Dangerous Ages

Rarely do you close a book after reading its last lines and hear the echo of a standing ovation, “Bravo!” thrown across a century since its publication, having been completely unaware of the author’s existence. Such was the case with this, my first exposure to Rose Macaulay, whom I learned about via Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth a few weeks ago. Excuse the picture being pulled in for this entry– of course Amazon does not have this book, but I found this other Rose Macaulay cover instead and will probably put it on my list to gobble up next.
In the beginning, I was frightened. Too many adjectives. I thought Rose would turn out to be a half-talent, “sharp joy,” “shivered ecstatically,” “restless bitterness.” (Also the unforgivable “like nothing in the world except a cuckoo clock, a cuckoo shouted foolishly in the lowest boughs of the great elm across the silver lawn.”) We begin on Neville’s 43rd birthday, where she wakes, makes tea & bread & jam, then heads out for a pre-dawn swim before being accosted by her two children (in their early 20s). It’s a lovely family, and Neville’s own brothers and sisters are of high intellectual bent (minus her poor faking mother who pretends to have read books much to the agony of her children). This is July 1920, and talk is of the 1M extra women due to WW1 casualties. “Penelope’s baby’s come, by the way. A girl. Another surplus woman.”
Neville’s sister Nan is a independent writer, never married, free as the wind. While Neville struggles to figure out her purpose now that her children are gone (attempting to resume her studies to become a medical doctor but finding them too tedious to an atrophied brain), Nan struggles to figure out how to achieve contentedness, and discovers that her sisters are rooted to other people, decides to marry her friend Barry after all. Only, sad trombones, Barry has stopped waiting for Nan and fallen for Neville’s daughter Gerda (the foreshadowing of which pricks at you through all the early pages, your stomach sinks because you know what’s coming). On the coastal bicycling trip where Nan decides she’ll let Barry know that she’ll marry him after all, she invites Gerta & brother Kay, discovers that Barry’s in love with Gerda, and begins leading the foursome on wild daredevil adventures that nearly get them killed (drowning) and which Gerta feels obligated to keep up with (flying her off a cliff and breaking several bones, where Barry at last declares himself). Nan heads to Italy to avoid any witness of this duo’s love.
Meanwhile, Nan & Neville’s mother finds herself at age 63 at wits end, no projects, bored. She takes up psychoanalysis greedily, pouring out her boring tales at expensive hourly rates. There’s also the cunning character of the daughter in law, Rosalind, a psychoanalyst herself whom the family barely tolerates and she loves goading them on. Problems arise when Gerda won’t back off her conviction that marriage is a farce, that she and Barry can live in an open relationship forever.
Nan’s mother to her psychoanalyst:
“May I ask your daughter’s age?” “Nan is thirty-three.” “A dangerous age.” “All Nan’s ages,” said Mrs. Hilary, “have been dangerous. Nan is like that.” “As to that,” said Mr. Cradock, “we may say that all ages are dangerous to all people, in this dangerous life we live.”
Mrs. Hilary goes to Rome to “save” Nan from the gossips. They fight about nearly everything:

Nan was determined to keep the emotional pressure low for the rest of the day, and she was fairly competent at this when she tried. As Mrs. Hilary had equal gifts at keeping it high, it was a well-matched contest. When she left the Forum for a tea shop, both were tired out. The Forum is tiring; emotion is tiring; tears are tiring; quarreling is tiring; traveling through to Rome is tiring; all five together are annihilating.

Back at the seaside, three generations have varying ideas about time:

The rain beat steadily on wet asphalt roads; the edge of the cold sea tumbled and moaned; the noise of the fire flickering was like unsteady breathing, or the soft fluttering of wings.
“Time is so long,” thought Mrs. Hilary. “I can’t bear it.”
“Time gets on that quick,” thought May {the maid}. “I can’t keep up with it.”
“Time is dead,” thought Grandmamma. “What next?”