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Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay

I have observed before on Bookword Blog that Rose Macaulay is a witty, playful and amusing writer. Keeping up Appearances has all these attributes, and brings to mind her collection of short pieces, Personal Pleasures (1935), for she takes a swipe at several cherished perceptions of her times, and of ours: sexism, the press, concern with presentation, identity, class and so on.

The novel was published in 1928 and republished in the British Library Women Writers series. The new version comes with a Preface by Alison Bailey and an Afterword by Simon Thomas, the series consultant.

Keeping up Appearances

Keeping up Appearances is a difficult novel to review for there is an important plot reveal about halfway through, and although I am not one to worry about spoilers, I have no wish to impair the enjoyment of readers. The revelation itself is designed to get the reader to question any assumptions they have made about the characters up to that point. 

I found it quite a difficult book to read because its structure was so uneven. It begins by featuring two women: Daisy and Daphne, and contrasting the way they appear to the world. When the story starts the two young women are staying on a Mediterranean island with the Folyots, a well-off family with three offspring. Daisy and Daphne leave the island suddenly when Daisy is unable to face a charging wild boar and is ashamed of herself. We follow these characters over the next few months as they meet again in London.

Rose Macaulay assembled an interesting cast of characters to make her points.

Daisy is illegitimate, which in 1928 was a social aberration. She had been brought up by her father’s sister and was well educated. She earns her living as a hack writer for a newspaper, producing silly pieces under her pen name Marjorie Wynne about

… those absorbing problems that beset editorial minds concerning the female sex and young persons.

The Morning Wire encourages her to write on such topics as The Best Age for a Woman, Can Women have Genius? Do Men Like a Girl to Fix her Face on the Street? After Love’s Rapture – What? She publishes a successful popular novel called Summer’s Over.

Daphne is younger than her half-sister and from a better class. She is a steadier person than Daisy, who would like to be more like her. For example, Daphne saves the youngest Folyot child from drowning.

The Folyots: Mrs Folyot rescues refugees from right wing regimes in Europe (we are in the late 1920s so there is a real issue here) and campaigns on their behalf.

What she held should be done with life was to help revolutions. (9) 

She is always organising craft sales to raise funds or writing letters the newspapers or calling meetings. Although her cause is worthy, Mrs Folyot is busy achieving nothing.

Her husband is happy to support his wife as she goes about her philanthropic activities, but more concerned with his own interest in sculpture. Their son, Raymond is interested in animal life, but not politics or sculpture.

The daughter Cary is one of the most interesting characters, for she is intelligent and perceptive, and sees through Daisy. She is very much her own person, reads, asks penetrating questions and actually listens to what the adults say.

Daisy’s mother and family live in East Sheen, although she tries to pass them off to the Folyots as inhabitants of Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Her mother is warm and generous, her stepfather has straight forward intelligence, her brother is a crime reporter for another newspaper and her sisters are growing up and have much less ambition and more sense than Daisy.

The interactions between these characters, and the plot twists as Daisy confuses everyone are the occasion for the author to make some very pointed comments about England in the late 1920s. The titles for Daisy/Marjorie Wynne’s articles are an example of this: the sexism in the press. Most of Daisy’s contortions come from her acute awareness of class divisions between her mother’s family and the Folyots. 

There are several amusing and silly plot twists. The lumping together of people by class, sex, age, or anything else is strongly criticised, and Rose Macaulay was making the case for people to be what they wanted to be, not defined by their characteristics. The title challenges the idea that an individual’s life work is to maintain the appearance they wish to project. Here is Daisy contemplating Mr Folyot’s concern that he was not the first speaker at a dinner.

She would not have guessed that Mr. Folyot, as delightful, self-controlled, and humorous, so gifted a scholar, so gentle and kind a man, had these feelings, ambitions and resentments about the order of speaking at dinners. What else had he that she had never divined? Had everyone, then, some different self, that only a few people, that sometimes only they themselves, knew? How know anyone? (131)

This is the lesson that Daisy and the reader must learn.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay

Born in 1881, Rose Macaulay wrote 23 novels before her death in 1958. She was a well-regarded novelist, perhaps most famous for her final novel The Towers of Trebizond (1958). She also wrote poetry, short fiction and many nonfiction works, including biographies and travelogues. Keeping up Appearances was her 16th novel. She was a woman of strong opinions and an unconventional personal life.

Keeping up Appearances by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1928 and reissued in the British Library Women Writers series in 2022. 261pp

Related Posts

Potterism by Rose Macaulay (August 2020)

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay (September 2020)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (October 2020)

Some books to help you through the night, including Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay (January 2022)

Heavenali’s review refers to Keeping up Appearances as clever and entertaining and notes that it is still relevant today. (April 2021)

Stuck in a Book blog also reviewed it favourably in February 2010. Simon, the blogger, is the consultant for British Library Women Writers

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