“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)
MTh Year II EM8825:
Anglican Studies in an Irish context:
Thursdays: The Hartin Room.
Tuesday, 3 April 2012, 3.30 p.m.:
11.3: Is there an Anglican culture? Rose Macaulay and The Towers of Trebizond
We have been asking whether there is an ‘Anglican Culture’ that acts as a conduit for Anglican history, theology and spirituality, and for the Anglican story.
Earlier this afternoon, we looked, as an example, at the writings of TS Eliot. As a second example I would like to introduce the writer Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) and her novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956). It was the last of her novels, and the most successful, and for it she received the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for fiction.
The book was described in The New York Times: “Fantasy, farce, high comedy, lively travel material, delicious japes at many aspects of the frenzied modern world, and a succession of illuminating thoughts about love, sex, life, organised churches and religion are all tossed together with enchanting results.”
The famous opening sentence is:
“Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
For months after the publication of this novel in 1956, guests at London cocktail parties could be heard quoting those opening lines.
Dame Rose Macaulay (right) was the author of 35 books – 23 of them novels – and is best remembered for Potterism, a satire of yellow journalism; a biography of Milton; her haunting post-World War II novel, The World My Wilderness; two travel books, They Went to Portugal and Fabled Shore; and her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond.
Rose Macaulay was born in Rugby in 1881, the second of seven children in a family of Anglican clerics and eminent academics. She spent her early childhood in Varezze, a small Italian seaside town. In 1894, her family returned to England, and after studying modern history at Somerville College, Oxford, she began a career as a writer, supporting herself as a novelist, journalist, and critic.
After a time of spiritual questioning as an adolescent, she grew into a young woman with a serious approach to religion. After attending a retreat at Saint Alban’s, a High Church parish in Holborn, around 1909, she undertook the disciplined practices associated with Anglo-Catholicism, regularly going to confession at Saint Edward’s House in Westminster, which was the London headquarters of the Cowley Fathers.
During World War I, she worked as a nurse and as a civil servant in the War Office before taking up a position in the British Propaganda Department. There, in 1918, she met Gerald O’Donovan (1871–1942) from Ireland, a former Roman Catholic priest, a novelist, and a married father of three. O’Donovan was 45 and the married father of three; she was 36. They fell in love and eventually began a long affair that lasted until his death in 1942.
By 1922, Macaulay felt that she could no longer make her confession or receive Holy Communion. Her separation from the Church lasted for almost 30 years, during which time she continued to feel “Anglican,” as she put it, but she was “an Anglo-agnostic,” for whom Anglicanism had dwindled down to “a matter of taste and affection . . . rather than of belief.”
This long period of estrangement began to come to an end on 29 August 1950, when out of the blue received a letter from Father Hamilton Johnson. Less than five months later, on 12 January 1951, she went to Saint Edward’s House and made her confession to a priest.
In her 70th year, Rose Macaulay returned to the Church of England as a communicant. She adopted a rule of life, and each morning she attended the early Eucharist at Grosvenor Chapel in South Audley Street, a liberal Anglo-Catholic church with dignified services – high but not extreme, and a church later celebrated in poetry by John Betjeman.
In a letter to Father Hamilton Johnson in 1952, Macaulay spoke of the experience of “being in the Church” as “a wonderful corporate feeling of being carried along, being part of the body ...” The post-1950 Macaulay appears to represent the full, committed life of faith that follows on the stage that Austin Farrer called initial faith. Like Augustine, she knew that the strand of surety is an elusive beach; its shifting sands mean that Christian conversion is never complete and final.
Towards the end of her life, she told her sister Jean that “religious belief is too uncertain and shifting a ground (with me) to speak of lying or truth in connection with it. One believes in patches, and it [“believe”] is a vague, inaccurate word. I could never say ‘Ι believe in God’ in the same sense that I could say ‘Ι believe in the sun & moon & stars’.”
As Augustine makes clear in the Confessions, his conversion did not mean that he had now arrived safely in port; the harbour of the convert is regularly buffeted by storms.
Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity.” During the 1930s and 1940s, when CS Lewis, Austin Farrer, Dorothy L. Sayers and others were writing books that were imaginative yet consistently orthodox, Macaulay was a lapsed Anglican, alienated from the church. Even after her return in 1950-1951, she writes The Towers of Trebizond, whose heroine is to some extent her alter ego, and who occupies a place at the border or beyond Christianity.
She was sceptical about much that the Anglican tradition deemed essential, and for a long period described herself as an “Anglo-agnostic,” never certain of her unbelief, or free of spiritual guilt, or unable to appreciate a good sermon. Her brand of Anglicanism was high and broad – liturgically Catholic and intellectually engaged. She admired the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century and in her personal devotions often used the Great Antiphons.
A mentor to Elizabeth Bowen and a friend of Ivy Compton-Burnett, Rupert Brooke, EM Forster, and Rosamond Lehmann, Macaulay was a well-known figure in London’s literary world and a fabled wit. She was named a Dame Commander of the British Empire (DBE) shortly before her death in 1958.
The book abounds with historical references, including Saint Paul’s fourth missionary journey, the Fourth Crusade, English Christianity since the Dissolution of the Monasteries, 19th century travellers to the Ottoman Empire, World War I, and the archaeological search for the ruins of Troy.
The scene moves from Turkey when the two senior characters elope to the Soviet Union, and Laurie meets her lover and her semi-estranged mother in Jerusalem.
Gerald O’Donovan suffered serious head injuries in a car accident with Rose Macaulay in the Lake District, and the accident may have inspired the fatal accident on the return journey in The Towers of Trebizond. The final chapters raise multiple issues such as the souls of animals.
Back in London, Laurie is at the wheel of the car in which Vere dies. Her own pride and impetuosity cause her to reject her lover’s caution and to assert her rights against a bus that has crashed a red light. Now, without Vere, Laurie feels that she must live “in two hells, for I have lost God” and lost, too, “the love I want.”
Against an Anglo-Catholic backdrop, the book deals with the attractions of mystical Christianity and the conflict between Christianity and adultery, a problem Macaulay faced in her own life because of her 22-year affair with Gerald O’Donovan.
The Towers of Trebizond is part satire, part travel book, part comedy, part tragedy ... and at all times a spiritual reflection on the pilgrimage of life. It starts off as a comic novel, and there is scarcely a line in the first third of the book that fails to provoke laughter or, at the least, a pleasurable sense that someone is tickling your brain.
The book is largely autobiographical. It follows the adventures of a group of people travelling from Istanbul – or Constantinople, as Father Chantry-Pigg insists on calling it, – to Trebizond. In this book, Trebizond is not simply the old name for Trabzon, the former Byzantine port on the shores of the Black Sea in north-eastern Turkey. Trebizond is the “fabled city” that the heroine Laurie feels cut off from; Trebizond can be read as symbolising the Christian faith, or the church; Trebizond could be Bunyan’s Celestial City, Augustine’s City of God, or ultimate, unattainable Truth.
● Laurie, the narrator, is a woman in her mid-30s. Like Macaulay, she too has a long-term love affair with a married man.
● Dorothea ffoulkes-Corbett is the otherwise the eccentric Aunt Dot. Barbara Reynolds suggests she is based on Rose Macaulay’s friend, Dorothy L Sayers. A hale, elderly woman, Aunt Dot justifies her love of world travel by claiming it to be in the service of Anglican mission work and a project to emancipate the women of Turkey by converting them to Anglicanism and popularising the bathing hat.
● Father Hugh Chantry-Pigg, Aunt Dot’s friend, is an Anglo-Catholic priest who keeps his collection of sacred relics in his pockets, and who is “better at condemning than at loving.” Barbara Reynolds has suggested this character has elements of Father Patrick McLaughlin (1909-1988), the Dublin-born Father Gilbert Shaw (1886-1967), Vicar of Saint Anne’s, Soho, and Father Gerard Irvine.
