Dress Down Sunday: Crewe Train by Rose Macaulay

published 1926


With these Greshams life was like walking on a tight-rope. The things you mustn’t do, mustn’t wear. You must, for instance, spend a great deal of money on silk stockings, when, for much less you could have got artificial silk or lisle thread. Why? Did not these meaner fabrics equally clothe the leg? Why had people agreed that one material was the right wear and that others did not do? Why did not anything do?

The same with gloves, with shoes, with frocks, with garments underneath frocks. In all these things people had set up a standard, and if you did not conform to it you were not right, you were left. You wore thick stockings and brogues in the country, thin stockings and high-heeled shoes in the town. You wore a hat if you gave a lunch party, a sleeveless dress in the evening. You had, somehow or other, to conform to a ritual, to be like the people you knew.

observations: There is no denying that Denham, the young woman who is having these thoughts, would be a most irritating person in real life. She has come from Abroad to London, never having lived in England, and finds everything very confusing and difficult. Meanwhile the relations who have taken her in find her very confusing and difficult – more about the plot in these earlier entries.

The title of the book is never explained, but is generally assumed to be a reference to the music hall song: ‘Oh Mr Porter, what shall I do? I wanted to go to Birmingham, and they’ve taken me on to Crewe.’ So Denham is in the wrong place.

Macaulay dithers a bit, but in the end is quite non-judgmental about the characters. However, the one really dreadful thing that happens in the book is that Arnold gives away one of Denham’s secrets to the busybody Evelyn, and Evelyn then lets it slip herself. Unforgiveable. Evelyn also writes a thinly-disguised account of Arnold and Denham’s marriage: she accidentally puts real names in but that can be changed: only the typist has seen it and ‘that’s all right – she lives out at Turnham Green and knows nothing about any of us.’

There is something strangely contemporary about the issues raised by the book, even though it is so very much of its time: do people have the right to do exactly what they want? Do other people have the right to pick over your life? Denham is in the news at one point, and is completely bewildered by the public response to her, in rather a modern way.

I was prejudiced against Rose Macaulay because I did not like The Towers of Trebizond – a book famous mostly for its first line:

“Take my camel, dear", said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.
Nothing in the book justifies this line, which really seems just an affectation, consciously quirky and would-be endearing. I strongly believe that a lot more people express a love for this line than have actually read the book.

Crewe Train was definitely better.

The picture, from Wikimedia Commons, is an advertising image of the era.


  1. Another one that passes me by unmoved.....can't wait for Monday!

  2. Moira - What I find interesting about the passage you shared is what it says about the values of the times. One wears certain things at some times, and other things at other times. 'Ritual' really does describe it well, and the pressure to conform must have been immense. In away it holds up a mirror to that society.

    1. Yes, it's not the best book ever, but Macaulay had some very clever and thoughtful perceptions about the way we live our lives, and particularly women's lives and conventions.

  3. I don't know if I would like Macauley's writing, but I definitely wholeheartedly sympathize with the excerpt. I am so glad I don't have to deal with expectations of dress requirements at this stage in my life. (Not that there are not some expectations and judgment associated with dress, but I just don't care... and they are much less here, now.)

    1. Yes, I think we have lucked out as time moves on, particularly women. The restrictions and conventions are so much less bothersome.


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