Author: Rose Macaulay
Details: (c) The estate of Rose Macaulay 1932; Pub 1981 Oxford University Press; ISBN 0-19-281316-1
Verdict: They were defeated is a successful and readable historical novel.
Reasons for reading it: Rose Macaulay used to live in my parents' house and I grab anything of hers I can find. Though she's an unfashionable writer so collecting her stuff is taking a while.
How it came into my hands: I was delighted to find it at The Strand when I was in New York last year.
They were defeated has a very strong sense of period, managing to weave in all sorts of politics and social history without detracting from the story as story. The characterization is superlative, and it's that that carries the novel, because the plot is somewhat rambling and most of the dramatic action happens off-stage, leaving a series of events from the various characters' lives. The strong characterization did make me care about both the political and personal events, definitely.
The narrative voice is somewhat partisan, but the book falls short of being just a polemic in favour of women's education and women's rights for a twentieth century audience. At least as much space is given to discussing the intricacies of theology and their political implications which were the key issues of the day.
The language feels authentic, period without being camped up or having all the characters speak like bad Shakespeare pastiche. However, the phonetic representations of dialect, particularly for the rural Devonshire characters, make some sections feel as if they were written on Talk like a pirate day! I really like the trick of using real historical figures, such as the poet Robert Herrick and many other well-known academics and religious / political figures of the day, and basing their characters on their actual writing in our reality.
I found the ending a bit disappointing in some ways; it smacks of Victorian-style emotional manipulation with the tragic death of the beautiful young heroine. In contrast, the portrayal of Julian's misery over a teenage crush on a paternalistic and exploitative older man really moved me. In general, she is a really believable teenager, intellectually precocious but emotionally clueless, and sympathetic despite being frequently annoying; there were several moments when I regretted that she lived in the wrong era to have access to LJ!
One thing that is lost in the effort to give an authentic picutre of various aspects of 17th century life is Macaulay's wicked sense of humour and her delightful snarkiness. There's some of it in her introductory note, which made me miss it all the more in the main body of the novel, where it's mostly hidden apart from a few sparkles here and there. Still, it's an enjoyable book and I really did feel transported into the setting which is so meticulously portrayed.