Rose Macaulay – Dangerous Ages (1921)

Prolific interwar author Rose Macaulay won the 1922 Femina-Vie Heureuse Prize for her novel Dangerous Ages. The prize was founded in 1919 as a British counterpart to the French Prix Femina: an annual novel prize awarded by an all-female committee. The winning author was often, but not always, female too. Other illustrious winners include E.M. Forster who was awarded the prize in 1925 for A Passage To India; Radclyffe Hall who won for Adam’s Breed in 1927, and Virginia Woolf who was given the prize in 1928 for To The Lighthouse. The British prize was awarded until 1939; the original French prize is still running today.

Dangerous Ages was Macaulay’s eleventh novel, published when she was forty. Her age when writing the novel is significant, as the work chronicles six female members of the same family, each at a different, but equally ‘dangerous’ age. Grandmamma is eighty-four; her daughter Mrs Hilary is sixty-three; Mrs Hilary’s daughters Neville, Pam and Nan are forty-three; thirty-nine and thirty-three respectively. Finally, Neville’s daughter Gerda is twenty. The novel spends little to no time describing the men of the family; brothers and husbands exist, but are only given cursory mention and their inner lives are not explored in depth. Instead, the work is deeply concerned with the emotional experience of womanhood in early 1920s Britain, and Macaulay appears to take a fairly dim view on this. Almost all the female characters experience a deep emotional lack, brought about by the expectation that their primary role in life is to be a wife and a mother.

Mrs Hilary’s first name is Emily, but she is only called that in the novel by her own mother. At all other points she is ‘Mrs Hilary’, foregrounding the perceived importance of her marital status to herself and her children and grandchildren. Her husband has passed away ten years previously and Mrs Hilary lives with her mother in a seaside town. She is described as being not intelligent and having no hobbies. Grandmamma has settled into a life of little eventfulness, knowing that she is near the end of her time on earth. Nonetheless, she makes a point of always visiting any new babies born in the family. Mrs Hilary, on the other hand, knows she may have several decades more to live, and has no meaningful work to fill it with.

Similarly, Neville at forty-three is casting around for a purpose now that her two children are grown up. We are told that when she was in her early twenties, Neville started medical school, but left the course without qualifying at twenty-two when she met her husband and got married. Now that she is done raising her children, the role of MP’s wife does not seem sufficiently fulfilling for Neville. She determines to return to medical school to finish her studies and qualify. However, Macaulay does not grant Neville a simple triumph. Instead, she finds her studies ‘difficult beyond her imaginings.’[1]

After weeks of studying her brother Jim, who did qualify as a surgeon, quizzes Neville and she realises that she’s not going to be able to reach the required level of academic knowledge after twenty years of not applying her brain with any discipline. When she asks her brother what else she can do to give meaning to her life, he can only suggest that she continues her ‘political work – public speaking, meetings, and so on. Isn’t that enough?’[2] It is clear to the reader that it will not be enough for Neville, who is repeatedly described as having a keen mind.

For Mrs Hilary, temporary salvation of a sort comes from taking a course of psycho-analysis. In this new type of talking therapy, which had recently arrived on British shores, she finds a man who, for two hours every week, has to listen to all of her memories, thoughts and dreams and has to show an interest in them. For a woman like Mrs Hilary, who is endured and indulged by her children but not taken seriously, this therapeutic relationship gives her a sense of importance and purpose, even if she quickly becomes dependent on her therapist.

Nan, Mrs Hilary’s youngest daughter and an author, has spent her thirty-three years to date dating around without making a serious emotional commitment to anyone. One of her admirers is thirty-five year old Barry Briscoe. After years of keeping Barry at arms’ length, Nan realises that she is ready to settle down. She resolves to spend a few weeks in Cornwall finishing her latest book, and then to invite Barry over and let him know that she is ready to commit to him. Unfortunately for Nan, during the weeks she is in Cornwall writing, Barry decides that she is probably never going to agree to marry him and he falls in love with her niece Gerda instead.

Nan has missed her opportunity for conventional happiness and is left travelling abroad and pursuing a very public but rather unhappy affair with a married painter. Gerda, initially absolutely committed to not subjecting to the institution of marriage, is eventually persuaded by Barry to drop her ideals and agree to matrimony. His assurance that ‘Next time we differ I’ll try to be the one to do it [change his mind], I honestly will….’ rings hollow to the reader, who can foresee Gerda walking into a life of compromise and self-neglect like her mother and grandmother before her.

Despite the book’s publication shortly after the Great War, the conflict plays no role in the novel’s plot, beyond a few references to the notion of ‘surplus women.’ There is no sense that these post-war women have greater freedom or opportunities than previous generations: instead, almost all the women in the novel see their lives dictated by the expectations of marriage and motherhood. The exception is thirty-nine year old Pam, who lives with a female friend in a Hoxton flat and does social work. Macaulay allows Pam the final word: ‘Pamela, who seemed lightly, and, as it were, casually, to swing a key to the door against which Neville, among many others, beat’.[3] Pam’s secret is a supreme detachment from the details and emotions of life: ‘I certainly don’t see quite what all the fuss is about…’[4] The choice these 1920s women have, according to Macaulay, is to either remove themselves from life’s passions and emotions; or to live a life of constant frustration.

[1] Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages (London: British Library, 2020), p. 39

[2] Ibid., p. 90

[3] Ibid., p. 206

[4] Ibid.