"A what?" Denham was apprehensive.
"A reading circle. You all study some book together and meet and talk about it."
Crewe Train was first published in 1926, but with Macaulay coming out of copyright lately, some new editions are emerging of novels that used to be hard to come by. I got into her work via The Towers of Trebizond, a staggeringly powerful, memorable book, but I don't think she could write an uninteresting one and this is well worth a go too. Denham (she was named after her mother's favourite village) is an orphaned young woman with a habit of asking awkward questions like the above, principally about social niceties the rest of us take, sometimes unwillingly, for granted. Denham, brought up by an unsocial widowed father who had left the ministry because he couldn't stand having to pretend interest in the lives of his parishioners, and settled in Andorra because it was hard for visitors to get to, finds herself in London, surrounded by people and baffled not only by how to relate to them but why it should be necessary to try. As her harassed aunt observes, "She can't understand why she must live in a way she doesn't much care for. More, she can't understand how people who care for each other are bound up together and must each give up something."
Denham is semi-feral, like a child before it is corralled into conventional adult speech and behaviour. Her frankly expressed views on the prospect of having children herself caused the book to be attacked when it was first published, but even now, women who think as she does might well be nervous of saying so:
"Well, I don't care about them much myself. They're no use when they're quite young, and they're awfully in the way. You can't take them with you on days out and they're always wanting something or other done for them."
It would be all too easy, these days, to medicalise her behaviour and decide that she was autistic – a reviewer of the time called her "a mental case". I don't think she is either, in fact; she is simply, partly due to her upbringing and partly to heredity, very self-sufficient and genuinely prefers her own company to that of any other. In some ways she might have an easier time today, when marriage is not quite so slanted toward the husband's convenience and a woman, indeed, can have a sex life without it. And her preference for climbing cliffs and exploring secret caves rather than attending London literary dinner parties would perhaps elicit more sympathy from a contemporary audience.
Yet even today, there is an awful lot of emphasis on touchy-feely togetherness and a corresponding distrust, even disapproval, of lone wolves, also perhaps, an envy of them, among some who have already got resigned to a domesticated life. I began by thinking the last sentence of the book was as sad an ending as I had ever seen in a novel. I now think it is ambiguous, because we have no way of knowing for sure what will happen next. Either way, it is, like everything else of Macaulay's that I have read, hugely original, unusual and daring. Denham's constant questions – why should people want to read reviews, rather than trust their own judgement; why should loving someone mean having to do things you don't like – are the kind of questions that children ask and embarrassed adults ought to.