By John Bauerschmidt
“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
The first sentence of Rose Macaulay’s 1956 novel, The Towers of Trebizond, has been celebrated as one of the most intriguing openings ever bestowed upon a novel. Her work is a comic favorite of profound moral seriousness, and therein lies its power. Not only is it very funny and profoundly intelligent; it also raises the big questions concerning love and death without a hint of lecturing. Macaulay and her fine novel deserve to be better known.
Macaulay has been the subject of at least three biographies since her death in 1958. She was born in 1881, into a family comprising many generations of clergy. Her father was a classicist and scholar of English who held a number of academic positions in England and Wales, culminating in an appointment at the University of Cambridge. During a period of six years early in her life the family lived in Italy for the sake of her mother’s health. Her parents were churchgoing Victorians, and Rose and her brothers and sisters had a conventionally Anglican (and mildly High Church) upbringing. One of her sisters became a nurse, another a teacher and missionary in India, and another was ordained an Anglican deaconess in East London, while her brothers sought their fortunes in India and Canada in time-honored Imperial fashion.
In 1900 Macaulay went up to Somerville College, Oxford, where she spent three years studying history without taking a degree. In 1906 her first novel was published, and she had solidly embarked upon a literary career. She also became a more committed practitioner of her Christian faith, visiting the Society of St. John the Evangelist (SSJE) at St. Edward’s House in Westminster, where the Rev. Hamilton Johnson occasionally heard her confession. At the same time she was entering fully into the literary life of London, becoming acquainted with many of its leading lights at the time: E.M. Forster, Virginia Wolf, and others.
She continued to produce novels, and after her father’s death in 1915 she took a job in the War Office in London, where she met and fell in love with the head of her department, Gerald O’Donovan. O’Donovan was an Irishman, a former Roman Catholic priest, and, as Macaulay discovered, a married man. This was the beginning of a decades-long relationship that eventually became adulterous. O’Donovan was a novelist as well, and Macaulay was ostensibly a family friend, the precise nature of her relationship with O’Donovan being known to very few. He died in 1942, and Macaulay — who had become estranged from the Church as a result of her relationship with O’Donovan — was profoundly affected with grief.
In 1950 her former confessor Fr. Johnson wrote to congratulate her on the publication of her novel They Were Defeated (published in the United States as The Shadow Flies). Johnson had moved to Boston in 1916 to take up residence in the Mission House on Bowdoin Street and later in the SSJE house on Memorial Drive in Cambridge, and had long since lost touch with Macaulay. The novel — set during the religious controversies of the English Civil War — had prompted him to reconnect with her, and the renewed contact by letter led to an unburdening of conscience on Macaulay’s part and her return to the sacraments after a 30-year lapse.
Their correspondence continued until 1958, the year of Macaulay’s death. Johnson’s letters to Macaulay were, along with her other papers, destroyed according to her instructions at her death; but her letters to Johnson were eventually published in two volumes edited by Macaulay’s cousin, Constance Babington-Smith. The letters give a sense of Macaulay’s return to Christian faith, especially preparation for making her confession after many decades apart from the Church. Macaulay wrote:
[L]ong years of wrong-doing build a kind of blank — or nearly blank — wall between oneself and God, and the task is to break it down, or at least to make holes in it large enough to see through. It isn’t, of course, God who puts up the wall; it is one’s own actions and rejections. So blank is the wall — though less so than a few weeks ago, and this is your doing — that even communion might be barren and almost meaningless — not seeing through a window, but from far off, through a telescope with a very murky glass. As to absolution, I suppose this should make holes in the wall. Absolution from Memorial Drive, which I feel I have (however undeservedly), has already made some. (Rose Macaulay, Letters to a Friend 1950-1952 [Atheneum, 1962], p. 39)
The letters are also enormously fun, covering Macaulay’s varied interests, many of them ecclesiastical. She often quizzed Johnson on matters liturgical and doctrinal: the Latin antecedents of Cranmer’s translations of the collects in the Book of Common Prayer (Johnson was a noted classicist); the quality of the preaching at the many churches she attended; the proper doctrine of the Eucharist. Macaulay seems to have known everyone in London in the 1950s, in both the literary and church worlds, and the letters are replete with cameos featuring prominent churchmen and literary figures of the time.
It was during this period that Macaulay produced her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond, published in 1956. The novel is not autobiographical, though its core deals with the adulterous relationship of the protagonist and narrator, Laurie, with Vere, whom we meet in the final section. In the novel, Macaulay took her experience and turned it into art both comedic and tragic.
