A Prophetic Comedy
By Rose Macaulay
Out on 25th March
Ministers pursuing harebrained policies they neither understand nor fully endorse?
Biased, corrupt newspaper moguls and editors?
An Irish Question? (“. . . there will always be one.”)
These are not elements of a hot-off-the-presses satire tearing a strip off of Brexit or that fool in the White House. They are elements of Rose Macaulay’s What Not, written as World War I drew to a close, yet alarmingly in synch with current events. There are only so many times one can say, “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose,” without weeping about the glacial pace (old school glacial, not current climate-in-free-fall glacial) of ideological enlightenment, social reform, and sane government that works on behalf of the people who elected it. Therefore you may read this novel and bewail its modern parallels, but many of your tears will be inspired by laughter.
Independent publisher Handheld Press has reissued the novel in an attractive, flapped paperback edition, with a thoughtful introduction from Sarah Lonsdale, senior lecturer in journalism at City University London. Lonsdale raises enough interesting points that it is tempting to quote her at length. Instead, read her essay twice, both before and after spending time in Macaulay’s world; it’ll help clarify some of the remarkable elements of the novel. Lonsdale also describes the book’s publication journey, which includes a recall and revision to avoid a lawsuit. (This edition reinstates the problematic text.)
By 1918, with its end in sight, people wondered what Britain would be like after the long, horrific war, and how future wars could be averted. What Not presumes that stupidity is a prime cause of war, therefore it’s up to the government to eradicate stupidity. Or feeblemindedness, to use a more 1919 term.
The novel opens at an unspecified date after the Great War, in a subtly altered Britain. As well as the tube, there are aero buses. Children are wheeled around in motor-prams. House parties play a new card game called League of Nations, “of which the point was to amass cards and go out while presenting an appearance of doing nothing at all.”
In a reconfigured Westminster, the Prime Minister’s been replaced by a United Council (“five minds with but a single thought—if that”). Following the enactment of the Mental Progress Act, everyone must be tested and classified according to intelligence levels. The underlying idea is that a nation willing to toe the line during wartime—embracing rationing, conscription, and other “intrusive regulations”—will surely carry on following rules, however absurd, during peacetime.
A person’s grade (ranging from A to C3) affects whom they should marry and whether or not they’re sanctioned to reproduce at all. The idea is to nip stupidity in the bud. A grades are recommended to take B2 or B2 partners. “To ally yourself with another A or B1 was regarded as wasteful, there not being nearly enough of these to go round.” C1, C2 and C3 individuals are discouraged to breed, and heavily fined for having babies, especially with fellow Cs. Those profligate souls producing three or more infants could face imprisonment. Meanwhile babies born to “superior” parents earn cash bonuses. Unsurprisingly, what looks good on paper to the ministry doesn’t work, practically. All the policy in the world can’t legislate emotions.
What Not is dedicated “To Civil Servants I Have Known,” and its central couple both work in the Ministry of Brains. Kitty Grammont, an A, is a vivid career woman on the rise. She attracts the attention of Nicholas Chester, the Minister for Brains. He is also an A, but uncertified for marriage and breeding because he has siblings classed as “imbeciles.” How will he reconcile his wilful determination to fulfil his desires with their opposition to the laws his ministry enacts, which he drafted?
Should he and Kitty ignore their feelings? Have an affair? Marry secretly? Marry publicly? When the press gets wind of things, an unscrupulous editor attempts to blackmail Chester, and a decision is forced.
All of this takes time to unfold, and it has to be said, this love affair is problematic. Chester never feels fully realised or indeed, loveable, therefore Kitty’s attraction is puzzling. There’s a point—Chapters 8 and 9, precisely—where their debate about What To Do feels polemical, threatening to drag down the story. However it is notable, especially remembering this book is 100 years old, that Kitty offers pragmatic and unemotional arguments, and it is Kitty who, though not without regret, would better endure renouncing the relationship.
