Kaye-Smith, despite her earlier suggestion that she didn’t like writing novels with female central characters, produced a number of works in the 1930s that did explore the roles of women in society. Like Susan Spray, Rose Deeprose is a flawed young woman who is seeking some contentment in her life. However, “Rose Deeprose” is in many ways a depressing novel that lacks a real sense of reality.
The contemporary reviews were mixed in their response to “Rose Deeprose”. Most recognized that it was a psychological study of a girl, wife and mother. The novel is a work of unrelenting tragedy with a focus on the varieties of love experienced by human beings, and with a similar emphasis on socio-political issues that had become a concern of Kaye-Smith’s novels of the 20s and 30s. Set in the present and in the rural regional setting of the Sussex/Kent border, centred on the villages of Shadoxhurst and Bladbean and the town of Ashford, Rose Deeprose was reviewed as Kaye-Smith’s return “to the English South Country and the Hardyesque manner of her earlier novels”. Through the narrative of Rose’s life from the age of sixteen to twenty five, Kaye-Smith looks at the position of women in contemporary rural society, their relationships with both men and women, the psychology of motherhood, attitudes to mental disability in children, the workings of the legal system and the search for an identity in a changing world.
As with “Susan Spray” this novel is a Bildungsroman. Rose Deeprose charts the life of the eponymous heroine, the daughter of an alcoholic farmer and a down-trodden submissive mother, from her sixteenth birthday when she is taken to the cinema and tea in Ashford by her mother, to her mid-twenties, when she takes her young half-brother, Ronnie, for the same treats. In the intervening years Rose has left school to work on her father’s farm and inadvertently caused the death of her mother in a road accident. She marries her cousin Townley who commits suicide. She becomes friends with, and possibly the lover of, Christian who becomes her step-mother, but blames herself for Christian’s untimely death. Beyond all this she has given birth to a mentally-disabled daughter, causes the death of that daughter in a failed suicide attempt and is tried for murder. When released from jail, she settles back at her childhood home to look after her aged father and her young step-brother.
Concerned with showing differing generational views of a woman’s place in society, and attitudes to sexuality, Kaye-Smith’s characterisation of Rose’s mother presents a traditional pre-war outlook of subservience and acceptance of male domination. Mrs Deeprose deceives herself and Rose by excusing her husband’s alcoholism as an illness: “your father’s never actually drunk”, “his stomach’s weak and can’t hold much liquor – that’s why he’s so often ill. He really is ill, though, of course, it’s the drink that makes him so” (RD 4). She dismisses her husband’s abuse by characterising men as more emotionally vulnerable, and weak of character, with less sense than women. Therefore, “Life is more difficult for men than it is for women” (RD 15). Mrs Deeprose urges Rose “never to be hard on him” rather “to be kind” because “There may be a time when I’m not here, and your poor father has only you to depend on” (RD 5). Representative of older women who could not see beyond the domestic role, Mrs Deeprose views Rose’s criticism of both her father and her cousin, Townley, as harsh and ungrateful. Presented as a one-dimensional character, she is the symbol of the repression of women in her belief that “‘It’s natural for a man to be ‘superior’ as you call it and to show off; he makes life easier for himself that way, just as women do by keeping quiet'” (RD 26). Rose Deeprose and Christian Lambert represent two differing portraits of the modern young woman. When she leaves school Rose is not prepared to accept the conventional role of a young woman by “helping . . . mother in the house”(RD19). As she defiantly explains to her male cousin, Townley, she intends to do “a man’s work” on the farm. After the death of her mother and the incapacitation of her injured father, Rose relishes her role in running the farm, and as Joanna Godden had done by introducing “modern ways in farming” (RD 74). Reversing the neglect of the land she works hard to make the farm prosperous. Kaye-Smith is thus able to establish the credible empowerment of a woman working in a traditionally male sphere, but it is through the depiction of Rose’s relationships with