I have been juggling various reading challenges this month, completing my #20booksofsummer, and reading things for both All Virago/All August and #WITmonth.
I have had The World my Wilderness on my shelves for years, part of my #20booksofsummer list – which I completed last week, it also fitted beautifully into All Virago/All August.
Rose Macaulay was a hugely prolific and popular writer – and The World my Wilderness was the novel she published in 1950 following a decade of silence. Of Macaulay, Penelope Fitzgerald in her introduction to my VMC edition, says:
“Rose Macaulay was born in 1881, and died in 1958. As a young woman she went bathing with Rupert Brooke, and she lived long enough to protest, as a well-known author and critic, against the invasion of Korea.”
(Penelope Fitzgerald, 1982)
That was enough to make me want to know Rose Macaulay a lot better. The World my Wilderness was my first ever novel by her – one which at the time apparently surprised her fans, more used to social satires.
The World my Wilderness is a wonderful novel, set in the fragile post-war world still reeling from the difficulties and betrayals of the war years, it is a novel which explores beautifully, the damage parents do to their children.
It is 1946 and Barbary Deniston has been living in France with her beautiful, indolent mother Helen throughout the war years. Their home at the Villa Fraises in Collioure, an area occupied by the Germans during the war is a place of relaxed freedom and sunshine. Helen, divorced from Barbary’s father, married a wealthy Frenchman widely seen as a Nazi collaborator.
“Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath. She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the sinking step, the affected, furtive glide, the quick wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.”
Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul, have run wild together, associating with the defiant and dangerous local Maquis (Resistance) who defied the Germans and betrayed the collaborators. Here, Barbary learnt about danger, betrayal and death, and in the hands of the Gestapo; sexual assault. A free spirited artist, hedonistic Helen’s attention these days is largely taken up with Roland the young son she had with her second husband, Barbary is often ignored. With her husband recently drowned in highly suspicious circumstances, Helen decides to pack Barbary off to England to her father and stepmother, Barbary’s elder brother who had remained in London after his mother fled to France, arrives to collect his wild and untaught sister. Raoul travels with her, packed off to an uncle, Helen freed at last of two responsibilities.
Barbary is seventeen, though appears much younger – her childlike rebellion, and search for her place of safety making her vulnerable as if her development to adulthood has been arrested by her wartime experiences. There were moments when I found it hard to see Barbary as a seventeen-year-old – although teenagers of 1946 were not the teenagers we know today. A few times, Macaulay uses the word children for Barbary and her (albeit slightly younger) stepbrother – the word jarred a little for me – though why should it? – teenagers are more adult now than then, no doubt the reason for that word seeming inappropriate to a modern reader.
Scruffy, stubborn and untamed Barbary is not ready for the mixture of formal, English politeness and bomb damaged austerity that exists in post-war London. Barrister Sir Gulliver Deniston; Barbary’s father is stiff and starchy, his new wife the always correct, tweedy Pamela is very conventional, about as unlike Helen as it is possible to be. Both are shocked by Barbary’s unconventional wildness, the results of Helen’s rather neglectful parenting. There’s a feeling that Sir Gulliver has not entirely recovered from Helen’s desertion of him before the war, while Pamela resents any reference to the woman she feels unable to compete with.
“Suddenly the bells of St. Paul’s clashed out, drowning them in sweet, hoarse, rocking clamour. Barbary began to dance, her dark hair flapping in the breeze as she spun about. Raoul joined her; they took hands, snapping the fingers of the other hand above their heads; it was a dance of Provence, and they sand a Collioure fisherman’s song in time to it.
The bells stopped. The children stood still, gazing down on a wilderness of little streets, caves and cellars, the foundations of a wrecked merchant city, grown over by green and golden fennel and ragwort, coltsfoot, purple loosestrife, rosebay willow herb, bracken, bramble and tall nettles, among which rabbits burrowed and wild cats crept and hens laid eggs.”
Desperately unhappy; Barbary looks for somewhere she can feel safe, that makes sense to a girl who ran with the Maquis, instructed by them in sabotage and thievery. Craving the world that she has left behind, Barbary finds a wilderness in the wastelands created by the bombs which rained down upon the streets around St. Paul’s. Here Barbary finds similarities to the life she led in France, meeting an odd collection of characters, hiding from policeman, stealing from shops. Invited to a shooting party in the Scottish Highlands, Sir Gulliver and Pamela whisk Barbary off before she has barely got used to being away from France. Barbary raises a few eyebrows with her unconventional behaviour, finally, running off back to London, and the ruined buildings where each day she escapes the claustrophobic atmosphere of her father’s house. Still running around with Raoul, the pair take over the ruins of an abandoned flat, while Barbary paints in the ruins of a church. Their new friends; deserters and thieves, people looking for a place to hide. Getting into rather more trouble than she bargained for, Barbary ensures that her father and stepmother will have to entertain her mother, who finally rushes to be with the daughter she had so brutally thrust from her.
In The World my Wilderness we have guilt and redemption. The hurts created by the ravages of war in people and their places are explored with great compassion and understanding. Macaulay knows what it is to be young, and also what it is to be lost.