The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

This is such a strange book. When I had finished reading I asked myself what on earth was it about? I wrote two pages of A4 notes to help me answer that question and to prepare this blog post. You had better read the novel yourself if you can’t make out anything from what I say. 

The Towers of Trebizond is my contribution to the #1956Club. I have read two other novels by Rose Macaulay recently (much earlier ones, see below) and have several copies of her other works which I inherited from my mother. The edition I read was a 1959 reprint, from the Reprint Society. You can find out more about the #1956Club at two blogs: KaggysBookishRamblings and Simon at StuckinaBook.

The Towers of Trebizond

The novel is set in the decade following the end of the Second World War. It follows a small group of missionaries who go to Turkey to convert the population. There is Aunt Dot, probably in her fifties, who owns a camel and is an inveterate traveller. She wishes to emancipate the women of Turkey. Then there is Father Chauntry-Pigg who is rather high church and has an interest in certain styles of churches. He keep relics in his pockets. With them goes Laurie, Dot’s niece and the narrator, who has not much more to do that offer to be a companion and to write and illustrate the travel aspects of Dot’s projected book. She also helps care for the camel.

This foursome are joined by others from time to time. They arrive in Istanbul and pick up Halide, a doctor, converted to Anglicanism while studying in England and in love with a Turkish man, who wants a Muslim wife. There is David and Charles and a complicated case of plagiarism, connected with another book about travelling in Turkey. And Laurie’s married lover Vere meets her on the Mediterranean coast.

From Istanbul the missionary party set off for the eastern sea board of the Black Sea, and for Trebizond (modern day Trabzon) a city that once was at the heart of the Empire of Trebizond. Rose Macaulay writes beautiful passages about their travels. They move on to Armenia, close to the Russian border, and Aunt Dot and Father Pigg disappear. Laurie suspects they have entered Russia, behind the Iron Curtain at this time. With no news of them she travels on by herself with the camel. She meets her lover and after some time in Palestine and Syria crosses into Israel. From here she travels home, her journey having taken her to many biblical and archaeological sites. I greatly enjoyed the lively descriptions of her travels and of the history of the places she visited.

The pace changes when she get home as she (and we) wait for Aunt Dot and her companion to reappear. There is a sub plot about a book David is writing using the works of Charles, about his travel in Turkey. Charles was eaten by a shark. There are other ongoing dramas as well, including about spying (Dot and her companion spend time with Philby and McLean in Moscow) and lots and lots about the influence of the church on places, buildings, morality etc etc. And there is an episode about training an ape to play chess, go to church, drive etc etc.

It’s all pretty bonkers, especially when there is a fatality in the penultimate chapter. This seems like a huge plot event to raise at this point in the novel. But we have been given a tour of many different things, and Rose Macaulay appears to be saying – embrace everything, reject nothing.

Rose Macaulay

Here 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. The Towers of Trebizond is perhaps her best known novel. It was her last. She was well respected in her lifetime, but her popularity has not been sustained which is a shame as she has things to say to us today. 

In this novel she writes about the need to emancipate women, which was her lifelong concern. She was also interested in Anglicanism and the role of the church, as well as in adultery. She was no advocate of any particular system, and her comments on Soviet Russia would have horrified staunch supporters of the Cold War at the time. She was also critical of the creation of Israel for the suffering caused to the Palestinians. 

The narrator adopts a rather flat, even naïve style to report on the fantastic adventures. A wide-eyed traveller is a good basis for travel writing. She offers little judgement on the characters, or on the events, although there is discussion of the moral basis for their behaviours. This serves to underline the difficulties of truth and goodness in Europe in 1956. There is much discussion of spies, for example.

And then there’s the camel which provides possibly the second or third most famous opening line in fiction:

“Take my camel, dear,” said Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass. (7)

The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay, first published in 1956. I used an edition from the Reprint Society, published in 1959. 256pp Both NYRB and Flamingo have published paperback versions.

Related posts

Potterism: a tragi-farcical tract by Rose Macaulay, published in 1920 (on Bookword).

Non-Combatants and Other: writings against war, 1916-1945 by Rose Macaulay, published in 1916 (also on Bookword).

HeavenAli’s review in December 2018, who enjoyed The Towers of Trebizond while finding it ‘all wonderfully bonkers’. 

And StuckinaBook relishes its style, the humour and the ramble. Simon is one the hosts of the #1956Club.


Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, Travel with Books, Travelling with books

8 Responses to The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay

  1. I remember picking this up from the school library when I was twelve or thirteen and managing a few dozen pages before being too confused by everything going on to continue any further. I keep meaning to return to it but your synopsis proves it wasn’t just my young mind that found it confusing!

    • Caroline

      I can quite understand why your young self was confused. I think most of the themes od the novel would be hard to relate to as a 12 year old. You might find it more enjoyable now you are more mature?

  2. Interesting, but you are right–bonkers. Usually I’m up for a missionary story–lots of good misunderstandings, cultural tramplings, etc. It sounds like the author forgot a planned plotline and stuck it in at the end hoping it would be dramatic, but it really just showed laziness!

    • Caroline

      Hi Lisa,
      I’m reluctant to agree that Rose Macaulay was lazy. She was a prolific and accomplished writer. I think it’s more that she was tying up some loose ends. Also her own married lover had died so I suspect she wanted to expore the feelings that she had endured about 15 years earlier: the guilt and the grief.
      But you may be right. Thank you for the comment.

  3. “Rose Macaulay appears to be saying – embrace everything, reject nothing.” – I love this! And yes, bonkers is about the best way to describe this extraordinary tour de force. I also love that you wrote out all those notes to try to get to grips with this novel’s bonkersness!

    • Caroline

      Hi Simon,
      I am a fan of bonkersness I realise. Not chaos, but a certain challenge to the conventional ways of things: in this novel of Christianity, spying and novel writing. Also raising apes and riding camels … You see the problem. Hope 1956Club is going well.

  4. Ah, I had hoped to get to this this week – and I have the same lovely edition as you. But I suspect I will run out of time, which is a shame because I’m a fan of bonkers stuff too and I do love Macaulay’s writing!

    • Caroline

      I guess this book can wait a little bit longer if you dont get round to it!
      Did you inherit your copy? Or perhaps it was a 2nd hand book shop purchase? Many of the books I inherited from my mother, or read on her recommendation when young, came from the World Book Club or Reprint Society. This one stil has its paper sleeve.
      Thanks for 1956 Club, btw

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