Townley and Christian that she explores and investigates the dilemmas of the modern woman’s sexuality. Through the depiction of Rose’s relationship with Christian, Kaye-Smith scrutinizes the boundaries between sexual relationships and friendship, while suggesting that the modern woman need not be bound by conventional heterosexuality. Rose is characterised as an innocent naive country girl who has never experienced any close female friendships or any romantic liaisons. Christian is a feminine, worldly wise, urbanite who has pursued a series of love affairs, and is happy to go out with any men that take her fancy “to pass the time”. She is looking for a “nice, respectful, handsome, ignorant man” to marry, who will be “solid and warm and comforting” (RD 117). The relationship between the two women, and the heterosexual relationships between Rose and Townley, and Christian and Rose’s father Wally, are focused through the lens of Rose’s perceptions of friendship and love. In all of her interactions with those she believes she loves, she is constantly buffeted by opposed emotional forces. Her attraction to Townley is denoted by a desire for the physical contact of a love-making of romantic kisses. This idealised, somewhat conventionally Victorian, concept of love is juxtaposed with Rose’s views on marriage. As a modern woman she will not accept a role in which she is “efficient at housekeeping with a dash of subservience” (RD 124). She espoused a modern view on marriage as “an affair of male and female”, in which “she would not trail behind his striding figure”, “nor should her husband be her master” but instead “They would be friends and go through life side by side” (RD 138), therefore Kaye-Smith rejects the traditional Victorian view of marriage and affirms a perception of marriage as a partnership. Similar conflicting emotions figure in Rose’s comparison of her love for Christian and Townley. As both relationships develop, they are a source of potential conflict for her, as she sees in each aspects of the perfect bond between two human beings. In her own rationalisation of these relationships Rose persuades herself that
they belonged to two different sides of her life, pulling her in two different ways. “Townley stood for love, strength and virility, Christian for companionship, laughing sweetness and a helplessness that called for cherishing. “To love and to cherish”. . . she loved one and cherished the other, and when she thought of them together she was torn” (RD 122).
Although the portrayals of the marriages between Rose and Townley, and Christian and Wally, are initially figured as stereotypically traditional, Kaye-Smith acknowledges in the novel that for many women the acceptance of marriage also meant the acceptance of subservience, submission and a loss of individual identity. Rose becomes a submissive wife, fulfilling her housewifely duties as her mother had told her she should, but she has lost her independence of person and acknowledges that “She felt that her edges were less clear, that she merged into him” (RD 156). Christian’s marriage is doomed from the start being never a partnership. Christian’s youth and selfishness, and Wally’s drinking and middle-age are quite correctly perceived by Rose to spell disaster. The breakdown in that marriage rekindles an even-more intense friendship between Rose and Christian. Kaye-Smith’s writing of this relationship is suggestive of intimacy but perhaps, mindful of the Radcliffe Hall obscenity trial, she is careful to couch the relationship in terms of friendship. Rose sees Christian as a “goddess”, and she is pleased to be in a “half-worshipping, half-cherishing relationship” (RD178). When waking up and “realising that the sleeping figure beside her was Christian” (RD 178) there is no suggestion of intimacy. When the women go on holiday together they each day-dream of an imagined life together. Christian declares herself “really sick of this man-and-woman business” (RD 204). She imagines them being “perfectly happy living together” (RD 208). Rose shares this dream, imagining a life in which they could be “two women alone, happy, lively and at rest” (RD 210). This relationship is equated with goodness and perfection while the heterosexual relationships of the women become synonymous with evil. Rose reasons that
“Male and female created He them . . . but it was the devil and not the Creator who had coiled up male and female with all the lies and treacheries and animosities in which they had struggled and stumbled ever since” (RD 210).
