Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Getting to know Belle Macauley

We have a new Prime Minister. Gordon Brown takes over from Tony Blair today, and Lady Macauley for one is lost in contemplation of the awful possibilities of the transition.

“She can’t help thinking there has been something vaguely unconstitutional about it” Belle told us when she called at the gatehouse this morning. “She wonders at the smoothness of the change, and fears that the British people have been duped into believing they had a hand in it somewhere.”

Bill threw back his head with joy at hearing this. He thanks God for the presence of a Lady Macauley, who can express the misgivings that a deluded nation hasn’t yet quite managed to work out or articulate for itself - and he hopes that she has also expressed them in a letter to The Times! Belle doubts she has gone so far as that: her mother’s misgivings are largely reserved for her own ears alone. Though Rose, who had taken up position as Mummy’s confidante when she left them earlier this morning, was doubtless receiving the benefit of them even as we spoke.

“Mummy doesn’t believe Mr Brown can possibly be even an eighth as good as he says he is” Belle further confided. “She wants to know where he got all his new smiles from, for a start. He was a glowering sort of fellow before – she can’t see how any good can come to the British people from so remarkable a transformation. She has been glued to the television for days – politics has never held so much fascination for her. She thought she was going to miss the presence of the Blairs as a perpetual irritant, but now she sees that Mr Brown is probably going to fulfil that function even more rewardingly. She does just wonder how the Queen will like him however – she thinks he will make a rather uncomfortable kind of house-guest at Balmoral. Still, she supposes that we are all going to be called upon to make sacrifices in the interests of the greater good – and of course, so far as the Queen is concerned, his simply being Scottish will be thought a considerable advantage.”

Bill and I have been surprised lately at the quiet pleasure there is to be had in a developing friendship with Belle Macauley. She had seemed just a little standoffish at first; reserved at least, and not inclined to wish attention drawn to herself. But the more one knows her, the more clearly does one see just how much she has had to suffer all her life from being compared unfavourably with her mother. She put it in words for us herself one day last week, at Flory.

“It is one of the laws of nature” she said; “that Mummy should try and I should fail.” She laughed as she said it; she had been telling us about all the efforts her mother had made over the years to marry her off – and how woeful a showing she had made in that respect, every time. She said that her failure was most marked when viewed in juxtaposition with the success that Rose had achieved on the marital front. “Mummy is somewhat in awe of it you know” she confided. “It constitutes quite the major part of her affection for Rose. She doesn’t see how any woman could be dull who has managed to secure so many husbands – and she never fails of course, to make the melancholy link, by comparing it with my failure to have secured even one!”

I could see what Bill thought of this; and almost feared that he would be unable to restrain himself from giving vent to his own sentiments with respect to Rose. But in this I did him an injustice. He was very quiet about it in fact; saying nothing whatever that was detrimental either to Rose, or to Lady Macauley herself. He knew, as I did, that Belle felt no pity for herself; and that to have commiserated with her to any extent would have been somehow to have compromised both her sympathy, and her continuing friendship. We both liked her for it the more. And I confess that the thought did run through my head that there would be something very pleasant about a liaison between these two people whom I liked so much, Belle Macauley and my brother Bill.

“You could do a lot worse you know, than to fall in love with Belle Macauley!” I ventured to suggest to him in private later. To which he replied - not in wrath as I had expected, but thoughtfully; and with a hint of regretfulness - that to go down that particular road would be to court the most intense, and well-merited opprobrium. There was a taboo associated with such matters, he said; and the lady with the big house was strictly off limits for the impecunious adventurer. He added that there was room in the district for only one man of that sort – and he sure as hell was not about to become a second David Porteous! I saw his point of course, and said nothing further on the subject. And I was relieved, at the later time of our conversation with Belle, when she went on very quickly to drop the subject of herself, and take up that of her cousin Hortense instead.

“Mummy did her a great injustice you know!” she told us. “When she spoke like that about her disappointed love affairs and her cats, that is. It’s true that none of her love affairs has so far brought her very much happiness – though the big old house she presently inhabits was in fact a parting gift from one of her lovers. An old man whom I believe she truly loved for what she saw as his poet’s soul - but who had the misfortune to breath his last, just before the marriage ceremony had been performed. Hortense suffered deeply from that, I know. And has done her very best to transform his rather dismal house into a shrine to his memory. She has formed a kind of artistic commune down there - something of a reconstituted Arts and Crafts Movement, I believe."

"I haven’t been able to visit it myself as yet, but I’d very much like to do so at some point... There are poets, and painters, and potters – there’s the young man who struggles against hideous adversity to produce the Proustian novel; and the sculptor performing unacknowledged wonders with discarded polystyrene. Each of them has somehow failed to achieve the kind of recognition he deserves - and Hortense has dedicated herself and her house to the promotion of their causes. It seems to me a thoroughly worthy, if possibly unrealistic endeavour... And though it’s true of course that Hortense is very fond of cats - well, Mummy exaggerated wildly there too; and I believe she has six or so at most, not twenty!”

All in all, Belle seemed to think that if her cousin Hortense should suggest we go down to Suffolk on a visit, we might actually find some pleasure in the experience. She even thought she might be able to arrange matters with her mother so that she could accompany us. And it was clear to me that, the awkwardness of Hortense’s almost daily emailed avowals of passion for him notwithstanding, Bill did not reject this proposal out of hand. He has encountered impassioned artistic ladies before, he says – and has learnt that their demands seldom progress beyond the purely poetic.