Two women in one: Rose Macaulay’s ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ (1928)

*Warning! Contains spoilers!*

Review by Helen C:

I enjoyed this unusual book, carried along by the author’s enthusiasm, wit and convincing characterisation.  She clearly revels in words, and in some descriptions, heaps them up in piles, in a crescendo of extravagance (I came across at least 6 that I did not know and had to look up!)

Daisy and Daphne, half-sisters, are staying with a family of English ‘intelligentsia’ on holiday in the Mediterranean.  Daisy – shy, insecure and working-class – conceals her ‘shameful’ work as an author of ‘women’s fiction’ and a journalist with a popular newspaper.  Daphne – attractive, confident and sophisticated – is approved of by all, and she and Raymond, the elder son, fall in love (as does Daisy with him).

Back in London, the sisters resume normal life, Daisy visiting her ‘common’ but loving family and Daphne seeing Raymond, who proposes marriage, and is accepted – on condition the engagement is kept secret, to Raymond’s consternation.  As tension mounts, the author reveals that Daphne and Daisy are actually different facets of one person, and that Raymond, in accepting the sophisticated Daphne, will have to accept Daisy’s lesser qualities as well.  Daisy/Daphne feels she cannot afford to divulge her origins or let him and his cultured family meet her brash, ‘common’ mother, and agonises over this.

The story of modern young people in London, against a background of of class prejudice – real or imagined –  is told through Daisy, Daphne being seen only through her eyes.  I didn’t guess the clever conceit of describing one person as two, with quite different ‘persona’, and was amazed when this was revealed half-way through (although the epigraph – “She has no fixed character.  No girl has.   We all have twenty different characters …” should perhaps have warned me).  The skill with which the author continues to tell the story after this revelation, referring  to her heroine as either Daisy or to Daphne, depending on which side of her personality is foremost, somehow does not destroy its credibility.

Other characters, the hero’s determined mother, passionately supporting revolutionaries of any kind, his father “something in the British Museum” and smaller siblings, and Daisy’s ‘common,’ brash but loving family, are drawn with sympathy and wit and retain our interest.

There is a tension throughout the book, as Daisy strives to conceal the working-class origins which she is sure will ruin her connection with the family she emulates and aspires to join, and to hide her journalistic talents, for fear of the family’s disdain – although these are a source of great pride to her own family.  The reader is on tenterhooks, wondering how Daisy, insisting on keeping the engagement secret and telling fibs both to Raymond and to her own family (she tells each side that the other lives far away in Uist!) will cope when the families have to meet before the wedding.  The climax, when Daisy’s mother descends on Raymond, to meet him and ensure he will do right by her daughter, is most exciting but Raymond’s reaction to her mother – not confirming Daisy’s worst fears – unfortunately does not lead to a happy union, as Daisy/Daphne’s identity and confidence have been too much damaged, and her own class-prejudice appears too strong.

The modern reader can identify with the concern over class, and perhaps find it exaggerated and even amusing, but might expect it no longer to be a problem once Raymond had shown signs of accepting his fiancee’s good-hearted mother;  whereas perhaps original readers might feel the class issue to be as crucial as the heroine clearly does; although the author does give us the feeling that the barrier of class could soon be a thing of the past, and that times are changing, particularly for upwardly-mobile young women.

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2 thoughts on “Two women in one: Rose Macaulay’s ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ (1928)

  1. I like this novel for the glimpses it gives us of being a professional writer and a single woman in the 1920s, and what you have to write, against your better judgement. I’m sure journalism hasn’t changed much in that respect …

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