); but it was the first of his Arthurian books, “The Sword in the Stone”, which brought him success, both in terms of recognition and also financially. White would go on to write the rest of the books in this sequence, as well as many others (I think “Mistress Masham’s Repose” is possibly one of his best known). A polymath, he wrote poetry and non-fiction, as well as painting on the side. And then there is “The Goshawk”…

White was a man who not only loved nature, he also enjoyed hunting and shooting and fishing it! Throughout his life, as he moved restlessly from one location to another, he tried to keep a variety of animals, including a number of hunting birds. “The Goshawk” is the result of one such experience, and it’s a book which has become incredibly influential. But his closest animal companion (indeed, *any* kind of companion) was his Setter, Brownie, beloved by him and deeply mourned when she died.

October 20th, 1939
There don’t seem to be many people being killed yet – no hideous slaughters of gas and bacteria.
But the truth is going.
We are suffocating in propaganda instead of gas, slowly feeling our minds go dead.
And on the wireless – it seems as if it must be hundreds of millions of times a day – the foulest and cheapest and vulgarest and most debasing.

So White wrote, and hunted, spending the war years in Ireland (he was horrified by WW2); he maintained many friendships, including a long and deep one with David ‘Bunny’ Garnett, scion of the Bloomsbury Group; and he found a final home on Alderney, one of the Channel Islands, where he lived out the last two decades of his life, a well-known author because of the Disney film “The Sword in the Stone” and the musical “Camelot”. He died on a trip to Greece in 1964, leaving an impressive and varied body of work behind him. A fascinating life, then; so how does Warner tell his story?

Well, from my point of view, she seems to have been an inspired choice to write White’s life! Her approach is intriguing, bringing a novelist’s sensibility to the art of biography, and the book is beautifully written and eminently readable. There are, it’s clear, elisions; Warner makes decision to focus more on certain parts of White’s life, especially his writing, his friendships and his relationship to the land; certain periods she explores in detail, other she tends to skim past. She is straightforward and non-judgemental about what could be regarded as problematic; White has been described a repressed homosexual (though I have seen that debated elsewhere), and in later years suffered an unfulfulled passion for a young boy, Zed. Notably, he refused to act on this passion, and indeed at times in his life seemed to come close to marriage and stability. He was a man with a complex nature, and it’s to Warner’s credit that she handles this element of White’s life so well; a modern biography might well go with screaming headlines and a shocked narrative, whereas Warner recognises White as being a flawed, troubled human. As he said himself, in one of his diaries, “It has been my hideous fate to be born with an infinite capacity for love and joy with no hope of using them”.

White was obviously a mercurial, larger than life figure; driven by constantly changing enthusiasms and obsessions, his life was full of adventure and writing and friendships, as well as darker and lonelier episodes where his moods dropped. Warner makes liberal use of his diaries and letters, some of which are exchanges with his oldest and dearest associates, and builds up a fascinating portrait of a very individual character. The first-hand accounts of those who knew him are illuminating, in that it often seems that they all had their own version of White. He was a man who lived life to the extremes, whether driving his car too fast, drinking to excess, or learning to fly to master his fear of it. Despite the loneliness he experienced, his existence was often a rich one, full of events and books, and Warner brings it to life beautifully in this wonderfully written book. Needless to say, the Handheld edition is beautifully done, with an introduction by Gill Davies, an Appendix which lists White’s work, and excellent notes by Kate Macdonald – this really is the way to reprint works! A fascinating read, a worthy reissue and highly recommended!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks! The book is published on 17th January.)

“Leisure spreads before my dazzled eyes…” @KateHandheld #RoseMacaulay #PersonalPleasures


My final post on Rose Macaulay this week takes a look at a forthcoming release from Handheld Press; “Personal Pleasures: Essays on Enjoying Life” comes out on 10th August, and it’s a real treat! I’m not new to Macaulay’s non-fiction writing, as “Non-Combatants” (mentioned on Monday and reviewed for Shiny New Books) collected together some of her journalism from the run-up to WW2. However, “Personal Pleasures” is a very different beast; an anthology of 80 short essays, varying from a page to several, it takes a quirky, entertaining and often lyrical look at the things which brought her joy – many of which will be familiar to readers of the Ramblings!

“Personal Pleasures” was first released in 1935 to an overwhelmingly positive response, and it’s not hard to see why. The subjects she covers range widely; for example, Arm-chair, Canoeing, Christmas Morning, Bed – Getting into it, Bed – Not getting out of it, Flattery, Not going to parties, Reading, Walking, Writing – well, you get the picture! There’s a perfect A-Z of subjects under discussion and Macaulay is never less than entertaining.