At the core of the novel is Kaye-Smith’s Christian belief that the only love that will stand the test of time is that founded on selflessness, and consideration for others. The first two sections of the text, entitled ‘Daughter’ and ‘Wife’, establish a pattern of love “triangles [that] form and reform” in a complex patterning that speaks to a Christian symbolism and imagery of the trinity. The ‘Daughter’ section explores the possibilities, and vagaries of love, within a mother, father and daughter relationship, while the ‘Wife’ section concentrates on romantic heterosexual relationships and a close same sex friendship. The final section of the novel is entitled ‘Mother’ and in this Kaye-Smith analyses, through Rose’s experience, the vicissitudes of a mother’s love for her child. Rose, like Susan Spray, is a complex character. She acts rashly and is demonstrably an example of the adage that the person who acts in haste will repent at leisure. As a pawn of fate and perpetually in search of a love that is real, meaningful, and lasting, she is brought into conflict or betrayed by those for whom she cares. Her friendship with Christian and her marriage to Townley are irrevocably soured by their affair. Her hasty, ill-thought-out behaviour has brought about the deaths of both her mother and Christian. However, Rose’s love for her daughter, Madge, who is mentally disabled and will “always be more or less a child” (RD 316), is by far the strongest love depicted in the text. Unlike Townley she sees the child’s disability as reason for a greater devotion in which “Her life was dedicated to Madge, to her welfare and happiness” (RD 320). To emphasise the devoted nature of this love, Kaye-Smith has employed the imagery associated with the life of a religious order. Caring for the child is an atonement for past mistakes. Nun-like, Rose will “dedicate” her life to the child; together they would live an “enclosed” life, be “separated” from the world and live in the “convent” (RD 320) of the farm. This contained love, being smothering, isolationist, possessive and all-consumingly selfish, is doomed to fail. The triangulation of this love – between Rose, the child and Townley – reflects the conflicting triplication that had brought about the failure of Rose’s other attempts to love. Throughout the text those manifestations of love that are destined to fail are characterised by conflict. Her smothering love for Madge meant that she “was no longer at peace with her love of Townley, but bitterly at war” (RD 320). The clash between her love for child and for husband mirrors Rose’s experience when her love for Christian had been opposed by her love for her husband, as well as reflecting the fractured incompleteness of her love for her parents. Rose “had never loved her father, so her love for her mother. . . had never been complete” (RD 320).
Kaye-Smith’s constant and unrelenting desire to emphasise her message that love must be selfless is bolstered by the deaths of all those Rose loves. Rose’s mother’s death, as the result of a road accident, might not have happened if Rose had not tampered with her father’s car in an attempt to keep her mother at home. Christian would not have died as a result of exposure to cold and rain if Rose had not invited her into her home and then turned her out into the night. Madge would not have died if Rose had not attempted to drown both of them in the river, in the ill-considered belief that then they would be together forever. Townley would not have committed suicide if Rose had not been tried for the murder of her child. The end of the novel spells out the Christian moral of unselfish unconditional love. Rose learns that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that selflessness can bring salvation, joy, happiness and above all else love. In an act of simple kindness to her much younger half-brother, Ronnie, (the child of her father and Christian), in the purchase and giving of a pencil sharpener to replace one he had lost, Rose becomes aware of “the happiness she knew that she could both give him and find in him” (RD 449). This realisation that selfless acts of kindness are manifestations of the love she had always sought are reinforced in her dream of Madge and her recognition upon waking that “the dream had been about Ronnie rather than Madge”. It is seen by her as “nothing less than a divine revelation” (RD 449). Much as Waugh and Greene placed the demonstration of the mystery and power of divine grace at the centre of many of their Catholic novels, Kaye-Smith has covertly adopted the same focus for Rose Deeprose.
The teaching on the nature and efficacy of Christian love continues for Rose with the equation of selfless giving with “pyschological release” (RD 449), and her determination that Ronnie should have “all the happiness he was capable of savouring” (RD 450). In the final scene of the novel, the narrative ties up all loose ends as it comes full-circle back to the tea shop with which it had opened. Rose, as sister-mother to Ronnie, has taken him for tea to the shop she used to go to with her mother. The reflections of Ronnie and Rose in the tea shop mirrors allow Kaye-Smith to utilise the Christian symbolism of darkness and light to contrast Rose’s past life of darkness and inward search for love with her new revelation of the ‘light’ and the realisation that love comes from the outward act of giving to others. In the tea shop Ronnie wonders what is happening to them in the dark parts of the mirrors on the wall. Rose, however, concentrates on “‘our adventures here in the light'”, affirming that the here and now presents them with hope for the future and “‘no idea of the nice things you’re going to see presently'” (RD 452).
