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Told by an Idiot by Rose Macaulay
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Told by an Idiot (1923)

by Rose Macaulay

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As the novel opens, Mama and Papa Garden live in their comfortable London home with their six children, the eldest Vicky is already twenty-three – the youngest Una a fifteen-year-old schoolgirl.

“One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, – in brief, in the year 1879, – Mrs Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr Garden’s study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, “Well, my dears, I have to tell you something. Poor Papa has lost his faith again.””

Mr Garden changes religion like people of today change their mobile phones, from Anglicanism to Ethicism, to Catholicism to Christian Science – and everything in between. The family are well used to it – and his long suffering, ever supportive wife embraces whatever the latest thing is – no matter what her own private thoughts.

It is their children however who are at the centre of this novel, and in 1879 and the 1880s they are what is seen as the modern generation. Conventional Vicky’s younger sisters Stanley and Rome (here again Macaulay’s unusual androgynous names for women) and their brother Maurice at Cambridge are the epitome of late Victorian modernity. Stanley is passionate for a social cause, Rome is charming, urbane and cynical, she tries not to engage too fully with anything, taking life as it comes, and finding so much of life highly amusing.

“Life was to her at this time more than ever a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing. She went on her way as usual, reading, seeing pictures, hearing music, meeting people, talking, smoking, bicycling, leading the life led by intelligent dilettanti in the small, cultivated nucleus of a great city.”

Maurice, with his first from Cambridge is an angry young man, who writes for a newspaper. Una grows up and marries a farmer, delighting too much in country life to do anything else, and Irving becomes a business man with some conscience and the ability to make money.

Vicky becomes a typical late Victorian matron, marries Charles, they argue a little from time to time, but Vicky loves him, and children inevitably arrive. Stanley marries and has children too, but her marriage is less successful, as is Maurice’s who marries a shallow, silly woman without really knowing her. Rome finds her one true love, though he is married to someone else.

Throughout the years, as various politicians come and go, as new technologies and new fads come along, and wars are fought, the older generation continue to be confounded and outraged by the younger generation. Though sometimes, the modern generation is even too outrageous for one another. Stanley’s husband is horrified and repulsed when she takes to wearing ‘bloomers’ to ride around London on a Bicycle.

“’It’s better to be elegant, dirty and dangerous than frumpish, clean and safe. That’s an epigram. The fact is women ought never to indulge in activities, either of the body or the mind; it’s not their rôle. They can’t do it gracefully.”

No wonder, perhaps that in middle age Stanley becomes a suffragist.

The third generation of Gardens grow up in a world where the Boer war is talked about by everyone – including children. Young Imogen is mortified when a child at school says her Uncle Maurice is pro Boer – and Imogen tries to explain that she isn’t pro -Boer herself but she can see their point. Imogen is a wonderful character, if Rome reflects one part of Macaulay’s own character, then her niece Imogen reflects the other part. Imogen; Vicky’s daughter, wants nothing more than to be a bright blue-eyed boy and join the navy. Her head is filled with stories in which she casts herself as Denis, a brown-skinned, blue-eyed young naval man. Imogen longs for adventure, to break away from the role cast for her by society. There is a wonderful scene where Imogen and her brother spend a Sunday morning riding around the underground for a penny. Those readers who love Imogen as much as I did will cheer for her as the novel draws to a conclusion.

Macaulay writes movingly about the realities of the First World War; those modern Victorians are in their sixties as the novel comes to an end – and England in some ways has changed and yet we see that in all the ways that matter people don’t change all that much. The older generation will always shake their heads at the younger generation, no matter what generation that is. ( )
  Heaven-Ali | Oct 13, 2018 |
I read Rose Macaulay's Told by an Idiot (3***) for the 2016 All Virago/All August. As A.N.Wilson notes in the Introduction, it's more an "essay" than a novel, and I found it tedious at times, but Macaulay's opinionated commentary can often be amusing, hence 3***. I found the only two particularly interesting characters to be "Papa" – the forever-searching-for-the-truth Romanist, Anglican, Christian-Science, spiritualist, whatever – and his granddaughter Imogen, the naïf who is an impressionistic child of nature and at the same time, with her rife imagination, a not completely unsuccessful poet and storyteller.

