What Not: A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

Reviewed by Nick Hubble. This review first appeared in The BSFA Review.

Originally published in 1918, Rose Macaulay’s speculative satire, What Not: A Prophetic Comedy, extrapolates from the wartime state’s unprecedented intrusion into private life – conscription, censorship, food rationing – to imagine a Ministry of Brains committed to raising public intelligence through various measures such as the ‘Mental Progress Act’, the introduction of a ‘Mind Training Course’ and, more sinisterly, stipulating who may marry who according to an A-C intelligence classification. Babies born according to the regulations gain their parents financial bonuses, but unregulated infants are taxed on a sliding scale ‘so that the offspring of parents of very low mental calibre brought with them financial ruin’. 

A Handheld Press Publication: What Not, A Prophetic Comedy by Rose Macaulay

As Sarah Lonsdale points out in her helpful introduction to the novel, there are clear points of comparison with better known works of utopia and dystopia. Like William Morris’s News from Nowhere (1890), What Not begins in a carriage on the London underground. More significantly, Macaulay moved in the same circles as Aldous Huxley and it is difficult to imagine that her work was not in some way an influence on Brave New World (1932), which might be seen in Lonsdale’s words ‘as the world of What Not some few decades into the future’. Finally, the novel also anticipates George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), in its story of one clerk’s revolt against the system in the name of love. 

Macaulay’s protagonist is Kitty Grammont, introduced to us as a woman who takes both the New Statesman and the Tatler: ‘She was partial to both, which was characteristic of her attitude towards life’. This attitude of seeking to have her cake and eat it corresponds to the general sense conveyed by the novel – people’s experience of the war having overturned all sorts of time-honoured and apparently stable social norms – of nervous, reckless times in which people are determined to make the best of whatever they can get and live life to the full. However, what makes Kitty stand out from the crowd of female clerks, whose culture is nicely evoked, is her determination ‘to defeat a foolish universe with its own weapons’. Her romance and secret marriage to Nicholas Chester, the Minister of Brains – who is forbidden to marry by his own laws due to the mental deficiency of his siblings – is played out as a scathing comedy rather than the tragedy it might be in a lesser work.

The relentless cynical wit means that the novel remains, as Lonsdale suggests, an ambiguous and ‘sometimes slippery book to grasp hold of’. On the one hand, Macaulay clearly does not endorse the eugenics programme of the Ministry, which unsurprisingly leads to many abandoned babies turning up on doorsteps around the country. On the other hand, What Not is not a straightforward dystopian warning or ‘protest against social engineering’ as the back-cover blurb suggests. One of the most heart-felt passages in the novel is Chester’s bitter complaint at the stupidity of a society that fails to educate people and provide effective medical care. Equally in favour of social reform is this pointed narrative gloss on male audience responses to Kitty publicly talking on behalf of the Ministry: ‘Rural England [. . .] was still regrettably eastern, or German, in its feminist views, even now that, since the war, so many more thousands of women were perforce independent wage-earners, and even now that they had the same political rights as men.’

Therefore, it probably makes sense to see What Not as a comically-resigned lament for the impossibility of evading the cruel stupidity of life without imposing a system that is even crueller and more stupid. However, there is also just the faintest suggestion in Kitty’s momentary out-of-body experience, in which she realises the entire society depicted in What Not is no more than a ‘queer little excited corner of the universe’, that other worlds are possible. Overall, the novel should be recommended as more than a historical curiosity.

Copyright Nick Hubble. All rights reserved.

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