By setting Rose Deeprose in the 1930s Kaye-Smith is able to depict and address selected current social issues while giving a picture of rural life in the Britain of this time. Townley and the doctors voice the prevailing attitudes to mental disability of the male-dominated society of the 1930s. Townley finds the child repellent, and in his inability to relate to her, he labels her “‘ a little devil'”. He is determined that she shall be locked away in “‘the county asylum'” . . . because “‘she deserves – to join the pauper idiots'” (RD 354). Equally harsh is the judgement of others, including the doctors, who categorise the child as a “natural”, an “idiot”, “a half-wit, or “mental”. She is “backward”, “childish” or like “‘ an intelligent dog'” (RD 346) and will “‘never be very different from what she is now'” (RD 311). The manner in which Kaye-Smith writes of this heartlessness illustrates the enlightened empathetic compassion of a writer with a well-developed social conscience. The reader is drawn to sympathise with Rose and to condemn those who show no sympathy for either the child or her mother. Illustrative of changing attitudes towards women in society, the treatment that Rose receives at the hands of the women prison staff and her own lawyer are set in stark contrast to the lack of understanding exhibited by the judge. The wardresses in the prison are “kind”, “respectable”, “quiet”, they thoughtfully “pulled down the blinds” (RD 395) on the car taking her to the court. Rose’s lawyer is understanding of her mental anguish and is determined that the death of Madge shall be seen as an accident. Presented as a kindly, perceptive and enlightened man, he condemns the law as “‘ a rotten law that puts her through all this just because she failed to carry out half her intention'” (RD 424). The judge, representative of a pre-war repressive attitude to women that dictates they should be entirely subject to their husbands, praises Townley’s desire to institutionalise the child as “laudable” and condemns Rose’s attempted suicide as purely an act “to spite her husband” (RD 419).
Throughout the text Kaye-Smith makes reference to the technological changes in travel and communication that had affected the lives of those living in rural areas. Townley and Rose’s father have cars, and both households have telephones. As symbols of urban modernity they are associated with unsympathetic characters, disastrous events, and the destruction of the time-honoured ways of the countryside. Although they offer considerable advantages, their use often leads to misunderstanding, disruption, distancing and destruction in the relationships between human beings and between humanity and the natural world. Rose’s mother’s death, caused by a car’s headlights frightening the horse that is drawing the trap she is travelling in, speaks to the disruption and destruction of a traditional way of life in the countryside. Those individuals who relish the speed and luxury of car travel are invariably those characters who have little sympathy or empathy with the natural world. These machines are figured as symbols of male domination and virility and as such they perpetuate the subjugation of women. The close association of maleness with machine is seen in Rose’s father because “The car seemed to be an extension of himself; to criticise it was to hurt him personally, to praise it was to puff him up with pride”. When he was driving “His maleness was more like Townley’s than Rose had thought” (RD 29).
The telephone is a luxury item that is inextricably linked to urbanisation. Christian, an incomer to the countryside from the town, wastes no time in installing a telephone in Wally Deeprose’s farmhouse in an effort to modernise it. Townley has the telephone installed in his home because his summer paying guests from the town demand this modern convenience. For country dwellers like Rose the telephone, like the car, can be useful but it remains an alien machine. In her use of it Rose is taciturn and “never fluent in conversation”, she “found herself almost paralysed by the mouthpiece at her lips” (RD 174). Telephonic communications invariably foreshadow misunderstandings, disaster and death. Christian uses it to summon help when she is threatened by Wally Deeprose, Rose hears of Christian’s illness and death in a series of truncated calls, and Townley warns Rose of his impending suicide in a short call to say goodbye. The potential for the misinterpretation of these distanced communications is realised in Rose’s reaction to Townley’s call. Her first reaction is one of frustration believing that “He must be mad, she thought – ringing her up to talk this painful nonsense” (RD 440) but upon reflection she realises that “he as good as told me he was going to kill himself” (RD 441). The realisation comes too late and Rose’s attempt to reach him before he can shoot himself is in vain. With this presentation of technology Kaye-Smith has established a simple dictum: modern, urban and mechanical is bad, whereas traditional, rural and natural is good.
