Rose Macaulay’s Told By An Idiot was a bit of a disappointment. I had high hopes of it, because I love ‘The Towers of Trebizond’ so much but, sadly, this wasn’t in the same league, and left me feeling depressed, not only about the characters and their lives, but about the human condition in general. I assume Macaulay is intentionally commenting on the futility of life, since her title is from Macbeth:
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
I think, part of my problem with this novel was that the characters never quite come to life. I always felt as if I was viewing them through then wrong end of a telescope, so they appear smaller and more distant than they actually are, and they seemed a little one-dimensional, so it was difficult to engage them. Again, I suspect this is deliberate, since the tale is told largely from the viewpoint of Rome, who is cool, detached, ironic, civilised, and does her best not to do or feel anything.
The novel opens just before Christmas in 1879 as Papa (Mr Aubrey Garden) struggles with yet another crisis of conscience, losing his faith again and adopting yet another set of beliefs. To date, he’s been an Anglican clergyman, a Unitarian minister and a Roman Catholic layman; this time around he’s set to become an Ethicist (with no creeds, but only conduct), so his devoted wife and six children must prepare themselves for a new home and a new lifestyle.
The children’s names reflect their father’s changing faith. There’s Vicky, named not for the Queen, but her father’s victory over unbelief in the year of her birth; Maurice, named in honour of a rationalist friend, and Rome, his second daughter, so called because when she was born he was a member of the Roman Catholic church. Stanley, another daughter, is called after a dean (noit the explorer, as people might assume), while Irving was born during Papa’s time as an Irvingite (no, I’d never heard of them either, but they are – or were – a Catholic Apostolic Church). Finally, there is Una, who takes her name from the One Person (in the Trinitarian sense) that Papa believed in at the time.
So far, so quirky, and, as you can see, religion looms large, just as it did for many years in Macaulay’s own life. Throughout the novel there are discussions about religious, political and social beliefs, and the right way to live. But the characters who are the happiest seem to be those who think the least about the meaning of life.
Each of the children differ in character, but Macaulay seems to have selected one over-riding characteristic for each, which somehow prevents them emerging as real people, with that mix of good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow which makes a character seem human. And, because of that perhaps, they never seem to grow or progress: the novel follows the Garden family over three generations, leaving them in the 1920s, but throughout that period people remain exactly as they were at the outset, almost as if they were different facets of a fragmented personality, or a personification of a particular ‘type’ or quality.
Pretty, fashionable Victoria is a bit of an airhead, who likes beautiful things, and leads a conventional life, with a nice house, husband and children. Bitter Maurice, the fighter of injustices, trapped in a loveless marriage, becomes a campaigning journalist, and enthusiastic, do-gooder Stanley espouses one radical cause after another. Irving is a financial whizz-kid who makes lots of money and Una is happy to be a farmer’s wife, taking life as it comes.
Rome is an enigma. Detached, self-contained, very intelligent, independent, she observes her family, but makes a point of getting through life by never doing anything. “Negligent, foppish and cool, she liked to watch life at its games, be flicked by the edges of its flying skirts.” It’s as if she’s made a conscious decision to opt out of the messy business of living. “Rome could have done anything, and elected to do nothing. Rome would probably not even marry; her caustic tongue and indifference kept those who admired her at arm’s length; she made them feel that any expression of regard was an error in taste; she shrivelled it up by an amused inquiring look through the deadly monocle she placed in one blue-green eye for the purpose.” She’s a curiously androgynous figure who rarely shows her feelings, but she falls in love, tragically, with a married man.
Throughout the book, there’s a feeling almost of weariness, as one era is superseded by another: Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian. And along the way, key events are charted – the Boer War, Suffragettes, the First World War, and so on. There are interesting references to changing times, ideas and fashions, but that still didn’t make the novel or the characters come to life. I always felt as if the ideas were the important thing, pushing plot and character into second place.
I will add here that my 1983 Virago edition has a very erudite introduction by AN Wilson, who hails ‘Told By An Idiot’ as a 20th century masterpiece, and compares it to Virginia Woolf’s ‘Orlando’, dealing with themes of sexual politics and marital conventions, so I feel as I’ve missed the point.