Born 1881 Died 1958
Emilie Rose Macaulay was born at Rugby on 1 August 1881, the second of the seven children of George Campbell Macaulay, who was an assistant master at Rugby School at the time, and his wife Grace Mary Conybeare. Her mother was the daughter of the Reverend William John Conybeare, while her father was a distant relative of the historian Thomas Babington Macaulay.
At the age of five her family moved to Italy and she spent the next eight years of her childhood at the seaside town of Varazze near Genoa where she was allowed considerable independence and became a tomboy whose ambition was to join the Navy. Her family returned to Britain in 1894 and Rose attended the Oxford High School for Girls, following which she went to Somerville College, Oxford thanks to the generosity of her uncle and godfather, Reginald Macaulay. There she read modern history and after being awarded an aegrotat in 1903, she returned to live with her parents, firstly in Aberystwyth and then from 1905 onwards at Cambridge.
It was during these years that she first began to write both poetry and pose. Some of her early poems appeared in the Westminster Gazette, and her first novel, Abbots Verney, was published in 1906. A sequence of further novels followed, but made little impact and which Rose later came to regard as unsatisfactory. Her first real success had to wait until her sixth novel The Lee Shore was awarded first prize in a competition rub by the publishers Hodder and Stoughton in 1912. The £1,000 prize-money, together with the financial assisitance of her uncle, enabled her to leave home and buy her own flat at Marylebone in London. The result was The Making of a Bigot published in 1914, the first of her works to demonstrate the witty and satiric comedic tone that became her trademark.
During World War I she spend time working as both a volunteer nurse and a land girl until 1916, when she became a civil servant in the War Office. It was while she was working at the War Office in February 1918 she met the novelist Gerald O'Donovan. A former Catholic priest he was a ten years her senior and already married with children. Her religious convictions and moral scruples prevented her from consumating this relationship, but after two years she relented and the secret affair continued until O'Donovan's death.
When the war ended Rose decided to largely abandon poetry and concentrate on prose, and wrote a series of comic novels satirising the absurdities of the day. Potterism, which was published in 1920, was her first big commercial success, followed by Dangerous Ages in 1921, which won the Femina Vie Heureuse prize. This was followed by a string of further satirical novels such as Told by an Idiot (1923), Orphan Island (1924), Crewe Train (1926), and Keeping Up Appearances (1928). She also engaged in parallel career as a journalist and an essayist with some of her more serious pieces appearing in two collections A Casual Commentary (1925) was followed by Catchwords and Claptrap (1926) and became one of the more prominent literary figures on the London scene. She took tea with Virginia Woolf, Evelyn Waugh and Henry Green came to repair her water cistern, while T.S.Eliot tried to dissuade her from swimming in the Serpentine in winter. She also established friendships with such figures as Ivy Compton-Burnett, E.M. Forster, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Bowen.
She came to regarded in the words of Q. D. Leavis as an
'upper-middlebrow' writer whose books were "to be found on the shelves of dons, the superior type of schoolmaster ... and in the average well-to-do home". However during the 1930s she considerably enhanced a reputation with a series of more serious works. Rose wrote a biography of John Milton, an historical novel They Were Defeated, which was based on the life of the poet Robert Herrick, an academic study Some Religious Elements in English Literature, a volume of essays, Personal Pleasures, and a book of literary criticism, The Writings of E. M. Forster.
During World War II she spent three years as a voluntary ambulance driver but was struck by tragedy when her flat was bombed and she lost all her belongings while in 1941 she discovered that her lover O'Donovan was suffering from terminal cancer and only had six months to live. Afterwards she largely gave up writing for a number of years, and it was not until after the war that she re-established herself as a a writer on travel with They Went to Portugal 1946 and Fabled Shore and the Pleasure of Ruins (1953). She later returned to fiction with The World my Wilderness (1950) and The Towers of Trebizond (1956) which was awarded the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.
Beginning with the famous words - "'Take my camel, dear,' said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass" - The Towers of Trebizond is now regarded as her comic masterpiece. Partly inspired by her own trip to Turkey in 1954, the novel chronicles aunt Dot's attempts at liberating the Muslim women of Turkey by means of their conversion to her own variety of high church Anglicanism. Described by John Betjeman as "the best book she has written and that is saying a lot" it was a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic and propelled Rose to the status of a literaty celebrity and won her an invitation to dinner at Buckingham Palace.
In her later years Rose also wrote for a number of periodicals such as the Times Literary Supplement, The Spectator, the New Statesman, The Observer, and The Listener, and also engaged in lengthy correspondance with a distant cousin, the Reverend John Hamilton Cowper Johnson, which resulted in here decision to rejoin the Church of England in 1950. Selections from this correspondance being published after her death as Letters to a Friend (1961) and Last Letters to a Friend (1962).
In 1958 she was made a Dame Commander of the British Empire by Harold Macmillan but died shortly afterwards from a heart attack at her home in London on the 30th October 1958. At the time of her death she was working on a novel entitled Venice Besieged. The fragment that she finished was published together with a selection of letters to her sister Jean as Letters to a Sister in 1964.
- Abbots Verney, 1906
- The Furnace, 1907
- The Secret River, 1909
- The Valley Captives, 1911
- Views and Vagabonds, 1912
- The Lee Shore, 1912
- The Making of a Bigot, 1914
- Non Combatants, 1916
- What Not: A prophetic Comedy, 1918
- Three Days, 1919
- Potterism, 1920
- Dangerous Ages, 1921
- Mystery At Geneva: An Improbable Tale of Singular Happenings, 1922
- Told By An Idiot, 1923
- Orphan Island, 1924
- Crewe Train, 1926
- Keeping Up Appearances, 1928
- Staying With Relations, 1930
- Going Abroad, 1934
- They Were Defeated, 1932
- I Would Be Private, 1937
- And No Man's Wit, 1940
- Life Among the English, 1942
- The World My Wilderness, 1950
- The Towers of Trebizond, 1956
Constance Babington Smith, ‘Macaulay, Dame (Emilie) Rose (1881–1958)’, rev. Katherine Mullin, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004
J. V. Guerinot, University of Wisconsin. Rose Macaulay from Dictionary of Literary Biography. ©2005-2006 Thomson Gale, a part of the Thomson Corporation.