● Dr Halide Tanpinar is a Turkish feminist doctor. She had once converted from Islam to Anglicanism, and she now acts as a foil to these main characters.
● Xenophon is a Greek-speaking, over-indulged young man.
● Aunt Dot’s addled camel was a present to her from a rich Bedouin tycoon. The anxieties over the half-crazed camel’s love-life are in contrast to the subsequent nurture of an ape named Suliman in advanced Anglo-Catholic ritualism.
● Vere, Laurie’s lover, is always in the background although not in the touring party.
On the way, they also meet magicians, Turkish policemen, juvenile British travel writers, and a BBC broadcasting team following Billy Graham on tour.
“I wonder who else is rambling about Turkey this spring,” wonders Aunt Dot at one point. “Seventh-Day Adventists, Billy Grahamites, writers, diggers, photographers, spies, us, and now the BBC.” As Compton Mackenzie writes, at times it feels as if Macaulay has blended love and lunacy to produce a kind of Alice Through the Looking Glass of modern life, or, as another reviewer says, has re-staged the Mad-Hatter’s tea party and has taken it on the road.
The Turkish woman doctor says in the book of Aunt Dot, “She is a woman of dreams. Mad dreams, dreams of crazy, impossible things. And they aren’t all of conversion to the Church, oh no. Nor all of the liberation of women, oh no. Her eyes are on far mountains, always some far peak where she will go. She looks so firm and practical, that nice face, so fair and plump and shrewd, but look in her eyes, you will sometimes catch a strange gleam.”
Reading the book:
The first half of The Towers of Trebizond reads as a satirical picaresque that lampoons Anglican narrowness, and the back-biting competition within English literary society. Set in what was once called “the Levant,” the book crawls with literary tourists, each determined to get their travel book out first. Dot is writing one, too, with Laurie providing the illustrations.
Aunt Dot is both adventurous and provincial. When Father Chantry-Pigg says one ought not to go to Russia because it would mean condoning a government that persecutes Christians, Aunt Dot replies: “If one started not condoning governments, one would have to give up travel altogether, and even remaining in Britain would be pretty difficult.”
When Aunt Dot and Father Chantry-Pigg slip over the border into the Soviet Union, leaving Laurie alone, the novel undergoes a subtle but complete tonal shift.
In the last half of the book, as Laurie wanders Turkey on her camel, running into acquaintances and making do as best she can on the little money she has, the novel becomes a serious, though never heavy-handed, study of a crisis of faith, although Laurie knows herself too well to be thrown into a tizzy over her inability to give herself over to a faith, any faith:
“Nothing in the world, for instance, could be as true as some Anglicans and Calvinists and Moslems think their Churches are, having the faith once for all delivered to the saints. I suppose this must be comfortable and reassuring. But most of us know that nothing is as true as all that, and that no faith can be delivered once for all without change, for new things are being discovered all the time, and old things dropped, like the whole Bible being true, and we have to grope our way through a mist that keeps being lit by shafts of light, so that exploration tends to be patchy, and we can never sit back and say, we have the Truth, this is it, for discovering the truth, if it is ever discovered, means a long journey through a difficult jungle, with clearings every now and then, and paths that have to be hacked out as one walks, and dark lanterns swinging from the trees, and these lanterns are the light that has lighted every man, which can only come through the dark lanterns of our minds.”
Here we find a mature acceptance of uncertainty and confusion as part of our natural condition.
Yet neither Macaulay – who was reconciled with Anglicanism shortly after the book was published and before her death – nor her fictional counterpart can be fully content with that. Reassurance that hangs just out of reach is always a tempting thing, even when you know that the only way to accept it is to short-change your intellect and your own messy experience. Her lover accepts what he calls her “church obsession ... So long as you don’t let it interfere with our lives.”
Macaulay never denies the appeal of belief, the longing for reassurance, but like any adult, she never denies that life is a trade-off either.
