“Take my camel dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return to High Mass.
This, it is claimed, is one of the best known opening sentences in Modern English Literature, and indeed the quote formed a question on University Challenge this week. While the contestants were unable to answer correctly and looked nonplussed, thousands of viewers across the country were undoubtedly baying the author’s name and the title of her book at their television screens. The book is the much-loved The Towers of Trebizond, and the author, Rose Macaulay. None of which would merit mentioning here but for the fact that for Rose Macaulay in the early years of the twentieth century, Ty Isaf was home.
Macaulay’s family moved here in 1901 when her father George took up the post of Professor of English Language and Literature at the University in Aberystwyth. In her 2003 biography of Rose, Sarah LeFanu refers to the house as Ty-Issa, and she writes:
Ty-Issa is just along the river from Llanfarian, a cluster of Nash designed houses that belonged to the University of Wales at Aberystwyth. These were reserved for professors and their families. Ty-Issa belonged to this group of houses but stood apart from the rest of them, further inland along a short stretch of the river, and about a mile by winding lane. The houses of Llanfarian lie on the south side of the River Ystwyth; Ty-Issa is on the north bank, round a bend in the river and out of sight of the rest. It is a square white-painted house, tucked under a steeply rising bank, with a sprawl of farm buildings beside it. It looks out over sloping fields down to the river.
‘Ty-Issa’ viewed in the Summer of 2010 from the garden.
The house as seen from a footpath on the far side of the River Ystwyth probably hasn’t changed so very much since the Macaulay’s time, though it wasn’t painted white back then.
“A very pleasing abode,” wrote Uncle Edward Conybeare, delighted as always with other people’s fortune, and went on to describe the ‘fairy woodland ravine’ that was close by.
Well the ‘fairy woodland ravine’ is still here, probably largely unchanged since Margaret’s ‘Uncle Edward’ wrote of it, and Artlog regulars will perhaps recognise in his description the site where together with our neighbours at Craig-y-Bwch, last year we erected a footbridge to span the ravine between the two properties, so perilous had the temporary larch-poles-nailed-with-slats become that had served as our previous crossing.
(Photograph courtesy of Nick Appleton)
Elsewhere LeFanu writes of Rose and her sister Margaret:
Rose and Margaret were much in each other’s company. They would walk to Llanfarian, and then home along the riverbank. On hot days they would bathe in the pool below the bridge, hiding under the bridge when the 4.45 train passed by it.
The railway bridge has long gone, and the trains with it. A dressed stone pier, increasingly overgrown, marks the place where it once stood. But the Macaulay sisters’ deep-water bathing pool remains, and this year I swam in it for the first time, albeit unexpectedly, diving for Jack’s frisbee before it could be swept by the current along the valley and out into Cardigan Bay. Our party of house-guests stood on the high bank shouting instructions as to where it lay under the water, Peter’s sister Sally looking aghast and announcing my imminent death by drowning! I was merely aghast that I’d attracted such an audience!
Rose was twenty-three when she came to live at Ty Isaf, and already a published poet. While here she wrote her first novel, Abbots Verney, completing it in the Spring of 1906. The publisher John Murray agreed to publish the book, though asked the fledgling novelist for a less bleak ending. Rose wrote to Margerie Venables Taylor of the publisher’s request, “Publishers of course have got you altogether in their grip. If they say you must do a thing you jolly well have got to do it.” She complied, and the book was published… rather against Rose’s better judgement as she would have preferred anonymity… under the name of R. Macaulay. It was generally assumed that the author was a man, and Rose was amused by this. She wrote “I now, it seems, go under the name of Mr R Macaulay; so in future address me so. The reviewers nearly all do!”
Abbots Verney was well reviewed by critics who described it as ‘a fine novel’, ‘a novel of great promise’ and ‘far above the common run of novels’. Despite the praise the twenty-five year old author remained unconvinced by her achievement. She wrote to Margerie ” it’s too private – sentimental, serious, I don’t know what – for me to like the idea of people I know reading it; I can never get used to it, somehow, it makes me feel so shy.”
Abbots Verney came out two months after the Macaulays had moved from Wales to Great Shelford outside Cambridge, having lived for five years at ‘Ty-Issa’.
Rose Macaulay photographed in the early 1920s