“Steal this thesis idea, please” – What Not by Rose Macauley

rmwnapcToday’s review begins with a quiz based on your knowledge of George Orwell’s 1984 and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, both of which I’m betting you were required to read at some stage in your education. Below I’ve listed the names of four government bureaucracies or programs. Please identify which of the above two novels they appeared in:

  1. Conscientious Obstructionists: 1984 or Brave New World?
  2. Mental Progress Act: 1984 or Brave New World?
  3. Instructions about Clergymen’s Babies: 1984 or Brave New World?
  4. Ministry of Brains: 1984 or Brave New World?

Ok, put your browsers down. The answer of course to each of the four questions: Rose Macaulay’s 1918 novel, What Not. Sorry I cheated, but remember that good students always read outside of the curriculum.

In What Not, her ninth novel, Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) addresses the dystopian/utopian question of whether bureaucratically-controlled social engineering can identify factors that can be optimally matched to produce more efficient results and outcomes in society, especially for more intelligent human beings. Macaulay’s bureaucracy advocates muddled formulas for improving human beings and their lives. Her satire includes the following government bureaucracies and proposals: Ministry of Brains, Mental Progress Act, Ministry of Brains Instruction, Instructions about Clergymen’s Babies, Directorate of Entertainments, Mind Training Course, among others.

Kitty Grammont, the protagonist of Macaulay’s novel, comes from a firmly middle-class family headed by a vicar. She writes pamphlets at the Ministry that are often praised for their “concise and clear-cut style and an instinct for stopping on the right word.” In other words, she is an effective propagandist. She impresses the other women at the Ministry because she lacks that

“air of the dowd which some people who have been to college have, and which is so estranging to normal people.”

In other words, even though she is better than many others, she doesn’t flaunt it.

Macaulay introduces a feminist element in her novel, which, if memory serves, is generally missing from Orwell and Huxley. After listening to the rhetoric spouted by a Ministry expert about how women should devote more time to developing their minds, a woman in the audience complains:

“when you’ve done out the house and got the children’s meals and put them to bed and cleaned up and all, not to mention washing-day, and ironing—well, you’ve not much time to improve the mind, have you?”

The implication is clear. Better educational techniques have little value for women without simultaneously providing them the opportunity to partake of them.

One of the most engaging sections of the book revolves around the Ministry’s Brain Week during which it produces and promulgates platitudes to get the public’s acquiescence on a variety of topics ranging from enforced euthanasia to identifying the stupid. The Ministry’s goal is simple:

“the last great appeal for voluntary recruits for the higher intelligence; it if failed then compulsion would have to be resorted to. Many people thought that compulsion should in any case be resorted to; what was the good of a government if not to compel.”

Slogans, posters, and pamphlets, which extol the benefits of its Mind Training Course, are disseminated everywhere: on prominent shop fronts, in propaganda films at movie theatres, in newspaper ads and editorial cartoons, and at railway stations. The Ministry also organises drawings for lotteries.

Unfortunately, their efforts fail. Insufficient numbers of voluntary efforts were encouraged, so compulsion must follow. The idea of Orwellian doublespeak crops up here:

“Surely if there is one thing above all others which the Great War . . . has taught us, it is that compulsion is not tyranny, nor law oppression. Let the Government, for long vacillating, act, and act quickly, and they will find a responsive and grateful nation ready to obey.”

That same notion of devalued language labels atheism as unwisdom.

The main plot of the novel focuses on the slow-burning affair between Kitty and Nicholas Chester, a Minister in the same department for which she clerks. Aside from age and status differences, a much more insurmountable issue exists: since their marriage statuses are different, they cannot marry each other. Chester has received an uncertificated marriage status, which is blamed for causing dull or less intelligent children. He is well aware of the rumours:

“You know about me, then? That I’m uncertificated? But of course you do. It is, I believe, generally known. And it makes the position exactly what you say. It means. . .”

“It means,” said Kitty, “that we must get over this unfortunate passion.” A large portion of the second half of the novel focuses on how they deal with their feelings, seeking attempts to circumvent the Ministry’s labels, and hiding their relationship from the alert eyes of Ministry co-workers.

As I was enjoying Macaulay’s novel, I found it almost impossible to avoid comparisons with both of the above novels that plowed very similar ground tilled earlier by Macaulay. I wish I could return to high school and read this novel in conjunction with Orwell and Huxley because that would provide a much more well-rounded experience of dystopian fiction and worldviews. Even though I haven’t read either 1984 or Brave New World for many years, Macaulay’s novel seems to avoid Orwell’s intense overarching menace or Huxley’s mind-numbing Dionysian ecstasy. She presents a more humane, funnier world that is less authoritarian and oppressive. For example, during the Brains Week, the Ministry plasters slogans around public spaces to encourage voluntary compliance among the citizens. My favourite: “Take care of your mind and your complexion will take care of itself.” I could’ve benefited from this slogan in junior high school. And two bureaucrats are discussing the irony of their work:

“You’re sitting on a branch and trying to saw it off. Lucky for you your saws aren’t sharper.”

Any Cop?: Why Macaulay’s novel has been shunted to that crowded dustbin of literary history for decades (gender anyone?) and both Orwell and Huxley have been canonized is an issue for literary scholars to deconstruct and dissect. Steal this thesis idea, please, I don’t have the energy for such an investigation. As for me, I enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to reading her pacifist novel called Non-Combatants and Others as well as her final novel, The Towers of Trebizond.


Chris Oleson








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