While Father Chantry-Pigg is in most respects not a model of ministry to be closely emulated, sometimes his perceptions are accurate. One Sunday morning, he celebrates the Eucharist on the deck of their ship as they are approaching Trebizond. Afterwards, he finds Laurie alone and forces her to confront the seriousness of the dilemma in which she is caught.
‘Later in the morning, when I was on deck looking through glasses at the first sight of Trebizond, Father Chantry-Pigg came and stood by me and said, “How much longer are you going on like this, shutting the door against God?”
This question always disturbed me; I sometimes asked it of myself, but I did not know the answer. Perhaps it would have to be for always, because I was so deeply committed to something else that I could not break away.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“It’s your business to know. There is no question. You must decide at once. Do you mean to drag on for years more in deliberate sin, refusing grace, denying the Holy Spirit? And when it ends, what then? It will end; such things always end. What then? Shall you come back, when it is taken out of your hands and it will cost you nothing? When you will have nothing to offer to God but a burnt out fire and a fag end? Oh, he’ll take it, he’ll take anything we offer. It is you who will be impoverished for ever by so poor a gift. Offer now what will cost you a great deal, and you’ll be enriched beyond anything you can imagine. How do you know how much of life you still have? It may be many years, it may be a few weeks. You may leave this world without grace, go on into the next stage in the chains you won’t break now. Do you ever think of that, or have you put yourself beyond caring?
Not quite, never quite. I had tried, but never quite. From time to time I knew what I had lost. But nearly all the time, God was a bad second, enough to hurt but not to cure, to hide from but not to seek, and I knew that when I died I should hear him saying, “Go away, I never knew you,” and that would be the end of it all, the end of everything, and after that I never should know him, though then to know him would be what I should want more than anything, and not to know him would be hell. I sometimes felt this even now, but not often enough to do what would break my life to bits. Now I was vexed that Father Chantry-Pigg had brought it up and flung me into this turmoil. Hearing Mass was bad enough, hearing it and not taking part in it, seeing it and not approaching it, being offered it and shutting the door on it, and in England I seldom went.
I couldn’t answer Father Chantry-Pigg, there was nothing I could say except “I don’t know”. He looked at me sternly and said, “I hope, I pray, that you will know before it is too late. The door won’t be open for ever. Refuse it long enough, and you will become incapable of going through it. You will, little by little, stop believing. Even God can’t force the soul grown blind and deaf and paralysed to see and hear and move. I beg you, in this Whitsuntide, to obey the Holy Spirit of God. That is all I have to say.’
Possessing a deeply ambivalent attitude toward the Church, Laurie is better at loving than at praying: her affair with a married man has kept her away from the Church of England for ten years. “From time to time,” she says, “I knew what I had lost. But nearly all the time, God was a bad second, enough to hurt but not to cure, to hide from but not to seek.” She acknowledges the other pole of her ambivalence toward Christianity when she remarks that, although “the Church met its Waterloo . . . when I took up with adultery,” Anglicanism was still “in the system,” and, once in, “I think one cannot get it out.”
In a conversation in Jerusalem with a sceptical acquaintance named David, Laurie searches for an answer. After telling him that she has not got the answers and that he should take his questions to the bishop, she suggests that he read “some of the liturgies and missals.” Like a good Anglican, she reaches into liturgy for her answer.
Her reply comes by way of the Great Antiphons, recited during the seven days leading to the Christmas Vigil. Laurie quotes for David the Advent hymns to the divine wisdom (O Sapientia) and to the divine light (O Oriens, O Dawn of the East).
What holds Laurie back from a fully committed Christian faith is, in large measure, her attachment to her lover, Vere, who brings her great joy and contentment.
Laurie’s Augustine-echoing resistance to being delivered just yet is only one of the reasons behind her disinclination to rejoin the Church. There are also the faults of Christian institutions down the centuries. She observes how the Church “grew so far, almost at once, from anything which can have been intended.” It “became ... blood-stained and persecuting and cruel and war-like and made small and trivial things so important.”
