Faith and Doubt in Rose Macaulay's the Towers of Trebizond

By Hein, David | Anglican Theological Review, Winter 2006 | Go to article overview

Faith and Doubt in Rose Macaulay's the Towers of Trebizond


Hein, David, Anglican Theological Review


The English writer Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) is worthy of consideration as a spiritual mentor for Christians today. In her last novel, The Towers of Trebizond, as well as in her personal biography, readers will discover an intriguing story that offers insights into obstacles to belief and into the relation of faith and doubt. They will also see the connection between these themes and Macaulay's appreciation of the Anglican way. Her work provides a good example of the uses of imagination in Christian thought. This essay proposes "The Towers of Trebizond" as a valuable instance of "anti-wisdom wisdom literature. " Readers will find Rose Macaulay to be religiously more complicated and less certain than her more traditional peers, such as C. S. Lewis, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Austin Farrer. Macaulay's is a voice from the edge, not from the orthodox center, lout it is a voice that twenty-firstcentury Christians will understand and appreciate.

A Voice from the Edge

Half a century ago, Rose Macaulay applied the alchemy of her art to material drawn from her own experience-as professional writer, international traveler, illicit lover, and religious pilgrim-and produced an unusual book called The Towers of Trebizond. For months after the publication of this novel in 1956, guests at London cocktail parties could be heard quoting its opening line: "Take my camel, dear," said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass."1 Many clergy and laity found their faith reinvigorated by reading Trebizond. Written, Macaulay said, "in a kind of white-hot passion,"2 this book was "meant to be about the struggle of good and evil, its eternal importance, and the power of the Christian Church over the soul, to torment and convert."3

That a book which appears to have more to do with the church's capacity to "torment" than with its power to "convert" should help to produce instances of reinvigorated faith is remarkable in itself. The paradox of its popular reception by Christians and would-be believers is part of the mystery of The Towers of Trebizond. An answer to this particular conundrum may lie in the way in which the novel engages the readers heart and mind. The story presents dilemmas and reveals their attractions, but it declines to provide stock solutions. The text is realistically unstable; it throws out a question for each apparent answer. And in doing so, it seems to be saying that instability and doubt are acceptable, even inevitable; they go with the territory, which is the variegated landscape of tradition and modernity. As one literary scholar has observed, Macaulay's is "an art of contrarieties played against each other."4

No doubt the capacity of Anglicanism to handle contrarieties increased Rose Macaulay's appreciation of this branch of the Church Catholic. She wrote Trebizond after her return to the Anglican fold, but in this work of fiction she does not presume to mark out for her readers the steps on the journey of faith which only they could take. The novel's ending is gratifyingly indeterminate, reassuring in its refusals. What makes the author of this book worthy of consideration as a spiritual mentor for twenty-first-century seekers has much to do with her willingness to acknowledge difficulties.

Although she was, as a commentator on her work has noted, "one of the few significant English novelists of the twentieth century to identify herself as a Christian and to use Christian themes in her writing,"5 Rose Macaulay was never a simple believer in "mere Christianity." During the 1930s and 1940s, when such writers as C. S. Lewis, Austin Farrer, and Dorothy L. Sayers were publishing books that were both imaginative and consistently orthodox, Macaulay was a lapsed Anglican, alienated from the church. Her books, up through The World My Wilderness (1950), reflect her alienation. Even after her return to the faith in 1950-1951, she produced a novel, The Towers of Trebizond, whose heroine, to some extent a stand-in for her creator, occupies terrain at or beyond the Christian border. …

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