The silence of the persecutors in Dorothy Edwards’ Rhapsody

Edwards 1The stories in Dorothy Edwards’ collection Rhapsody (1927) are short and slight, and had been completely forgotten twice over. This acclaimed but lamentably not very prolific author was enthusiastically adopted by Bloomsbury who recognised an affinity with Katherine Mansfield in her faux-naif narrative style, but then edged her out when she didn’t obey their rules and started to behave as if she were as good as them. She killed herself in 1934, at the age of 31, and her works disappeared from public memory until the 1980s, when a collection of her stories, Rhapsody, became Virago Modern Classic no. 204. And promptly disappeared again from the public’s awareness.

Elaine Morgan’s introduction to the Virago edition describes the hilarious situation of Edwards, a classicist, daring to challenge T E Lawrence on things he had said about the ancient Greeks. She was anxiously hushed by her nervous hosts, who hadn’t counted on this ingénue forgetting herself so much as to assume that she knew as much as such an eminent man. Virginia Woolf also objected to Edwards talking too much about herself, who was nobody after all, and David Garnett got bored of this charming little Welsh girl living in his house as an ‘adopted’ sister. Poor Dorothy had been brought up consider herself as good an intellectual as any other educated person, and found no room for her in a world that had closed her out. There was also no glorious Utopian future in sight, as her Welsh father had promised her in what seems to have been an uncompromisingly unrealistic upbringing, so she threw herself under a train.

Clare Flay's biography of Dorothy Edwards
Claire Flay’s biography of Dorothy Edwards, available here.

Her stories are unforgettable, because they take a social awkwardness as far as it can go before actual bloodshed can occur (which, for the English and Welsh, can be quite a long time). Her narrative voices give themselves away as if they think they are talking to a mirror which turns out to be two-way. These voices are malignant, self-righteous, plaintive, hopeful, and slyly meek. The stories reveal the weakness of the characters in devastating moments.

A middle-aged man at a tennis party fancies himself just a little bit in love with the teenage girl of the house, and finds, rather too late, that he is supposed to have been courting her aunt, who has been watching him with amused, unforgiving eyes. Mr Everett engages a music teacher to tutor his small son, because he needs a piano player for a musical holiday. He waits for his wife to die so he can marry the teacher and have the music he likes, rather than the singing his wife was famous for, and he lets his son go off to boarding school alone.

The Honno Press edition of Edwards' other book, her only novel
The Honno Press 2011 edition of Edwards’ only novel, available here.

A German music teacher, newly arrived in the town, is courted relentlessly by the president of the music club, and can see no way out of his attentions. ‘At seven o’clock he looked at her questioningly. It was clear that she had forgotten all about the club. He reminded her of it delicately, and again begged her to let him escort her there. She looked at him in rather a tired way, but probably recollecting the necessity for meeting people and getting pupils, she agreed to come and went upstairs to dress.’

The owner of a small country house that needs an electric generator is appalled by his wife entertaining the visiting engineer to some music after dinner. ‘Now I could watch girls dancing to Chopin’s music all day, but to play Chopin to a stranger that you meet for the first time! What must he think of you!’ He applies social torture, suspecting that his wife may wish to talk more to this visitor. ‘We spent dinner very pleasantly. Nobody spoke a word. Richardson was not fully aware that we were in the room. He looked at the tablecloth. I did not go away to write letters after dinner. I never left the drawing-room. I suppose no-one could expect me to do that. After the music we sat around the empty grate and said nothing, and we went very late to bed.’ 

These are partly macabre, partly puzzling fragments of 1930s leisured living in the middling classes. Their tone will enthrall lovers of Ivy Compton Burnett’s narratives of miserable family intrigue, and the stories remind me Rose Macaulay’s Crewe Train for how they show the processes of social catastrophe. They need rereading and decoding, since all that is simple and obvious in the stories hide the unrecorded nuances of society’s unhappy cruelty. Dorothy Edwards was a marvellous, skilled writer.


Rose Macaulay’s Potterism

PotterismI wrote this podcast for Why I Really Like This Book for a miniseries called Fictions about Newspapers. Journalism is something I’ve dabbled in enough to know that I’m no good at it. I can write reviews, but I have no nous when it comes to news, and I am not hard-boiled. But I do like reading about journalists who know how to ask hard questions and can anticipate the value of information received. British journalism changed radically at the beginning of the 20th century, with a population growing in literacy demanding more and more newspapers to read. The number of newspapers on the British market doubled during the First World War, and new technology made them easier and faster to read. The practices of gathering news, and what you did with it also changed. This is why I find this novel by Rose Macaulay so enjoyable.

Potter-esque newspaper front page, 1919
Potter-esque newspaper front page, 1919

Potterism, from 1920, is about arrogance, snobbery and egotism. It’s a perfect exposure of a world where writing for the newspapers was simply normal for a certain class of society who expected to have the right to express their views for the benefit of the paying public. This class was, of course, made up of people from the upper classes who went to university (for which read Oxford or Cambridge: no other university, for Macaulay’s class, existed), and who emerged with ideals and expectations quite different to those held by those who bought the papers they deigned to write for. You can tell I don’t like them very much: it’s difficult to like many of the characters in this novel since nearly all of them are satirical portraits created by Macaulay to vent some spleen. She herself was an upper-class, well-educated and well-connected member of the literati, but she never took herself as seriously as the monsters she created in this novel. She wrote hundreds of articles and book reviews, as well as poetry and novels, and had earned her living by writing since before the war, yet, or, perhaps because of this, her writing never betrays the pompousness or greed or self-deluding emotionalism in which the characters in this novel are drenched.