Arise, then, from abject and home-keeping sloth. Cease to regard with effeminate distaste those hurdles which stand between you and Abroad, looming high, barred, enthorned, only by the strong to be o’er-leapt. Do tickets, passports, money, travellers’ cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands? A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence, and guile, and the hurdles will be leaped, the dragons passed; snapping your fingers at what you have left undone, you launch yourself into space. (from ‘Abroad’)

Many of the essays build in autobiographical episodes from Macaulay’s past; for example, Astronomy draws on an event from her childhood in Italy; and anyone reading Christmas Morning will be catapulted back to their own childhood and waking up early to feel the items stuffed into their Christmas stocking. Book Auctions and Booksellers’ Catalogues will speak to any bibliophile; and Departure of Visitors will resonate with anyone breathing a sigh of relief at getting their house back to themself… Reading was a particularly interesting piece, again one that any bibliophile would love, and I sensed certain echoes of another author here…

As I mentioned in my piece on Monday, Macaulay cited Virginia Woolf as an influence and it was in these essays, with their playful yet erudite explorations of the things we enjoy, that I most felt that influence. It’s not something I’d particularly noticed in her fictions, but it certainly shone through in the essays, and the end of Reading took me straight back to Woolf’s “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”

Quirky as ever, Macaulay is happy to toy with our expectations; she often writes about something which she enjoys, then going on to to give us a kind of counter-voice pointing out the problems with something she’s just been celebrating – a kind of yin and yang, which is very true to life. She’s also very witty and I found myself regularly laughing out loud whilst reading the essays. But what’s really a joy about “Personal Pleasures” is the sheer quality of Macaulay’s writing – lyrical, evocative, amusing and moving, these essays are such a treat.

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

“Personal Pleasures” *is* a very personal book, and the essays come with an excellent introduction by Kate Macdonald, as well as copious supporting notes by Macdonald, with assistance from Emer O’Hanlon, Maria Vassilopolous and Sharon Craig. These are an essential element of the book, as Macaulay’s writing is multi-layered, full of quotes and allusions, and even replete with made-up words! The notes expand and clarify, really enhancing the reading. As Kate Macdonald comments, “the modern reader…is mostly likely to notice a palimpsest of dense allusions and quotations, mostly presented without attribution.” These are testament to Macaulay’s erudition, and the notes provide details of a fascinating range of sources.

You might find “Personal Pleasures” best approached as a book to dip into, although you could of course read it through and you’d get a wonderful range of autobiographical looks at Macaulay’s own life. But however you read it, the book is a treat, a sheer delight from start to finish. This was a wonderful way of finishing off my few days of reading Rose Macaulay, and her glittering writing was really enhanced by the excellent supporting material. Highly recommended!


I do hope you’ve enjoyed spending some time in the company of Rose Macaulay and that I’ve whetted your appetite for her writing. There are so many of her books now available in lovely new editions to there’s no excuse not to get to know her; and if you do, let me know what Macaulay you’ve read and loved!

(Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!)


“… the ghost-hunting passions of a biographer” @KateHandheld #RoseMacaulay #SarahLeFanu


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!)

Exploring the writings of Rose Macaulay @KateHandheld @BL_Publishing #RoseMacaulay


Trends in publishing have always waxed and waned, with authors moving in and out of fashion, some being forgotten for a while and then making a return, while others disappear into obscurity forever. Fortunately, there has been a tendency in the 21st century to revisit many lost authors, bringing them back into print and celebrating their work. One such writer is Rose Macaulay and I want to explore her life and work a little today on the Ramblings.

My Macaulay collection…..

Rose Macaulay is mainly known for her 1956 novel “The Towers of Trebizond”, with its memorable opening line; yet she was an astonishingly prolific writer, publishing novels, poetry, biography and journalism. Virago reprinted a number of her books in its Modern Classics range, but she still seemed to stay under the radar. Yet she was a Dame of the British Empire, highly regarded in her time, and mixed with all manner of intellectuals and luminaries; so why has such a prolific author, renowned for making her living from her writing, slipped out of view?

It’s interesting to note that Macaulay’s Wikipedia entry confirms that she was best known for her last novel, the aforementioned “Towers…” although she had been publishing since 1906. However, her range was broad, she cited Virginia Woolf as an influence, and her work is not easily categorised, which perhaps made it hard for people to evaluate, or indeed pigeonhole, her! Again, her novels took on big topics like pacificism, politics and religion, and this may have affected her perceived readability. However, with the number of strings to her bow, it’s difficult to know why she isn’t a bigger name; and so it’s lovely to see that there’s a resurgence of interest in her books, and much of that must be credited to Handheld Press!

Handheld have reissued a number of Macaulay’s works in their beautiful editions, and seem to taken upon themselves on a mission to raise her profile, which is most laudable! Interestingly, the publisher has been focusing on some of the earlier books, from 1916-1920, and a fascinating selection they are too. I’ve been fortunate enough to cover two of them on Shiny New Books, which I’ll mention below, and the third, “Potterism” was reviewed by Hayley Anderton (from Desperate Reader) on Shiny – you can read her thoughts here.

