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Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war by Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay opposed the First World War, and later joined peace organisations. This stylish and well produced collection of her writings against war 1916 -45 was sent to me for review by the publisher, Handheld Press. It includes her short novel Non-Combatants and Others, first published in 1916. The war didn’t end until November 1918.

Non-Combatants and Others

The events of the novel take place in the period from April 1915 until the new year. The war had begun the previous summer, and already the thousands upon thousands of volunteers were being slain and there was talk of the need for conscription. It was introduced in March 1916.

In this short period of time Rose Macaulay shows us how the war impacted upon Alix. We meet her as she is sketching a local child, and we are told that it is all she does. She is 22 years old and attending Art School. Despite living with her cousins, she does not share their busy and useful attitude to the requirements of the war. Members of the household are on war committees, volunteer as VAD, in the Women’s Volunteer Reserves, a special constable, concerned with Belgian refugees. Another cousin has volunteered and been injured at the front, and another is driving an ambulance in France. Alix’s own mother is active on work to promote peace. Her younger brother volunteered to join the army straight from school.

Such activity does not appeal to Alix, who is slightly lame. She is horrified when her injured cousin returns, on leave to recover, and shows himself to be psychologically damaged. She is at her window on the night of his return and sees him below her. 

Outside his own window, John, barefooted, in pink pyjamas, stood, gripping with both hands on to the iron balustrade, his face turned up to the moon, crying, sobbing, moaning, like a little child, like a man on the rack. He was saying things from time to time … muttering them …Alix heard. Things quite different from what he had said at dinner.  […] His eyes were now wide and wet, full of horror beyond speech. They turned towards Alix and looked though her, beyond her, unseeing. John was fast asleep. (23-24)

She leaves her aunt’s house to live in Clapton with the widow of another cousin. Here the war plays little part in the household. The daughters are not very involved except in gossip about the Belgians and servants. And the mother is benign but unconcerned. While she is here Alix receives news of her younger brother’s death, later accidentally learning that it was suicide. Her almost lover, a painter, is wounded and wanting the comfort of a woman takes up with Elsie, the attractive daughter of the household. Alix tries various distractions: church, days out, talking to her older brother who is a journalist. But gradually she comes to understand that she cannot escape the effects of war. She is horrified by her brother’s death, a young man of great promise, but naïve. And her career as a painter seem to be going nowhere. 

Eventually she cannot bear the lack of involvement in this second household. She leaves to spend Christmas with her mother who is about to launch her campaign for peace in England.

The final sentences of the novel are these:

The year of grace 1915 slipped away into darkness, like a broken ship drifting on bitter tides on to a waste[d?] shore. The next year began. (206)

This bleak image is a strong one. With the benefit of hindsight we know that 1916 went the same way, and much of 1918 too. The effects of the war resonated in individual lives for decades.

Rose Macaulay

Rose Macaulay is another prolific twentieth century woman writer, and one who has been somewhat neglected in the last 50 years. Born in 1881 Rose Macaulay lived until 1958, having written 23 novels and a great deal of journalism, and other works. Perhaps her best known novel is The Towers of Trebizond (1956). She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained. It is good that Handheld Press is reissuing some of her work, bringing her to our attention, for she had some important things to say. And their books are beautifully produced and designed. 

Non-Combatants and Others: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1916 and reissued by Handheld Press in August 2020 with an introduction by Jessica Gildersleeve. 300pp

I haven’t yet read the miscellaneous pieces against war which are included in this volume. I did read Potterism by Rose Macaulay, also from Handheld Press. You can read the review here.

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