Mostly the novel toggles happily, and oh-so-snarkily, between descriptions of life in London and in Little Chantrey (a quintessential English village), where Kitty’s from, and where she weekends amid a sharply-drawn cast of endearing characters. They include vicar’s daughter Ivy Delmer, a typist at the Ministry of Brains, who can’t help admiring her smarters and (she thinks) betters. Special mention goes to Pansy Ponsonby, bidie-in to Kitty’s brother Anthony (inconveniently, especially as they have a child, they can’t marry because she already has a husband). Pansy is a revue dancer and although her depiction is straight from central casting—beautiful, scatty, apt to speak out when discretion should be her watchword—she bewitches with a good humoured approach to life that is infectious.
And Ivy’s father, the vicar, rather than becoming a figure of fun and derision in a book that holds nothing sacred, emerges as a soft-spoken subversive whose pulpit wisdom gently suggests that the British should be “Conscientious Obstructionists,” refusing government interference, and withholding the tax on less intelligent infants.
Macaulay’s a skilful juggler of viewpoints. Those who bristle at entrenched stupidity will surely appreciate the frustrated question (if not the proffered solution): Why can’t people wise up? But equally compelling are the dissenters, among them a range of B- and C-classified citizens who argue that the heart wants what it wants, and people should be free to lead their lives, whatever their intelligence.
There are other dissenters, with other reasons. Captain Ambrose, for instance, didn’t like “all this interfering, socialist what-not, which was both upsetting the domestic arrangements of his tenants and trying to put into their heads more learning than was suitable for them to have. For his part he thought every man had a right to be a fool if he chose, yes, and to marry another fool, and to bring up a family of fools too. Damn it all . . . hadn’t they shed their blood for the country, and where would the country have been without them, though now the country talked so glibly of not allowing them to reproduce themselves until they were more intelligent.”
Once the Mind Training Act is passed, trouble ensues, including a spike in abandonment and infanticide. The cinema and press become flat out propaganda machines. Publishing takes a hit because the light, easy stories that used to sell in quantity and fill the coffers (allowing for the publication of more difficult work) no longer have a market. Amid this unrest the relationship between Kitty and Nicholas is revealed, and it’s not surprising when violence arrives on the minister’s doorstep.
But above all, and the reason it’s so enjoyable, is that What Not does what it says on the tin—it’s properly funny, filled with snarky satire that reliably nails its victims.
Here is Macaulay on one of the newspapers in her world:
“The Hidden Hand was the Government daily paper. Such a paper had for long been needed; it is difficult to understand why it was not started long ago. All other papers are so unreliable, so tiresome; a government must have one paper on which it can depend for unfailing support. So here was the Hidden Hand, and its readers had no excuse for ignorance of what the government desired them to think about its own actions.”
Here she gives us a lesson in show-don’t-tell characterisation:
“Miss Grammont and Miss Delmer walked there, Miss Delmer well ahead and hurrying, because to her it seemed late, Miss Grammont behind and sauntering because to her it seemed superfluously early. The Ministry day began at 9:30, and it was only 9:40 now.”
Even chapters 8 and 9, dense as they are, raise interesting points, dancing round the issue of how Kitty and Nicholas should resolve their feelings vis a vis their mission. Macaulay has a knack for laying out multiple perspectives of her points, then stepping back, leaving readers to make up their own minds.
Lonsdale believes that What Not is unfairly overlooked, especially by scholars of dystopian/utopian fiction. I agree, but luckily, this smart new edition means we can give Macaulay her due.
Sidenote: The eugenics question raging during Macaulay’s time is at the heart of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. They had a close mutual friend in Naomi Royde-Smith, a writer who published nearly four dozen novels, biographies, and plays, and who was the first woman literary editor of the Westminster Gazette. Lonsdale says there’s no record of his having read What Not, but that “major themes of Brave New World bear uncanny resemblances to those in Macaulay’s novel.”