Through much of the novel Laurie’s relationship with Vere is at the periphery, and the main plot is the missionary trip to Turkey taken by aunt Dot (using the camel, of course), accompanied by Laurie as her companion and by a retired Anglo-Catholic priest, Fr. Hugh Chantry-Pigg, as chief missioner. Dot’s scheme to establish a home in London for “poor young unmarried fathers” has fallen through, and now she wants to liberate Turkish women from the oppression of their traditional male-dominated culture, while Fr. Chantry-Pigg (“an ancient bigot”) wants to convert the Turks to Anglo-Catholicism. In the back of both their minds is the hope of crossing into the Soviet Union, another choice mission field. Weeks into their Turkish adventure they are on their way by ship to Trebizond, near the border on the Black Sea coast, the last city of ancient Byzantium to fall to the Turks.
The comic value of the book rests on the absurdity that attends Dot and Fr. Chantry-Pigg as they make their missionary journey. Macaulay has a good time poking fun at denominational divisions (there are some Billy Graham missionaries at work in Turkey as well), the churchmanship divide within Anglicanism, the cultural and religious chasm between the two upper-class Brits and the Turks they are seeking to convert, and the foibles of the various tourists and natives they meet. My favorite bit, however, is pure slapstick, involving an ape that Laurie introduces to churchgoing. The book, much like the letters that Macaulay wrote to Fr. Johnson, is also an education in itself, full of bits and scraps of information about the liturgy, the Fathers of the church, the nature of Anglicanism, as well as ancient Byzantium and Trebizond.
For all its comic nature, the most remarkable characteristic of the novel is the treatment of the dark cloud that comes to overshadow Laurie, and that dominates the very end of the book in tragic ways. Macaulay eschews both moralism and melodrama, but it is clear that her character’s long-standing adultery and the agnosticism embraced as a result is the central drama of the novel, the sadness that lingers even in the funniest moments. At one point on the journey, after not presenting herself for Communion on Sunday morning, Laurie is confronted by Fr. Chantry-Pigg: “How much longer are you going on like this, shutting the door against God?”
The question always disturbed me; I sometimes asked it of myself, but I did not know the answer. Perhaps it would have to be for always, because I was so deeply committed to something else that I could not break away. (The Towers of Trebizond [Farrar, Straus and Cudhay, 1956], p. 64)
Trebizond, that last bastion of the Byzantines, is invoked as a symbol of the heavenly city, a community whose suburban outworks lie in this world but that Laurie fears she will never be able to enter fully. Trebizond here stands in for St. Augustine’s City of God, defined as it is by the love of God (De Civitate Dei XIV.28).
Then, between sleeping and waking, there rose before me a vision of Trebizond: not Trebizond as I had seen it, but the Trebizond of this world’s dreams, of my own dreams, shining towers and domes shimmering on a far horizon, yet close at hand, luminously enspelled in the most fantastic unreality, yet the only reality, a walled and gated city, magic and mystical, standing beyond my reach yet I had to be inside, an alien wanderer yet at home, held in the magical enchantment; and at its heart, at the secret heart of the city and the legend and the glory in which I was caught and held, there was some pattern that I could not unravel, some hard core that I could not make my own, and, seeing the pattern and the hard core enshrined within the walls, I turned back from the city and stood outside it, expelled in mortal grief. (The Towers of Trebizond, p. 201).
At the end of the novel the image is invoked again, as Laurie remains trapped between her two loves. This is, as Laurie puts it at the end of the book, “the eternal dilemma” (Ibid., p. 277).
Unlike Macaulay’s journey back to the practice of the Faith, Laurie’s is unfinished, or perhaps not even begun, as the novel ends. She cannot abandon the one love for the other. That unresolved tension is greatly to the novelist’s credit, and a source of the novel’s power. A story of moral seriousness involving love and death can’t afford to tie up everything neatly. Loose ends are what life’s made of, after all, even as we hold on to the hard core at the heart of Trebizond. This is both a serious and a comic tale, true to life and worthy of our attention.
This is one of my favorite books. I have often quoted its definition of sin, which seems more comprehensible to most people these days than the conventional definitions. I think it was one of Fleming Rutledge’s sermons that pointed me to this passage: “Another thing you learn about sin, it is not one thing after another…but even the worst ones are only the result of one choice after another and part of a chain, not things by themselves, and adultery, say, is chained to stealing sweets when you were a child… or letting someone else be thought to have broken… Read more »
Thank you for your comment. I’ve been pondering Macaulay since picking up her letters to Fr. Johnson some years ago, and then reading the novel. She took the reality of sin seriously, and even more importantly, the nature of faith. Her image of Trebizond, the heavenly city, is very graceful and compelling. All joined to a wonderful sense of humor! If you have not read it, her travelogue Fabled Shore is also very good.