Dreaming of Rose excerpt


Chapter One: Beginnings, 1998

First lesson for the novice biographer: don’t assume when you’re reading about people living forty or fifty years ago that they’re necessarily dead. Second lesson: don’t assume that they’re going to be around for you to interview at your leisure in a year or two’s time. Talk to them now.

   Constance Babington Smith published her editions of Rose Macaulay’s letters to Father Hamilton Johnson, and Rose’s letters to her sister Jean, in the early 1960s, soon after Rose died. Constance was then aged about fifty. ‘Is Constance still around?’ asked the Gooders, who were kindly putting me up for a couple of nights in June 1998 while I did some very preliminary digging in the Rose Macaulay archives in Trinity College for a proposal for a new biography of Rose. Constance, who settled in Cambridge at the end of the war, had donated to Trinity’s Wren Library all of her research papers on the editions of Rose’s letters, and on her own 1972 biography of Rose, along with the Macaulay family papers that she had been bequeathed on Jean Macaulay’s death.
   ‘Oh, I doubt it,’ I replied. ‘She’d be ancient if she was still alive.’
   Richard Gooder grabbed the telephone directory. ‘Well, let’s just have a look.’
   And there she was, Constance Babington Smith, 4 Little St Mary’s Lane. Barely five minutes walk from the Gooders’ house.
   ‘Why don’t you give her a ring?’ said Richard.
   The profession of biography, like journalism, demands that you overcome your natural shyness about approaching strangers and asking them to give up their time to answer your questions. I didn’t ring up Constance that evening. My nerve failed me. And anyway Tony Tanner came round to discuss with Richard the marking of the American paper, and we all drank daiquiris and gossiped about people in the English Faculty. Tony Tanner, so crippled he could only just manage to walk with the aid of two sticks, was sadly changed from the dark-haired dashing man I had a crush on when I was twenty and reading out to him my undergraduate essays on Mark Twain; but still clever, attractive, and full of charm.

   I wrote to Constance as soon as I got home. She said she would be delighted to talk to me, but warned me that a recent stroke had impaired her speech. At the end of September 1998 I met her for the first time and recorded our conversation; as a result of the stroke she would pause every so often in the middle of a sentence, and ask me to remind her what it was she’d been saying. ‘You must get writing!’ she urged me. Over the next six months I worked on my proposal and had the biography commissioned by Virago, and at the same time recorded my first series as presenter of BBC Radio 4’s paperback programme, A Good Read.
    My original Rose-proposal had been modelled on Richard Holmes’ pursuit of Robert Louis Stevenson through the Cevennes, which he wrote about in Footsteps; I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Rose Macaulay when she drove down the coast of Spain in 1946, a journey that she wrote up and published as Fabled Shore. The book records the ghostly voices she hears from the distant past: Carthaginians, Greeks, Moors, nineteenth-century English merchants and their families. She travels through a landscape depopulated by civil war, carrying inside her a burden of secret grief. She had been grieving for four years, ever since the death of her lover Gerald O’Donovan.
   This proposal attracted no interest whatsoever from any publisher but I turned it into a drama proposal that was accepted by BBC Radio 4. I then found myself working simultaneously on two periods in Rose Macaulay’s life separated by fifty years or so, and in two different forms: one form shaped by documents, correspondence, the visible traces of a life, and the other demanding a narrative of imagined conversations and interior monologues.

   Early in 1999 Constance had another, very debilitating, stroke. When I returned to Cambridge in April I found her – tiny, frail and almost speechless – in a geriatric ward; from there she moved to a nursing home, where she stayed until her death in the summer of 2000.
   At our first meeting in Little St Mary’s Lane Constance grumbled that Jean Macaulay had cut and burned her way through all her sister’s letters before Constance had had a chance to read them in their entirety.  And then she tantalised me with: ‘Do you think Rose should have …?’ Should have what? She was unable to finish the sentence, so I never found out.

   I wish I’d had the nerve, or the foresight, or the simple sense to ring her that evening in June 1998 and settle myself on her doorstep until I’d asked her everything that I could possibly think to ask. 

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© Sarah LeFanu

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