Review: Fabled Shore, by Rose Macaulay

This post is a part of my year-long quest in 2017 to read only female-authored travel writing. Find out more about it on the project’s main page.

Fabled Shore coverRose Macaulay‘s Fabled Shore is hard going. It’s a rich, beautiful book, but for me it was a slow read which I almost did not finish. Though I am glad I did.

The problem is, in a sense, that it almost stops being travel writing, which of course is the genre I am attempting to read this year. Such is the depth of the author’s research that the book strays into being a history at times, too often even. Though it is partly due to this that Fabled Shore boasts such a richness.

The author’s journey along the coast of Spain and into Portugal takes in a stretch of coastline that runs from southeast France all the way round to the Atlantic, and which is packed with history, from the Romans to the Moors to the Spanish civil war, itself just a few years past at the time she undertook the adventure.

And boy do we get to know that history. In painstaking detail Macaulay shares with us her extensive research, explaining the impact of the often lost and vague Roman history, and the deep Arab, French and even British influences of each place she visits. It probably makes the book twice as long as it would be if it were pure travel diary, and while it enriches the book I found it tough.

Even despite the beautiful, flowing prose, I found myself tiring of the repeated history lessons, which increasingly told me more about Macaulay’s research than about the locations in question.

Perhaps I’m being overly critical, and even a little dim. And I do confess to having learned some surprising things – for instance that Catalonians occupied and ran Athens during the fourteenth century, and that English influences in Spain are centuries old, and I also appreciated some fascinating details about the Spanish civil war. After all, a place’s past is of course part of its story, and historical context is vital to good travel narrative.

But there is a balance, and I feel in this book it was tipped too far away from travelogue and towards history. And at times, even, the author’s explanation of a place was reduced to simply listing things that were to be found, often taken from guide books and other sources and not actually seen by the author herself.

I wonder if part of this deep focus on the history and wider facts outside the narrative was down to the nature of her journey – unlike any other journeys in my reading series so far, this was a road trip. Now, a road trip in Spain is an immense thing to do (my 2010 visit was by car and Spain, with its wide vistas and fabulous roads, is absolutely set up for such adventures – as it seemed to be even in the 1940s). But the author travelled by herself, leaving her, it seems, alone with her thoughts, her background reading and her own perspectives for much of the journey. A solo car trip is, inherently, an insular and inward looking activity, and not the most conducive manner to truly experiencing a place. The fact that she does not stop long in many places, nor report much in the way of human interaction, strips from the book any sense of real, alive place in favour of lots and lots of history.

There are a few quirks that shine through relating to the road trip, mind you, and one strong feature of the book is the attention the author gets for being not only a sole female traveller but a woman at the wheel of a car – both of which, it seems, are most unusual and counter-cultural in the Spain of that era. She reports the responses – from calls to frowns to even thrown stones – with a stoic, patient desire to appreciate her host country’s cultural norms, and reflects also on apologetic comments she gets from some of the people she meets.

And the author being a woman as a result does stand out as a theme, and Macaulay has quite a bit to share about life as a female travel and female writer. Indeed, in her introduction she reflects on the nature of previous travel writing about Spain and protests that too many writers (men, of course) dwell on their descriptions of Spanish women. She protests, in a flowing tribute to the country, that while they may indeed be beautiful they are less so than a whole range of geographical and cultural aspects to Spain from the beaches to the churches to the food, concluding that

It is these things, and a thousand more, that make the exquisiteness and the poetry of Spain. But let the susceptible nineteenth-century tourist catch sight of a shapely female form, and all the glories of landscape and architecture were forgotten.

I can’t imagine a male travel writer of that era being so brave in condemning the lecherous undertones of his contemporaries. And in that respect, Rose Macaulay brings not an equal standard of interpretation of her subject but something better that a man seemingly could not (or would not) bring.

And it’s that beautiful prose that really saves the book for me. Every time I begin to skim over seemingly endless pages of history, she comes back to the moment and delivers paragraphs of splendid description that brings Spain rushing to life. She writes at one point early in her journey, just south of the Pyrenees

A stormy sea among these fantastic wild-cat rocks must be an affair of sound, foam and fury; that July afternoon the Mediterranean was a suave and cooling murmuration of blue doves.

And a bit later she evocatively describes Barcelona:

One could, of course, spend a long time in the Barcelona museums. But, when one leaves museums, churches, galleries, houses, one comes out, with a shock of pleasure, into Barcelona itself, sweeping ebulliently and grandly down from the mountains to the sea, many-coloured, shouting, alive.

There are plenty more highlights in her journey. Her description of Catalonia stands out, with its echoes of the current political debate there. And I enjoyed her account of Gibraltar, its weird character and history making it stand out as somewhere I’d love to visit. And I enjoyed the points when she strayed inland to the likes of Guadix, Granada and the famous Al Hambra, overlapping with my 2010 road trip (a journey I am still determined to write up somehow, however briefly. Perhaps this review serves as motivation!).

It was amusing, too, to read her mentions of place names now famous as seaside resorts that are the staple of British holidays but which, at the time, were often nowhere near as developed or discovered. In one ominous part, she writes about the unspoilt Costa Brava she encountered:

Its natural beauty, like that of the Ligurian coast of Italy, nothing can defeat; but if it should ever become, as it would long since have become in Britain were such a coast conceivable in Britain, a continuous chain of luxury hotels and villas, I should not revisit it.

In that sense, the book is a thorough and evocative window into Spain of the 1940s. For someone interested in a twentieth century history of the country, it would be a good addition to your reading list. And Macaulay’s elegant prose certainly warms the reader to the idea of exploring Spain further, even with the extensive history.

Perhaps in writing this review I’ve persuaded myself of the book’s merits – poetic, thoughtful, admirably researched. But owing to the slow pace and the lack of human stories, this admittedly brilliant book is perhaps my least favourite of my reading project so far.

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