Forget me NotMr Potter is a newspaper proprietor, and is the nicest and most admirable character in the novel: hard-working, honest, reliable, and principled. He is married to Mrs Potter, also known as Leila Yorke, for she is a novelist, though she calls herself an artist, and everyone else would call her a hack writer. She churns out the same stuff year after year for a cheerful public who just want to read the same thing book after book. She began her career writing romantic novelettes for late Victorian fiction magazines like Forget-Me-Not, and this is one of the reasons I like this novel so much: Macaulay wraps her invention up in real-life publishing history, since Forget-Me-Not really existed. Mrs Potter is in the ranks of the second-rate and the trashy, whether she likes it or not. She is a crashing snob, and a casual, careless anti-Semite. This unpleasantness emerges quite easily and naturally in her chatter whenever she has anything to do with the Jewish hero of the novel: Arthur Gideon. He is so opposed to what the Potter newspaper empire is doing to the minds of the masses that he sets up the Anti-Potterism League in an idealistic effort to combat what he thinks are their wrong values. Gideon stands for the first-rate and the hard-won-by truths that he thinks the public need to know, whereas Mr Potter is happy to publish the second-rate and the products of sloppy thinking because that is what the public want and will pay for. Gideon follows his dream by setting up his own newspaper, a rival to the products of the Potter empire, called the Weekly Fact, which is just that: facts, and no opinions. Mr Potter knows that it won’t last, because the egos of those who write for it will be lured by more money for writing trash, and will never be able to withstand the temptation to strut about in public.

Also recommended: this biography of an erratic and eccentric, but very successful Edwardian novelette writer, by her daughter, the engraver and artist Clare Leighton
Also recommended: this biography of an erratic and eccentric, but very successful Edwardian novelette writer who published her novels exclusively in the Daily Mail, by her daughter, the engraver and artist Clare Leighton

Two of the Anti-Potterism League’s keenest supporters are two of Mr Potter’s own children, the twins Jane and Johnny Potter. This says quite a lot about their characters, for it is a brave thing to publicly deny, and also sneer at and criticise, the works of the business that paid for your education and give you a private income while you’re still thinking about taking a job. These twins are simple and straightforward; they want what they can get, and their lives are constructed about seeing that they get what they want. When Jane doesn’t want to see someone who also visits her friend Katherine, she simply tells Katherine to ask that someone not to visit her any more, so Jane can carry on visiting. So simple, when you have no scruples. After the war ends, Johnny finds work easily, while Jane has to make do with a secretarial job at her father’s office, where she meets the assistant editor Oliver Hobart, with whom her elder sister Clare is in love. Jane hardly notices what Clare might be thinking: she sees Oliver as an opportunity for rising in the world, and decides to marry the important young assistant editor when he asks her. Macaulay is careful to let us know, several times, that Oliver was exempted from serving in the war due to his nationally important work on the Potter press. In the work of most novelists writing at this time, this would be character assassination, but with Macaulay, her satire being both so delicate and blunt, we are not quite sure what we are to think of him. It is indicative enough that he is a disposable character.

another tabloid lead story, 1926
another tabloid lead story, 1926

Arthur Gideon is the hero, since he has most honesty and sticks most firmly to his principles. He is also the most interesting character, since he has most to struggle against. His own family, though pleasant, are a mixed blessing, since his father is a Russian Jewish refugee with terrible memories that he won’t tell his son about, and his mother, like Mrs Potter, is a casual blonde English anti-Semite who blithely calls her children Yids, and lazily objects to her daughter marrying another Russian Jew. Outside the family circle, Gideon struggles against lazy thinking and lazy-mindedness, and endures being accused of pushing Oliver Hobart down the stairs because he is shielding someone else. He doesn’t realise that he is loved by yet a third person, because his eyes are dazzled by his own love for someone unworthy. Oh, it’s a tangled mess that he makes of his life, but he is most admirable in his stoicism and qualities of endurance, and in his conduct towards another family of Russian Jews. His missing foot, lost in the war, is barely mentioned, but this is as strongly symbolic of his character – in this period of fiction, any man with a war wound was automatically a hero – as Oliver’s lack of a war record is of his.

The Anti-Potterism League fails, in the end, because Gideon learns to like Mr Potter while despising his works, and then events overtake his plans of reforming the newspaper world. But we have not been much interested in the posturing of this self-appointed league of university graduates with more attitude than sense. We are far more interested in the ghastly attitudes and manipulative deviousness of Mrs Potter, who Macaulay satirises by using her diary as a means of telling part of the story. Every half-truth is revealed. Every evasion and self-delusion is set out neatly, and Mrs Potter stands revealed as a loathsome egotist. She talks to a medium about a murder, comes away with a vision of the man she had first wanted to be suspected as the killer, and promptly sets about slandering him up and down the town, based on no evidence at all. She recalls all she has heard of this man in her diary, and interjects slurs and suppositions in between the facts: she really is a writer of fiction, and does not notice or care that her fiction is intruding in real life.

MacaulayThroughout all this, Mr Potter’s papers sell to the public what the public want to read, and do very well out of it, as does he. Gideon’s paper sells facts, and nobody, in the end, really wants to read facts. They just want to read about a bride’s suicide or the death of a baronet. There’s no accounting for taste, only human nature.

If you fancy trying a related Rose Macaulay novel after this one, have a go at the savage and bitter Crewe Train. Where Potterism is about newspapers, Crewe Train is about celebrity culture and the gossip that ruins people lives being used for a little momentary gain at a party. People feed off other people in Crewe Train, all for the sake of personal gratification, and to make sure no-one breaks free of this goldfish bowl way of life. Not much has really changed in the London literary world.