First up, I read “What Not”, subtitled “A Prophetic Comedy”, and first published in 1918. The book is a fascinating, prescient look at how life could be post-WW1, as the population of Britain tried to rebuild their lives, forging a new path and a new world. It’s a book that pre-empts Huxley’s “Brave New World” and deserves to be recognised for its forward thinking and attempts to explore how humanity could improve itself. It’s also very funny, and if you want to read my whole review, it’s here.

The second Handheld Macaulay I read was “Non-Combatants and Others“, which is a powerful and, again, ahead of its time piece of work. Published in 1916, it was the first anti-war novel to be released (while the conflict was still going on!) and it’s a compelling piece of writing which addresses many issues, including whether we can stand apart from the world and what’s happening in it, or whether we should wade in and try to change things. The novel was enhanced by reading the other pieces included in the book: a collection of Macaulay’s journalism, published between 1936 and 1945, where she reflects upon, and despairs about, what’s happening to Europe. The last piece in the book, a powerful short story “Miss Anstruther’s Letters” (which drawns upon Macaulay’s own life) made for a devastating end to an unforgettable book. Again, you can read my full review here.

Pleasingly, other publishers are also reissuing Macaulay’s books, with the British Library Women Writers series including her “Dangerous Ages” from 1921 (which I’ve still to read, though Harriet at Shiny New Books has reviewed it here); so it seems that the author’s early works are now starting to get the appreciation they deserve. And as someone who loves a pretty book (shallow? moi?) I have to say that both the Handheld and BL editions are gorgeous, though different. Both are beautifully designed and have supporting material; and in the case of the Handheld editions, some excellent scholarly notes and introductions.

The two Handheld releases which I’ve read, as mentioned earlier in the post, have been wonderful; and I’m pleased to say that I’ve been reading another two Macaulay-related books they’re issuing! One is a most fascinating work by Sarah LeFanu, “Dreaming of Rose” which I’ll be covering on Wednesday; and on Saturday I’ll be writing about Macaulay’s “Personal Pleasures”, an idiosyncratic collection of her thoughts on the things which bring her joy.

In the meantime, I do encourage you to dip your toe in and read some Rose Macaulay; she was a marvellous, clever, funny and often profound author who’s a joy to read and who has much to say which is still very relevant to our modern world. And it’s not as if it’s hard to get hold of some very pretty editions of her work… ;D

A powerful and moving book over @shinynewbooks #rosemacaulay @KateHandheld


I have a review up on Shiny New Books today of a remarkable and powerful book collecting together the war writings of Rose Macaulay – “Non-Combatants and Others”, published by Handheld Books. Macaulay is an author I’ve covered before – her “What Not” was a very intriging book – so I was happy to be able to read and review this one.

The book is subtitled “Writings Against War, 1916-1945”, and its centrepiece is the title novel “Non-Combatants and Others”. It’s a stunning and moving story, first published slap-bang in the middle of the First World War and revealing some of the horror of that conflict. Also included are some marvellous pieces of between the wars journalism, and an emotional short story from the Second World War. It really is an excellent collection which I highly recommend – and you can read my review here!

Portrait of an oblivious man @ShinyNewBooks @KateHandheld


Elizabeth von Arnim is an author who probably needs no introduction to readers of the Ramblings. Best known for her “Elizabeth...” novels and “The Enchanted April“, she was the cousin of Katherine Mansfield and a prolific author.

Some of her novels might be regarded as light-hearted and witty, which indeed they are; however, she has a steelier core than you might think and even in the lighter novels her strong views seep through. And a number of her other books address darker topics, with “Vera” perhaps being one of the darkest (I’ve not yet read that one, but I’ve read enough about it to make me a little nervous!) Anyway, lovely Handheld Press have re-released her 1909 novel “The Caravaners” in a beautiful new edition, and I’ve reviewed it for Shiny New Books. It’s witty, satirical yet with that dark centre, taking on a number of issues from militarism to misogyny, and I highly recommend it  – my review is here.

A rediscovered and prescient book…. @shinynewbooks @KateHandheld


I have a review up at Shiny New Books today, and it’s of a work that turned out to be remarkably prescient as well as being MIA for a century – “What Not” by Rose Macaulay.

Despite owning several Macaulay volumes in lovely green Virago Modern Classics, I’m not sure I’ve ever read one of her books – so this welcome reissue by the excellent Handheld Press was timely and a great way to be introduced to this unfairly neglected author.

And “What Not” is a marvellous satirical read, with an array of hypocritical politicians who seem very, very modern. There’s romance and comedy and an underlying thread of some very complex issues – so a thought-provoking work that predates many of the ideas of Huxley and Orwell. Plus it’s a very pretty book… 😀

I highly recommend the book, and you can read my review here. And in the meantime, these are my lovely Greens – I really do need to pick up one of these soon!

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