I’ve had this book in my library for about 33 years and have only now got round to reading it.
Rose Macaulay’s best-selling novel (her last, published in 1956) has a highly memorable and well-known beginning:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
They’re in Oxfordshire, England, by the way.
The camel was a gift from a rich desert tycoon to Aunt Dot, the eccentric well-travelled Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett. The book follows the adventures of the narrator, Laurie with her Aunt Dot and her High Anglican clergyman friend Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg (who keeps his collection of sacred relics in his pockets). Aunt Dot, a member of an Anglo-Catholic missionary society, is determined to write a book about the women of Turkey, perhaps freeing them from ‘the Moslem treatment of women’. Father Chantry-Pigg was concerned that the men of the East were shocked by bare-headed and bare-armed women, since it ‘led to unbridled temptation among men.’ To which Aunt Dot responded, most sensibly, ‘Men must learn to bridle their temptations.’
Laurie points out that her family has a tenacious adherence to the English Church. ‘With it has come down to most of us a great enthusiasm for catching fish. Aunt Dot maintains that this propensity is peculiarly Church of England; she has perhaps made a slight confusion between the words Anglican and angling.’ (p9) Indeed, one of their relatives prepared sermons while fishing, believing his vocation to be a fisher of men.
There’s quite a lot about religion, poking fun at various aspects of the church, yet there’s an underlying concern for ‘the truth’ and ‘sin’. As can be seen, there’s wit aplenty; they always seem to be tripping over spies – ‘we saw so many British spies in disguised spying in Turkey…’ Father Chantry-Pigg was intent on converting the men from the Koran, ‘though he had his work cut out, since the second half of his name was a handicap with Moslems.’ (p40)
Their group is also following in the footsteps of a BBC radio crew, Seventh Day Adventists and followers of Billy Graham. As Aunt Dot says, ‘We shall all be tumbling over each other. Abroad isn’t at all what it was.’
Laurie’s state of mind is troubled by guilt. She embarked on an affair with a married man, Vere. This echoes her own life, as she carried on a 24-year affair with ex-priest and author Gerald O’Donovan until he died in 1942.
The narrator is not named as ‘Laurie’ until well into the book; this could have been corrected by inserting her name in the first sentence. Many paragraphs are a page or more long, and some sentences go on for a dozen or so lines, and the mystery that is religion is perhaps a little dated now. It is clear that it’s partly autobiographical, with excellent observation throughout, laced with wit and mischievous candour. Here’s a breathless sentence:
‘All these things Trebizond held for me, and I left Rize very early next morning to get there, and when at noon I came to Xenophon’s Camp and the Pyxitis, with its mouths spreading about into the sea, and the great mass of Boz Tepe ahead, and Eleousa Point, and the harbour bay at its foot where the fishing boats lay in deep purple water for the noon rest, and west of the harbour the white-walled, red-roofed town and the wood-grown height beyond it between the two deep ravines, where the ancient citadel stood in ruin, with house and gardens climbing up among its broken walls, I felt as if I had come not home, not at all home, but to a place which had some strange hidden meaning, which I must try to dig up.’ (pp108/109)
This is an amusing, humorous and enjoyable novel; it may have ruffled some religious feathers when published, now it might upset a few advocates of political correctness. Sprinkled within the travelogue are thoughts about love, sex, life, organized churches, religion, the ancient magicians of Trebizond, the confusion of mis-translation in a foreign land, the plagiarism of travel writers, a fixation with Circassian slaves, international politics, book reviewers, traitors and Bedawins (‘they sound dangerous when spelt like that’) (p154), the training of an ape to play chess and croquet (‘a very good game for people who are annoyed with one another, giving many opportunities for venting rancour.’ (p188)
Rose Macauley died in 1958, aged 77.