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Book club: Personal Pleasures by Rose Macaulay

05 November 2021

Judith Maltby reads the new edition of Rose Macaulay’s Personal Pleasures, a series of witty essays on things that the author enjoyed most

“SO, I have set down a few pleasures randomly . . . sometimes contrary . . . they include parties, and not going to parties, believing and disbelieving, solitude and showing off.” These are the words of the novelist and social commentator Rose Macaulay (1881-1958).

In 1934, she had published an anthology, The Minor Pleasures of Life, which she described as “a selection from the records of the pleasures enjoyed by other people”. That undertaking brought home to her that “other people, though they have doubtless (between them) enjoyed all the pleasures accessible to our mortal state, have left very many of them unrecorded in print.” Her next book, therefore, was to commit her own “personal pleasures” to print in the form of a series of short essays.

This splendid new edition of Personal Pleasures comes from a relative newcomer to the publishing scene, the Handheld Press, and the excellent introduction and notes are by its director, who is herself a Macaulay scholar, Kate McDonald. Handheld Press has already brought back into print, with new and informative introductions that provide proper contextualisation, a number of Macaulay’s works, such as her successful satire about British journalism, Potterism (1920). Handheld Press has also rescued from obscurity her little-known foray into science fiction, What Not. A visit to its website is highly recommended.

It struck me, while re-reading Personal Pleasures, how poignant many of the subjects chosen by Macaulay in the 1930s feel to us now — emerging as we are (if we are) out of the limitations, constraints, and loneliness of the pandemic. Perhaps the frightening uncertainties of the mid-1930s make that poignancy less surprising.

Uncannily, her list of pleasures begins with “Abroad”. Consider how the pandemic has turned the word “staycation”, which used to mean spending annual leave at home engaging in long-overdue DIY, into holidaying anywhere in the UK. And yet there is a familiarity for us in the 1935 version of “Abroad”: “We might wander at large; or might until recently, when passports, bureaucracy and suspicion are attempting to hamper and limit our tranquil and happy errors over our errant celestial ball.”

Despite all the challenges and disincentives, however, “when governments and their watch-dogs have done their worst, it is still Abroad.” In “Church-going” (which ecumenically embraces Anglican, Roman Catholic, Quaker, and Unitarian options), the glorious paradoxes of choral evensong are encountered, with the First Lesson describing the violence of “the Lord’s controversy in the mountains with his people”, which the congregation are rescued from — “one feels that it was time” — by the Magnificat (Faith, 30 July).

© Masheter Movie Archive/AlamyThe Empire Cinema, Leicester Square, in London, showing Greta Garbo in Wild Orchids, in 1929. Rose Macaulay described films as “the most charming, the most bizarre” convention.

In “Cinema”, another pleasure denied us over the past 18 months, Macaulay extols the virtue of films precisely because they are “not at all like life”, but, rather, the “most charming, the most bizarre, [and] the most ludicrous convention”. As McDonald observes, Macaulay is so vivid about the experience of being in the cinema that “it is to be there with her.”

“Not going to Parties” was an involuntary pleasure imposed on all of us in the past year, but, to Macaulay, the “pleasures” provided by parties are doubtful at best: “None will hear what I shout: I shall hear what no one shouts,” armed with a glass of sherry and a cheese straw. Is it not better to “glide furtively home” and “embed in my own easy chair, as if I had never planned another evening”? I remember my first house guest in over a year as a complete “pleasure”, but, as more familiar aspects of life return, the “Departure of visitors” and the “exquisite peace” that follows when the house becomes simply one’s own again will no doubt be rediscovered.

It is interesting to place Personal Pleasures in terms of Macaulay’s literary career: she was in her fifties, and her work was acquiring a new maturity. In the 1930s and ’40s, Macaulay wrote more non-fiction than fiction, including a biography of Milton and a study of E. M. Forster, although the novel that she considered one of her best books, the Civil War-era They Were Defeated (1932), was published during this time. For some time after the Second World War, however, she wrote no novels at all. Her greatest and best-known book, The Towers of Trebizond, was her last completed novel, and published only two years before her death in 1958.

At the time of publication, reviewers showered Personal Pleasures with praise for its intelligence, originality, and wit. To The Observer’s reviewer, writing in the run-up to Christmas, Pleasures looked like “a gift book and is a gift book”; however, “the unusual quality in its writing — wit made subtle with learning, and learning dissipated with wit — will give it a reputation more than seasonal.”

Our own extraordinary experiences of the past 18 months contribute to making Personal Pleasures much more than seasonal, and yet also, please note, perfect for Christmas.

Canon Judith Maltby is Chaplain and Fellow of Corpus Christi College and Reader in Church History in the University of Oxford. She is a co-editor (with Professor Alison Shell) of Anglican Women Novelists: Charlotte Brontë to P. D. James (Bloomsbury, 2019).


Personal Pleasures: Essays on enjoying life by Rose Macaulay is published by Handheld Press at £12.99 (£11.70); 978-1-912766-50-5.


  1. Is Macaulay’s world of literary parties and elephants in Bloomsbury totally foreign now? Or are there aspects that you recognise?

  2. How does Macaulay differentiate between bodily and intellectual pleasures? Are there overlaps?

  3. Does pleasure imply “good”?

  4. With which of Macaulay’s pleasures do you most identify? What pleasures would you add to the list?

  5. “I have no towel.” Macaulay’s pleasures often have a sting in the tail. What effect does this have, for you?

  6. Some of the pleasures are seemingly contradictory, e.g. “Believing” and “Disbelieving”. Why does Macaulay do this?

  7. The “musical Eton-and-Cambridge monotone”. Where does Macaulay find pleasure in churchgoing? Where do you?

  8. For Macaulay, to “hunt language, to swim lazily in those enchanted seas”, is one of the pleasures of writing. How is her love of language reflected in her essays here?

  9. “You are reading, I would guess, a novel . . . lightly titillating.” What is your ideal bedtime reading?

  10. “I used to think, if one could believe at all, it would be in the Unitarian God.” Do we get any hints in the essays about the nature of Macaulay’s struggles with belief and faith?

IN OUR next reading-groups page on 3 December, we will print extra information about our next book Small Pleasures by Clare Chambers. It is published by Orion at £8.99 (£8.09); 978-1-4746-1390-3.


Small Pleasures (2020) is set in the south-east London of 1957. It explores the life of Jean Swinney, who finds herself, in her late thirties, unfulfilled and isolated, trapped in an uninspiring job as a magazine reporter, and caring for her mother at home. Her escape comes with a commission to look into a local woman’s claims of a virgin birth. Her investigation leads her to develop relationships with the family, befriending the woman and her husband and daughter. From this complicated scenario, Jean spies a chance for happiness. The novel was long-listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2021.


Born in Croydon in 1966, Clare Chambers studied English at the University of Oxford before spending a year living in New Zealand. After returning to London, she got her first job at the publisher André Deutsch, where she worked under Diana Athill. It was while she was there that her first novel was published when she was 25. Her eight novels published since include Learning to Swim (1998) and In a Good Light (2004). Small Pleasures (2020), her first novel in nearly ten years, is her biggest critical and commercial success to date. She lives in south London with her husband, Peter. The couple have three children.

January: A Clergyman’s Daughter by George Orwell
February: Pew by Catherine Lacey

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