Told by an Idiot (1923) predates Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury by six years, but as far as books with titles drawn from Macbeth's final soliloquy, Told by an Idiot particularly reminds me of M. Barnard Eldershaw's Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947), a seminal work of Australian sci-fi (and also a Virago Modern Classic), one that shares Told by an Idiot's fictionalized social history but also its sometimes tedious editorializing. Both books could have benefited from the advice, "Show, don't tell."

Told by an Idiot is a family saga much like Rachel Ferguson's Alas, Poor Lady, which also covers much the same time period, but Ferguson's novel is much the more successful. ( )
  CurrerBell | Aug 25, 2016 |
Rose Macaulay's Told By An Idiot was a bit of a disappointment. I had high hopes of it, because I love 'The Towers of Trebizond' so much but, sadly, this wasn't in the same league, and left me feeling depressed, not only about the characters and their lives, but about the human condition in general. I assume Macaulay is intentionally commenting on the futility of life, since her title is from Macbeth.

I think, part of my problem with this novel was that the characters never quite come to life. I always felt as if I was viewing them through then wrong end of a telescope, so they appear smaller and more distant than they actually are, and they seemed a little one-dimensional, so it was difficult to engage them. Again, I suspect this is deliberate, since the tale is told largely from the viewpoint of Rome, who is cool, detached, ironic, civilised, and does her best not to do or feel anything.

The novel opens just before Christmas in 1879 as Papa (Mr Aubrey Garden) struggles with yet another crisis of conscience, losing his faith again and adopting yet another set of beliefs. To date, he's been an Anglican clergyman, a Unitarian minister and a Roman Catholic layman; this time around he's set to become an Ethicist (with no creeds, but only conduct), so his devoted wife and six children must prepare themselves for a new home and a new lifestyle.

The children's names reflect their father's changing faith. There's Vicky, named not for the Queen, but her father's victory over unbelief in the year of her birth; Maurice, named in honour of a rationalist friend, and Rome, his second daughter, so called because when she was born he was a member of the Roman Catholic church. Stanley, another daughter, is called after a dean (noit the explorer, as people might assume), while Irving was born during Papa's time as an Irvingite (no, I'd never heard of them either, but they are – or were – a Catholic Apostolic Church). Finally, there is Una, who takes her name from the One Person (in the Trinitarian sense) that Papa believed in at the time.

So far, so quirky, and, as you can see, religion looms large, just as it did for many years in Macaulay's own life. Throughout the novel there are discussions about religious, political and social beliefs, and the right way to live. But the characters who are the happiest seem to be those who think the least about the meaning of life.

Each of the children differ in character, but Macaulay seems to have selected one over-riding characteristic for each, which somehow prevents them emerging as real people, with that mix of good and bad, light and dark, joy and sorrow which makes a character seem human. And, because of that perhaps, they never seem to grow or progress: the novel follows the Garden family over three generations, leaving them in the 1920s, but throughout that period people remain exactly as they were at the outset, almost as if they were different facets of a fragmented personality, or a personification of a particular 'type' or quality.

Pretty, fashionable Victoria is a bit of an airhead, who likes beautiful things, and leads a conventional life, with a nice house, husband and children. Bitter Maurice, the fighter of injustices, trapped in a loveless marriage, becomes a campaigning journalist, and enthusiastic, do-gooder Stanley espouses one radical cause after another. Irving is a financial whizz-kid who makes lots of money and Una is happy to be a farmer's wife, taking life as it comes.

Rome is an enigma. Detached, self-contained, very intelligent, independent, she observes her family, but makes a point of getting through life by never doing anything. “Negligent, foppish and cool, she liked to watch life at its games, be flicked by the edges of its flying skirts.” It's as if she's made a conscious decision to opt out of the messy business of living. “Rome could have done anything, and elected to do nothing. Rome would probably not even marry; her caustic tongue and indifference kept those who admired her at arm's length; she made them feel that any expression of regard was an error in taste; she shrivelled it up by an amused inquiring look through the deadly monocle she placed in one blue-green eye for the purpose.” She's a curiously androgynous figure who rarely shows her feelings, but she falls in love, tragically, with a married man.

Throughout the book, there's a feeling almost of weariness, as one era is superseded by another: Victorian, Edwardian, Georgian. And along the way, key events are charted – the Boer War, Suffragettes, the First World War, and so on. There are interesting references to changing times, ideas and fashions, but that still didn't make the novel or the characters come to life. I always felt as if the ideas were the important thing, pushing plot and character into second place.

