Rose Macaulay: What Not
Published By: Handheld Press
Buy It: here
What The Blurb Says:
What Not is Rose Macaulay’s speculative novel of post-First World War eugenics and newspaper manipulation that anticipated Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World by 14 years. Published in 1918, it was hastily withdrawn due to a number of potentially libellous pages, and was reissued in 1919. But by then it was quickly overshadowed by Macaulay’s next two novels, and never gained the attention it deserved. What Not is a lost classic of feminist wit and protest at social engineering, now republished with the suppressed pages reinstated. Kitty Grammont and Nicholas Chester are in love, but Kitty is certified as an A for breeding purposes, while politically ambitious Chester has been uncertificated, and may not marry. But why? There’s nothing apparently wrong with him, he is admired in his field, and is charming and decisive. Although Kitty wields power as a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Brains, which makes these classifications, she does not have the freedom to marry who she wants. They ignore the restrictions, and carry on a discreet affair. But it isn’t discreet enough for the media: the popular press, determined to smash the brutal regime of the Ministry of Brains, has found out about Kitty and Chester, and scents an opportunity for a scandalous exposure. The introduction is by Sarah Lonsdale, senior lecturer in journalism at City University London.
What I Say:
“Humanity; the simple things; love, birth, family, life. They’re the simple things, but, after all, the deep and grand things. No laws will ever supersede them”.
I had heard a lot about Rose Macaulay’s novel, What Not, as Handheld Press had decided to reprint it, and the notion of a novel that anticipated Brave New World from a female writer was one I definitely wanted to read.
The sobering thing about this novel, that in today’s uncertain and inflammatory times, the premise behind this novel seems to be not as far fetched as we may hope to believe. The country is returning to normality after the First World War, and that is what struck me about the opening pages of this novel. Everything is just as it was, people are commuting to work, reading magazines, chatting and lives are carrying on, but it is only as we read on that we realise things are far from usual. From the minute you read of aero buses and street aeroplanes, you know that this is not the Great Britain we know.
The Government has decided the way forward for the country is to use social engineering to ensure that they control the population. People are certificated according to their intelligence, and a new Ministry – The Ministry of Brains has been established. It has passed an act called the Mental Progress Act, where every citizen is categorized according to intelligence. The idea is that you must have children with someone of an appropriate intelligence level, and you are punished if you do not. This is further complicated by the fact that if anyone in your family has mental disabilities, you are categorised as Uncertificated, and are forbidden to marry or have children.
This was something that was extremely chilling for me to read, as my eldest son has learning difficulties, and the implication that laws like this could exist are just devastating. It was a sobering and frightening thought that anyone could deem this an acceptable law to live by, and it added a personal level of involvement in this novel for me.
Our main protagonist, Kitty Grammont, works for the Ministry of Brains, and she lives in a house in the village of Little Chantreys with her brother Anthony, his partner Miss Pansy Ponsoby and their child who is called the Cheeper. Her father is a vicar, and he is seeing the devastating consequences of the Mental Progress Act, as he knows that more and more babies are being abandoned for fear of punishment from the authorities for not fulfilling the relevant criteria.
Throughout What Not, you get the unnerving sense that the world has already survived a horrific war, and although it is over, there is still a sense of unease and foreboding. The State is desperately trying to ensure their citizens have stability in their world, but they need to limit and control every aspect. Knowing as we do that the world will see a Second World War, I wondered how the Ministry of Brains would react to another situation that was out of their control and what more extreme measures they would strive to put into place afterwards.
This is not an easy novel to read. The unflinching narrative is set against the seemingly idyllic notion of Britain’s victory and the unchanging English countryside, however the subject matter- that of social engineering, seems to be always present in the background of the story, and the notion of the state controlling everything is the reality for Kitty and the British people.
When she meets and is attracted to Nicholas Chester, the Minister of Brains, Kitty believes she has met the man of her dreams. The brutal reality is that Nicholas is Uncategorized as he has siblings with a mental disability, so, following the legislation he oversees, he is unable to marry or have children.
This then becomes the crux of the novel. What happens when the one person you love is the one person the state forbids you to? Chester and Kitty are undeniably attracted to each other and after attempting to conduct their relationship in private, they are confronted with a hostile press and unsettled population who are starting to fight back against the Ministry of Brains – whatever the consequences for Chester and Kitty.
What Not is a biting satirical novel, that succeeds in its premise by drawing us in. It is rooted in reality, and that is what for me, made its tone even more sinister. In today’s political uncertainty, especially in a week where even Parliament seems to have no say over its destiny, a state attempting to control its population by extreme measures while ignoring basic human emotions such as love, suddenly doesn’t seem so far fetched.
Thank you so much to Kate at Handheld Press for my gifted copy.
What Not was published by Handheld Press on 25 March.