Laurie’s objections are intellectual as well as moral. The church, she says, began “with a magnificent idea,” but that idea had “to be worked out by human beings who do not understand much of it but interpret it in their own way and think they are guided by God, whom they have not yet grasped.” She questions the historicity of the gospel accounts: “I wonder what was really said, how far the evangelists got it right, and how much they left out, writing it down long after.” She is aware that “some of the things they forgot and left out might have been very important, and some of the things they put in they perhaps got wrong, for some sound unlikely for [Jesus] to have said.”
She sees that “no Church can have more than a very little of the truth,” and therefore she finds it impossible “to believe, as some people do, that one’s Church has all the truth and no errors, for how could this possibly be?”
The book ends with Laurie in what she describes as a dual hell, though there is more acceptance than torment in her description. The revelations in The Towers of Trebizond are all of the earthly variety, and Macaulay makes that seem, if not everything, then enough for any reasonable person.
The impact of the book
Constance Babington-Smith writes that “many Anglicans, and also many would-be believers” responded to The Towers of Trebizond in a manner that Macaulay found profoundly moving. “Some weeks after the book was out she wrote ... that she was beginning to feel ‘almost like a priest,’ for so many people were telling her how much she had helped them in their religion.”
Macaulay delighted in pointing out that The Towers of Trebizond helped to convince many readers to turn toward the Church and what it stands for. Her novel had, she said, decided a young woman at a crucial moment in her life for the right course, and clergy read parts of it to ordinands besieged by doubt, without plunging them into deeper anguish. David Hein says many clergy and laity found their faith reinvigorated by reading The Towers of Trebizond.
The paradox of its popular reception by Christians and would-be believers is part of the mystery of The Towers of Trebizond. The book presents dilemmas and reveals their attractions, but it declines to provide easy answers and solutions.
The capacity of Anglicanism to hold together contradictions increased Macaulay’s appreciation of Anglicanism. She wrote The Towers of Trebizond after her return to the Church of England, but does not mark out for her readers the steps on the journey of faith they only they could take for themselves. She said it was “meant to be about the struggle of good and evil, its eternal importance, and the power of the Christian Church over the soul, to torment and convert.”
The ending is gratifyingly indeterminate, reassuring in its refusals. What makes the author of this book worthy of consideration as a spiritual mentor for 21st century seekers has much to do with her willingness to acknowledge difficulties.
In the days following Vere’s death, Laurie, stricken with grief and remorse, rejects what he rejected, giving up what he mockingly called her “church obsession.” She turns her back on the Church and all that it stands for, “knowing that God is leaving us alone for ever; we have lost God and gained hell.”
At the end of this novel, there is still much that restrains Laurie from moving toward the shimmering towers of Trebizond, and it is impossible to say in which direction she will eventually turn. As one literary scholar wrote: “It is the highest of ironies that a novel which ends on such a note of – perhaps even unchristian? – despair should be hailed as one of the twentieth century’s most luminous Christian novels.”
The Towers of Trebizond ends in silence and in waiting. It is an honest reckoning with the cognitive obstructions of Christian faith, and it throws out a line – albeit one that in the darkness might be hard to recognise – to all who struggle with doubt.
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (London: Collins, 1956).
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (London: Fontana, 1962, 3rd impression, February 1970), the edition I have used while preparing this essay.
Rose Macaulay, The Towers of Trebizond (New York: New York Review Books, 2003).
Constance Babington-Smith, Rose Macaulay (London: Collins, 1972). Alice Crawford, Paradise Pursued: The Novels of Rose Macaulay (Madison, New Jersey: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995).
David Hein, ‘Faith and Doubt in Rose Macaulay’s The Towers of Trebizond,’ Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2006.
David Hein (ed), Readings in Anglican Spirituality (Cincinnati, Ohio: Forward Movement Publications, 1991).
Richard H Schmidt, Glorious Companions: Five Centuries of Anglican Spirituality (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 2002).
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay is an extended version of notes prepared for a lecture on the MTh Year II course, EM8825: Anglican Studies in an Irish context, on Tuesday 3 April 2012