Dame Emilie Rose Macaulay (muh-KAW-lee), although only a fringe member, was perhaps the most versatile author among Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group. She was born in Rugby, England, on August 1, 1881, the second of seven children. Both her father, George Macaulay, and her mother, Grace Conybeare (they were second cousins once removed), were descended from generations of clergymen and scholars. When Macaulay was six years old, George Macaulay moved his family to Italy for his wife’s health. Seven years of living frugally but happily in Italy, roaming hills and beaches with her siblings, left her a lively, slender tomboy with a lifelong love of travel and the sea.
At age thirteen, Macaulay moved back to England with her family. Entering a rather stormy adolescence, she was painfully shy and for a time agnostic, as was her father. When her godfather enabled her to attend Somerville College, Oxford, she bloomed, plunging vivaciously into conversation, correspondence, and companionship, while she studied history, political science, and literature. So stimulating was her life at Somerville that when George Macaulay accepted a three-year lectureship at the University of Wales in Aberystwyth, she felt almost exiled. To entertain herself, she wrote poetry, and her first novel, Abbots Verney, a Bildungsroman, was published in 1906 to good reviews. That same year, the family returned to England when George Macaulay received a lectureship at the University of Cambridge, his alma mater, and she happily reentered society. Macaulay continued to write and publish until tragedy struck the family in 1909: Her brother Auley, working in India, was murdered by thieves. In the aftermath of his death, one sister became an Anglican deaconess, another a missionary; when Macaulay also volunteered as a missionary, her impulsive offer was rejected, and in a year or two, she wisely returned to her writing.
In 1912 Macaulay’s sixth novel, The Lee Shore, won first prize in a contest held by a publishing firm. In that same year, she took the first of several cruises to Greece, many of which would be reflected in later writings. By 1913, which she later considered her annus mirabilis, Macaulay was spending much of her time in London and meeting numerous poets, novelists, and journalists because of her friendship with Naomi Royde-Smith, the literary editor of the Westminster Gazette. Many of these new acquaintances were either members or friends of the Bloomsbury group–hence her later friendship with Virginia Woolf, who considered Macaulay promising but “too political.” In 1914, while doing volunteer war work near Cambridge, Macaulay published another Bildungsroman, entitled The Making of a Bigot, and her first book of poetry, The Two Blind Countries.
After her father died in 1915, her mother left Cambridge for Beaconsfield, and Macaulay moved permanently to London, taking a job in the War Office in the Ministry of Information. There she met, near the end of the war, the novelist Gerald O’Donovan, a former Catholic priest in Galway who had resigned, traveled, and married. Macaulay, who did not at first realize that he was married, fell in love for the first time, and their relationship was to endure for twenty-five years, ending only at his death. Only one of Macaulay’s previous novels had gracefully depicted a sexual encounter; after her affair with O’Donovan began, several later novels were to contain passionate scenes.
Macaulay’s second book of poetry, Three Days, was published in 1919; half of the poems concern war, and the rest deal with the postwar world or aspects of life in general. Macaulay’s eleventh novel, Dangerous Ages, received the Fémina-Vie Heureuse Prize in 1921, and she began traveling frequently to the Continent. She also continued what was to become a thirty-year break with the Anglo-Catholic church because of her ongoing affair with O’Donovan. Still a friend and protégé of Royde-Smith, Macaulay roomed in her house in Kensington and cohosted Royde-Smith’s weekly literary parties; somewhere around this time, she finally met Virginia Woolf at several parties, and the two became casual friends, never intimate but enjoying discussions of books and writers. She dined often with the Woolfs and was unafraid of voicing her opinions, a fact which Woolf occasionally noted in her diary.
After three more novels, Macaulay turned her hand to essays, having had good practice while writing for the Westminster Gazette. A Casual Commentary, published in 1925, was a collection of thirty-nine essays characterized by a journalistic energy and a ridiculing of narrow-mindedness, stupidity, and other human failings. Catchwords and Claptrap, one year later, was edited and published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at their Hogarth Press; in it, Macaulay revealed her fascination with language, both by playing with it and by writing about it. She continued to write witty articles for literary journals and for the popular press while still publishing a novel about every two years.
After a two-month trip to the United States from December, 1929, to January, 1930, Macaulay turned her attention to criticism: Some Religious Elements in English Literature was published in 1931; it was edited by the Woolfs. Another Hogarth publication was The Writings of E. M. Forster, the first book-length critical study of Forster. Besides sharing a friendship, Macaulay and Forster shared similar pasts: study at Cambridge, travel to Italy and Greece, and experience in journalism–and they had numerous mutual friends.
The research that produced Milton and Some Religious Elements in English Literature also produced an excellent historical novel, They Were Defeated, published in 1932. It is Macaulay’s longest piece of fiction, the best researched, one of the best received, and the one she most enjoyed writing, partly because the seventeenth century was her favorite era of English history. The plot blends real historical figures, including one of Macaulay’s own ancestors, with the events leading to the Civil War and the Puritan uprising.
A lacuna in Macaulay’s fiction, from 1940 to 1950, was precipitated by several losses. In May of 1941, her London flat and most of her belongings, including several unpublished manuscripts, were destroyed in a German bombing raid. Shortly afterward, in 1942, O’Donovan became ill and died, and for the next three years, the grieving and bereft Macaulay was frequently ill, spending much time in hospitals. Her only major works during this decade were three books of travel and history: Life Among the English, They Went to Portugal, and Fabled Shore: From the Pyrenees to Portugal, based upon a trip she had taken in July and August of 1947.
The sorrows of that decade are revealed in The World My Wilderness, published in 1950, the same year that she received a highly complimentary letter from Father J. H. C. Johnson, an Anglo-Catholic priest whom she had known briefly in London around 1916. Father Johnson had been deeply impressed by a rereading of They Were Defeated, and his letter began a brisk and stimulating correspondence that lasted until her death. The elderly priest, who lived in Boston, “heard” her confession of her affair in a series of letters and led her, greatly relieved and contented, back into the church from which she had so long felt alienated. The topics introduced in their exchange of letters led to her last and best-known novel, The Towers of Trebizond, published in 1956, two years before her death. It was awarded the James Black Tait Memorial Prize in 1957 and was hailed as an extraordinary work.
Macaulay’s work experienced a revival of interest in the late 1980’s; her constant theme of pis aller (“making do” in bad situations) has not lost its appeal. Macaulay’s use of the implied author, her creation of scenes and characters rather than plots, and her emphasis on the manners and psychological complexities of her characters give her writing a contemporaneity that keeps alive interest in her work.