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The novelist and her monastic soul-friend

by
11 September 2015

Youth and experience: Rose Macaulay in her youth in the 1920s; below, right: Fr Hamilton Johnson SSJE in 1950

Youth and experience: Rose Macaulay in her youth in the 1920s; below, right: Fr Hamilton Johnson SSJE in 1950

“‘TAKE my camel, dear,’ said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” So begins Rose Macaulay’s most well-known novel, The Towers of Trebizond, which features the memorably smug Anglo-Catholic priest Fr Chantry-Pigg, with his pocketful of relics.

The novel was a great success — winning the James Tait Black Memorial Prize — and brought her a new audience: Macaulay boasted about the number of bishops she had “bagged” with it.

But when Macaulay published The Towers of Trebizond, her last novel, in 1956, she had been back in the Church for only six years. The person responsible for encouraging her return to faith was a priest of the what were then known as the Cowley Fathers’ community in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The letters are a testament to the quiet but profound spiritual direction of the Society of St John the Evangelist, which this year is celebrating the 100th anniversary of the death of its founder, Richard Meux Benson (Feature, 16 January).

In 1950, Macaulay, then living in London, received an airmail letter from one John Hamilton Cowper Johnson of 980 Memorial Drive, Cambridge, Massachusetts, better known as Fr Johnson SSJE. Fr Johnson had known Macaulay slightly when he had been at St Edward’s House, Westminster, some 30 years earlier.

He was writing now because he had enjoyed her most recent novel; a fan letter from a monk. Macaulay replied, and so began an exchange that lasted for eight years, until her death.

When that correspondence started, Macaulay had been out of the Church of England, the Church of her youth, for nearly 30 years. She had been in a long relationship with a married man, and had not known how to reconcile that with her faith. In 1950, that man had just died; Fr Johnson’s epistolary entry into her life was timely.

 

MACAULAY’s letters are full of learning, wit, charm and, most of all, deep questions about faith. She soon found herself wanting to make her confession (she described the experience as leaving her “winded and dazed”), and longing to return to the Church.

Fr Johnson offered equal wit and learning in reply, but, most importantly, he gave her spiritual wisdom from the distance of 6000 miles, and guided her to the right priest and church in London. After three months of correspondence, she wrote that she was grateful for “Absolution from Memorial Drive, which I feel I have (however undeservedly)”.

A few weeks later, she wrote to Fr Johnson: “How many people do you ‘change’ a year, I wonder? I expect, a lot. Beginning with talk about things in general, sacred and profane, and largely in a profane language; sacred things coming in more as time goes on; fresh light on all kinds of topics, ‘a rising and a growing light’ as Donne says, and a stirring of the conscience — till, before one knows where one is, one is surrendering to a new (or old) way of life and wanting to lead it. And all in about four months!”

Macaulay also returned to faith because she was steeped in the history of Anglicanism, felt that she could be nothing but Anglican, and loved the liturgy, art, and learning that was at the heart of the Church of England.

She had a profound understanding of the ways in which we know God not directly, but through “frames”, as she put it, and for her those frames were the liturgy and music she found in church.

The letters are ful of what she was reading, from Jeremy Taylor and William Law to Gregory Dix on liturgy and Kenneth Kirk on moral theology. Fr Johnson guided her, but she was also constantly browsing the theological and ecclesiastical shelves in the London Library.

 

ONLY Macaulay’s letters to Fr Johnson survive — his to her were destroyed after her death, with all her papers, as she requested. The publication of the first volume, Letters to a Friend 1950-1952 (edited by Constance Babington-Smith; Collins, 1961), caused controversy . It was still early in the radical 1960s, and the discussion of a love affair with a married man in combination with the central theme of the book — Macaulay’s return to the Church — made people question the ethics of making public such private letters. It took the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Michael Ramsey, to weigh in positively, saying: “I cannot but think that good will come of the book.”

The letters make for wonderful reading. They articulate Macaulay’s deep faith, learning, and appreciation of the great wealth of the Anglican tradition.

Macaulay expressed her appreciation of Fr Johnson’s spiritual direction: “You have always met me halfway, or more than halfway, and one has the feeling that you really care. Then you understand all that I say or ask, with all its implications and overtones, and your answers always cover what I meant and add more to it; and I always understand what you mean. Incidentally, you also have a knack, which pleases me, of making me laugh a little, even on a serious subject.”

 

Canon Jane Shaw is Dean for Religious Life and Professor of Religious Studies at Stanford University.

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