What Not is Rose Macaulay’s speculative novel of post-First World War eugenics and newspaper manipulation that influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, fourteen years later.
Read all about the background to this remarkable novel, as written by Alison Flood for the Guardian in December 2018.
Claire Hazelton reviewed What Not for the Guardian in March 2019: ‘Her writing is stirring, funny, uniquely imaginative. This book should not be forgotten again.’
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Published in 1918, What Not was hastily withdrawn due to a number of potentially libellous pages, and was reissued in 1919, but had lost its momentum. Now republished for the first time with the suppressed pages reinstated, What Not is a lost science fiction classic of feminist protest at social engineering, and rage at media manipulation.
Kitty Grammont and Nicholas Chester are in love. Kitty is certified as an A for breeding purposes, but politically ambitious Chester has been uncertificated, and may not marry. Kitty wields power as a senior civil servant in the Ministry of Brains, which makes these classifications, but 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.
Aldous Huxley was a frequent guest at Macaulay’s flat while she was writing What Not. His apparently ground-breaking novel Brave New World (1932) borrowed many of Macaulay’s ideas for Huxley’s own prophetic vision.
The introduction is by Sarah Lonsdale, senior lecturer in journalism at City University London.
Read the reviews
‘What Not is barely mentioned in biographical writing about Macaulay, said Kate Macdonald at Handheld, “probably because it wasn’t much noticed at the time, due to its withdrawal and lack of advertising on its reissue. The plot’s themes and subject matter were also challenging, not anything like as accessible … as they are now”’ The Guardian (10 December 2018),
‘The book is a protest against social control, but a love story at heart. As Kitty and Nicholas’s love grows like an “embryo”, Macaulay emphasises its naturalness: “their relationship burgeoned like flowers in spring”. Her writing is stirring, funny, uniquely imaginative. This book should not be forgotten again’, The Guardian (28 March 2019),
‘Aided by an enlightening introduction, along with the handy end-notes to illuminate any mystifying period-specific detail, What Not is an often witty, wild ride that deserves rediscovery.’ The Times (13 April 2019)
Margaret Drabble reviewed What Not in the Times Literary Supplement: ‘It is a more sombre work [than Brave New World], with a sense of end-of-war fatigue that has more in common with the mood of Orwell … full of interesting sociological and historical observations, about the status of women newly enrolled in government employment by the war machine (Macaulay herself had worked in the Ministry of Information, as had Wells and Arnold Bennett) and about minor points of etiquette, such as whether “you can suitably go to church with a dog in your muff”.’ (7 June 2019)
‘This edition continues Handheld Press’s commitment to reprinting classic sf and fantasy, but this work is especially important as it presents Macaulay’s novel as she intended it.’ Paul March-Russell in Foundation (2019).
‘The feel of the book, with its raw satire and a populace at breaking point, seems very relevant to Brexit Britain just now, so the Handheld Press’s re-publication is well-judged. A wonderfully complex book which questions whether being truly rational is better than being personally fulfilled …’ – Hall’s Bookshop, on GoodReads.
From BSFA Review 9: ‘it probably makes sense to see What Not as a comically resigned lament for the impossibility of evading the cruel stupidity of life without imposing a system that is even crueller and more stupid. However, there is also just the faintest suggestion in Kitty’s momentary out-of-body experience, in which she realises the entire society depicted in What Not is no more than a “queer little excited corner of the universe”, that other worlds are possible. ‘
From the Women’s Revew of Books: ‘Throughout What Not, Macaulay’s writing moves smoothly from concise observational beauty … to biting social commentary lampooning both public pretensions and unchecked governmental power. What Not has a delicious snark, which, for all its antiquated turns of phrase, makes the novel feel surprisingly fresh. With its depiction of a successful revolt as a mass movement, rather than the fight of a few enlightened individuals, What Not is a rare dystopia. Asking many questions about the ideologies wielded by charismatic leaders in the service of authoritarianism, whilst centering the experiences of working, independent women, What Not is a century old and yet unexpectedly relevant.’ (June 2019)
You may also be interested in …
Non-Combatants and Others. Writings Against War, 1916-1945 is an anthology of Macaulay’s excellent First World War pacifist novel, her anti-war journalism from the 1930s and 1940s, and her heart-breaking short story of the Blitz, ‘Miss Anstruther’s Letters’ (to be published August 2020).
Potterism: A Tragi-Farcical Tract is Macaulay’s 1920 novel of truth, lies, slander and the British press (to be published in August 2020).
Personal Pleasures. Essays on Enjoying Life is Macaulay’s 1935 anthology of essays in which she tells us about the pleasures of her own life. Witty, urbane, ridiculous and delightful, these reveal glimpses of her life as an independent and sociable woman of the 1930s.
Dreaming of Rose. A Biographer’s Journal: Sarah LeFanu’s memoir of researching her biography of Rose Macaulay, while juggling the demands of teaching and broadcasting. For life writers, lovers of biography, and those interested in the nooks and crannies of Macaulay’s life and work. To be published in September 2021 alongside Personal Pleasures.
Watch our video, in which we explain how Handheld came to republish this novel, and the extraordinary hoopla that ensued when the newspapers found out.
Download and read this Rose Macaulay biography