Best of Ten!
The Towers of Trebizond, which I read for the 1956 Club, is said to be Rose Macaulay’s masterpiece. When I first began reading it, I was surprised at this, for it seemed to be a light comedy about eccentric people traveling in Turkey. To be sure, the narrator, Laurie, is erudite but relates the story in gushes of information, whimsy, and wit. But oh, when Laurie describes the wonders of past civilizations or her love of the rituals of the Anglican (high) church (I’m picking “her,” to discuss later), you see that there is more to this novel than humor.
Laurie and her Aunt Dot are on a trip to Turkey, accompanied by Father Chantry-Pigg. Laurie and Aunt Dot are writing a book about Turkey, Aunt Dot hopes to enlighten Moslem women by converting them to the Anglican church, and Father Chantry-Pigg, whose inappropriate last name becomes a running joke, wants converts. On the way, they pick up Aunt Dot’s friend Dr. Halide, who is also interesting in the liberation of women. Oh, and Aunt Dot brings her camel.
This may not sound funny, but all of the characters except Laurie are so obsessed with their hobby horses that the conversations are delightful. Later, we meet David, who has taken advantage of his ex-lover Charles’s death to steal the material Charles has written about Turkey and publish it under his own name—only Laurie has found Charles’s notebook in his old hotel room.
The central conflict for Laurie is that she is a believer in her church, but she has left it because of a long-lasting affair with Vere, a married man. Her heart yearns for the church, but she feels unable to break with Vere, whom she loves deeply.
This novel is beautifully written, witty, and finally bittersweet. I was unable to follow some of the detail about the church, and being American, I don’t have the classical background to understand all the references Laurie throws in about ancient civilizations. However, I greatly enjoyed this novel, which goes much deeper than it initially seems it will.
I wasn’t aware of this at first, but apparently there is an issue about Laurie’s sex—is she male or female? Perhaps this didn’t occur to me because my illustrated Folio Society edition makes the decision that she’s female. But what does occur to me is this: doesn’t the question imply sexism? That is, I can only imagine this question was raised because Laurie thinks nothing of, say, riding a camel across Syria by herself. But then, neither does Aunt Dot have any problem with walking across the Iron Curtain just to see what it’s like on the other side. I got no sense at all of a masculine personality in Laurie. Finally, Laurie’s bar to returning to the church is adultery, not adultery and homosexuality, and although Macaulay teases us for a while by not revealing Vere’s sex until the end, she finally does so. I think this whole sex issue is just caused by some people’s assumptions that a woman couldn’t be this adventurous in 1956.