I will add here that my 1983 Virago edition has a very erudite introduction by AN Wilson, who hails 'Told By An Idiot' as a 20th century masterpiece, and compares it to Virginia Woolf's 'Orlando', dealing with themes of sexual politics and marital conventions, so I feel as I've missed the point. ( )
1 vote TheBookTrunk | Aug 9, 2015 |
Told By An Idiot is the story of one family from 1880 through the early 1920s. Mr. Garden is a clergyman who frequently switches faiths; then there’s his wife, who quietly devotes herself to her family; and then there are their six unusually-named children, who are adults (or nearly so) when the novel opens.

Times, they are a’changin’. That’s essentially the theme of the novel as we watch the Garden family grow and mature. We watch the younger generation marry and have children; and then we watch their children grow up, too. This book is not only an interesting look at one family, but the times in which they live at the end of the 19th century, how things change, and how the Garden family reacts to it. I feel as though the author used this novel to comment, albeit subtly and satirically, on the times. She focuses mostly on the fin de siècle period, jumping over WWI (since it was still so much in everyone’s minds anyways at the time the book was written).

Macaulay’s comments on late-19th and early 20th century life are never pedantic; I loved her wry sense of humor and insightful comments on her characters and the period in which they lived. My favorite quote in this book, from which the book gets its title, pretty much sums up the whole book: “Life was to [Rome] at this time more than ever a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.” It’s an interesting take on events that had so much of an impact on people. Rome Garden is perhaps the only one of the family who chooses to watch things from the sidelines, and so we kind of see things from her point of view. I’m not expressing it quite the way I want to, by Rose Macaulay’s message hit home for me. This is an absolutely stunning book, recommended to anyone who enjoys reading about this period in history. ( )
4 vote Kasthu | Oct 24, 2010 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Rose Macaulayprimary authorall editionscalculated
Wilson, A NIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Epigraph
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more; it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing...

(W. Shakespeare)
L'histoire, comme une idiote, mecaniquement se repete.

(Paul Morand, Ferme la nuit.)
Dedication
First words
One evening, shortly before Christmas, in the days when our forefathers, being young, possessed the earth, -- in brief, in the year 1879, -- Mrs Garden came briskly into the drawing-room from Mr. Garden's study and said in her crisp, even voice to her six children, "Well, my dears, I have to tell you something".
Told by an Idiot is only partly a novel. (Introduction)
Quotations
When she wrote, whether by day or night, her brain felt clear and lit, as by a still, bright taper burning steadily. Her thoughts, her words, rose up in her swiftly, like silver fishes in a springing rock-pool; round and round they swam, and she caught them and landed them before they got away. ... Style, the stark, bare structure of language, was to her a fetish.
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Book description
It is shortly before Christmas in the year 1879, the forty-second year of Queen Victoria's reign, when the curtain rises on the Garden family: on Mr Garden,a clergyman of many denominations, about to lose his faith for the umpteenth time, on his selfless, devoted wife - and on their six children, about to be launched on the adult world. There is Victoria, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty intent on marriage; Maurice, shaking his fist at the injustices of the world; Stanley, a follower of Ruskin and Morris, doing good as radical fashion dictates; Irving, a lusty young capitalist, and Una, born for happy marriage and maternity. All are watched from the sidelines by their sister Rome. Detached, intelligent, urbane, she observes three generations of her family strut and fret their hour upon the stage. To her their sound and fury signify nothing - but to us the memory of Rome's one brief love affair strikes the final note of truth, defiantly affirming that it is better to have loved and lost...
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It is shortly before Christmas in the year 1879, the forty-second year of Queen Victoria's reign, when the curtain rises on the Garden family: on Mr Garden, a clergyman of many denominations, about to lose his faith for the umpteenth time, on his selfless, devoted wife - and on their six children, about to be launched on the adult world. There is Victoria, a Pre-Raphaelite beauty intent on marriage; Maurice, shaking his fist at the injustices of the world; Stanley, a follower of Ruskin and Morris, doing good as radical fashion dictates; Irving, a lusty young capitalist, and Una born for happy marriage and maternity. All are watched from the sidelines by their sister Rome. Detached, intelligent, urbane, she observes three generations of her family strut and fret their hour upon the stage. To her their sound and fury signify nothing- but to us the memory of Rome's one brief love affair strikes the final note of truth, defiantly affirming that it is better to have loved and lost . . .… (more)

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