Classics scholar turns his attention to 20th century author’s letters

Foula resident Martin Ferguson Smith, best known for his Ancient Greek and Latin scholarship, for which he was appointed OBE in 2007, has recently been interesting himself also in women writers of 20th century English literature.

He has published work on Virginia Woolf and Dorothy L Sayers, and now his edition of a collection of letters written by Rose Macaulay to her first cousin Jean Smith has been published under the title Dearest Jean.

Macaulay was one of the most versatile, successful and significant writers in the first half of the last century, especially admired for her lively and witty novels in which she portrays her characters in a manner remarkably free of sexual stereotyping – a method that reflects her belief in the common humanity and basic similarity of women and men.

Her best known novel is her last one, The Towers of Trebizond, but she wrote 22 others and also books of essays and criticism, travel and history, and poetry. She wrote many hundreds of articles and reviews for newspapers and magazines and became a frequent contributor to BBC radio. Her candid letters to Jean Smith, written between 1913 and 1958 and hitherto unpublished and unknown, are, in the words of the distinguished writer A N Wilson, “full of previously buried treasure”.

They are as witty and wise as her novels as she describes her own activities and thoughts, and comments candidly on all kinds of people, events, topics and opinions. They illuminate her unconventional private life, character and career, and also the lively literary and social circles in which she moved. Jean Smith, a talented but diffident and depressive poet, was briefly an Anglican nun before converting to Roman Catholicism – a move that created some friction between the two in the 1950s when Macaulay exchanged what she called “High Church agnosticism” for committed Anglicanism.

It was to Smith that Macaulay chose to reveal in 1927 her secret love affair with a married man, a former Roman Catholic priest. The affair continued for 24 years and only became public knowledge after Macaulay’s death in 1958. Although the adulterous relationship troubled Macaulay’s conscience, it protected her from marriage, which she did not want, and allowed her to maintain her independence, which she valued.

Dearest Jean: Rose Macaulay’s Letters to a Cousin by Martin Ferguson Smith with 19 illustrations and 345 pages, is published on hardback by Manchester University Press, at £70, but obtainable for much less on the internet.