Kaye-Smith’s rendering of the natural world in this novel is no longer that of a landscape of benevolence and comforting spirituality. When the weather and the landscape are brought into a sharp focus it is as a crystallisation and reflection of the mood and circumstances of the characters. On occasion the landscape is nostalgically idyllic, for example when Rose has returned home and is contented at the farm of her childhood. As she looks at “Plurenden Woods, huddled against a soft grey sky with sunshine behind it. Her heart began to unaccountably sing” (RD 424). At other times the malevolence and harsh qualities of the natural world are depicted in an exaggerated realism. In the relating of Christian’s attempt to get home across the fields she “lost her way” (RD 254), her ordeal in the darkness has resulted in her being ‘unconscious’ and ‘raving’ while the undergrowth has left her “with only a few rags on her” (RD 254). Terrified, she is “wandering about in the darkness, in the bog and the rain” (RD 255). When Rose runs away from Townley, with Madge, the countryside she must get through is a “tangle of branches” (RD 365), she “floundered among the brambles” (RD 366), the woods are marshy with “marsh gas bubbling between” (RD 366) the tussocks. The flooded river, which drowns Madge and nearly drowns Rose, is depicted as a deadly manifestation of nature. The water’s effect on Rose is overwhelmingly and physically powerful. As though in the grip of a monster, Rose is “struggling”, and “choking”, to fend off its grasp, her lungs are “bursting”, and the air must be “dragged” into them as the water is “clutching” her and “roaring” in her ears.
The essential rurality of this novel lies in its setting in the countryside, with a farming community that acts as a backdrop to the narration of Rose Deeprose’s life. This rural setting provided the basis of criticism for some reviewers who were beginning to see rural fiction, and this novel in particular, as representative of “a backwater tradition”. They sarcastically lampooned Rose Deeprose for being a work that was “mulched in the soil, invariably bring[ing] . . . a picture of the black loam of muddy lanes and apple scents of Autumn”. Arguably, in this concentration on the setting, these reviewers have failed to see it as integral to the development of Rose as a liberated woman. Although the rurality of this novel is evident, the text does also address the domestic concerns that were a distinguishing feature of middlebrow fiction in the depiction of Rose’s role as a housewife. Unlike the protagonists in some other domestic middlebrow novels where, as Humble states, the central female character is “firmly contained by” the “despised domestic” (Humble 127) role, Rose is shown to have attained a freedom of spirit in her decision to return to her father’s home. Unlike those middlebrow novels that place the female protagonist in a primarily domestic role, and with a happy ending of marital bliss, this work illustrates the fulfilment that women can achieve in living a life in which they do not need to rely on men. Rose has gained her independence, and is single and contented with the freedom she has attained, as an equal partner with her father, in the working and running of the farm.
None of the contemporary reviewers acknowledged any religious message in the novel, and Kaye-Smith had not felt it necessary to include any overtly religious matter. Yet it is apparent that the text can be read as an extended parable like discourse that demonstrates the truth of one of the central tenets of Christian belief, that above all else, selfless love of other human beings should lie at the centre of a good Christian life. Through a series of tragic events that have resulted from hasty decisions, moral dilemmas and a somewhat selfish search for personal love, Rose learns that the contentment of true love only comes through giving selflessly. Kaye-Smith uses Rose to illustrate the Christian scriptural tenets that “‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself””, St Paul’s plea to the Ephesians that they should remember “the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive'”, and St Paul’s teaching to the Corinthians that “faith, hope and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love”. In her desire to promulgate this teaching Kaye-Smith has produced a novel that is contrived and unconvincing in much of its plotting and structure. As one reviewer notes, the unmitigating string of tragic disasters that befall Rose is “wanting in reality and cohesion” while “as the record of one life [the novel] lacks conviction and the requisite stamp of inevitability”.
Like “Susan Spray”, “Rose Deeprose” is a psychological study of a young woman as she grows from a teenager to adulthood. It explores the conflicting emotions and identities that she experiences as a daughter, wife and mother, while illustrating the principle that childhood experience is influential in forming the adult. Although it is a novel that is all about the central character and her fate, Kaye-Smith explores Rose’s life not with a preconception that she is fated to a certain destiny, but rather through a depiction of Rose as one who is exercising her free will in her search for an identity. Her decisions are often governed by haste and impetuosity and she only learns through making mistakes – many of them catastrophic and tragic. Contemporary comment on the novel noted that “The psychology is penetrating”, that this “is a study in sanity”, and that Rose is “like a mouse in a psychologist’s maze” who bruises herself in “many blind alleys” but eventually “finds the way out”.