Rose Macaulay is an author I’ve been interested in trying for a while (since reading Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram, which is set in Trebizond, and discovering that Macaulay had written a book called The Towers of Trebizond). I don’t have a copy of the Trebizond book, though, and do have a copy of Non-Combatants and Others, so it made sense to start with this one.
Non-Combatants and Others, published in 1916, is set during the First World War and, as the title suggests, it tells the story of ‘non-combatants’ and other people who didn’t or couldn’t take an active part in the war. Our heroine, twenty-five-year-old art student Alix Sandomir, is the daughter of a Polish activist father who died in a Russian prison and an English mother, Daphne, who is a pacifist. As the novel opens, Daphne has gone to New York to promote peace, while Alix has remained in England, staying with family in the countryside.
At first Alix may seem to be a rather selfish character. She takes no interest in politics or in helping the war effort; unlike her aunt and cousins, she refuses to get involved in volunteering, nursing, driving ambulances, helping refugees or knitting for the soldiers. Instead she buries herself in her drawing, and at the first opportunity she goes to London to lodge with another set of cousins while she continues her studies at art school. She finds her new companions easier to live with, as they, like herself, are doing their best to ignore the fact that the country is at war.
We soon find, though, that this is just Alix’s way of trying to cope. Her health is not good – she walks with a limp following a childhood illness, and she has a very sensitive, nervous disposition which means she has trouble handling stressful situations. She is also worried about her younger brother, Paul, and the man she loves, Basil Doye, who are both fighting on the front line. Although Alix would love to be able to help in some way, she is frustrated by her own uselessness and decides that the solution to this is simply not to think about it. It is only when she learns the truth about Paul’s experiences in the trenches that she finally has to face up to reality – and when her mother returns from her latest conference, Alix must decide whether she too should join the battle for peace.
Non-Combatants and Others is an unusual novel but a very interesting one. I think what fascinated me the most about it was that it was published in 1916! With hindsight, we know that in 1916 the war would continue for another two years; when Rose Macaulay wrote this book she had no idea how much longer it would last or what the outcome would be. The novel is only two hundred pages long but manages to touch on a wide range of issues which affected those involved – or not involved – in the war: the role of women, the work of the VAD nurses (there’s a very moving chapter set during a visit to a London hospital), the reintegration of wounded ex-soldiers back into society, and the effects of shell shock.
I read an edition of this book published by Capuchin Classics which has a foreword by Sarah LeFanu. When I turned back to read the foreword after I finished the novel I was surprised to find that LeFanu was also discussing a short story called Miss Anstruther’s Letters as if it should have been included in the book. It seems there must have been another edition which included both Non-Combatants and Others and Miss Anstruther’s Letters, but this one does not, which was slightly disappointing. I hope I’ll have a chance to read that short story at some point in the future. I also mentioned a few weeks ago that I was looking for historical fiction novels written by classic women authors and I have since discovered that Rose Macaulay wrote a book called They Were Defeated, set in the seventeenth century. Has anyone read it?