To those who have lamented the decline of the essay, Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures must seem like the lively spring of a fox who has been shamming dead. With Miss Macaulay the essay is up and away. The critical observer of human foibles (including his own) will follow her course with delight. The word fancier will pursue Elizabethan favorites brought suddenly to life. Breathless will be the reader with an eye for quotations. Miss Macaulay has bejewelcd her text so subtly, with such skill, that the researcher, dazzled by her gay assumption that one of his personal pleasures is to turn these baubles familiarly, may come to find that some of the brightest gems are Miss Macaulay’s own.
She was moved, she says in her foreword, to ‘set down a few pleasures randomly, as they came to mind.’ That some of these are ‘of different, sometimes of contrary, moods’ does not give her pause. She enjoys Abroad (‘meals . . . in the streets . . . and foreigners . . . the Italians and Spanish handsomer and browner, and the Americans more cordial’; Astronomy (‘Do the others really see these heavenly constellations as quickly as they make out?’); Bed, both Getting into It (’Climb then into this Paradise . . . this pretty world of peace’) and Not Getting Out of It (‘ . . . gently yet firmly eneouched, await the onslaught of the bellicose day, whose buffets jar less rudely those who take them lying down’). She takes pleasure in Believing, and in Disbelieving, in Parties and Not Going to Parties, in Showing Off, and Taking Umbrage. . . .
The recordings of her pleasures are brief. To detain us, as she affects to do in ‘Albums’ and ‘Travelers’ Tales,’ is not a pleasure she permits herself. One may long to linger bathing off the Florida Keys or in the Cam; one may wish to fly on above the clouds, strapped into her friend’s Klemm two-seater. But, no — we must be off, tripping over lovers in Hyde Park, observing flower shops at night and smelling bakeries, subsiding into plush chairs at the cinema to see British officers and Scottish ministers ‘speaking the purest Hollywood,’ even hatching, we hope, a duck’s egg in our bosom.
To those who must find the long view or a purpose, Miss Macaulay may seem to swing by an irreverent tail. She has no intention of instructing, improving, of being earnest and persuasive. She is there for fun. And always she is graceful and tolerant — tolerant of people as diverse as assorted churchgoers, writers of tough-guy stories, flatterers, and compilers of the Oxford Dictionary. Never is she caught off balance herself. In her final disarming essay, ‘Writing,’ she dismisses her profession lightly as ‘an insidious amusement,’ and insists that the real pleasure of writing for her is in words. ‘They arrange themselves In the most elegant and odd patterns; they sound the strangest sweet euphonious notes; they flute and sing and taber, and disappear, like apparitions, with a curious perfume and a most melodious twang.’
I. L. S.