Rose Macaulay is an author whom I enjoy, but have read barely anything by. I decided to purchase a copy of her 1950 novel, The World My Wilderness, late last year, and sat down to begin it on a drizzly spring afternoon. This book, her first novel published in a decade, is revered as Macaulay’s ‘most sophisticated novel’, which ‘explores brilliantly the spiritual dilemmas of the post-war world.’ The green-spined Virago edition (not pictured) which I read contains a rather fantastic introduction by Penelope Fitzgerald, one of my favourite authors.
The World My Wilderness begins in 1946, a year after the end of the Second World War. Our protagonist is seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston, who has ‘grown up in the sunshine of Provence with her voluptuous, indolent but intelligent mother, allowed to run wild with the Maquis, experiencing collaboration, betrayal – and death.’ After little consideration, Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul are ‘banished’ to England by her mother. Whilst Raoul goes to stay with an uncle, Barbary is consequently ‘thrown into the ordered formality of English life with her distinguished father and conventional stepmother.’ Barbary is profoundly unhappy with this turn of events, and wants nothing more than to return to her carefree existence in France. When wandering in London one day, Barbary discovers ‘the wrecked and flowering wastes around St. Paul’s. Here, in the bombed heart of London, she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’
The World My Wilderness is, in this manner, a coming-of-age novel. Whilst Barbary does not have what could amount to a sexual awakening, she becomes far more aware of her self, and the sometimes limited power which she has in her life. When she meets her estranged father for the first time in seven years, he sees her as something of a disappointment, thinking her a ‘queer elf’ and ‘the same little tramp’ as she appeared as a ten-year-old. She is given her old bedroom in the London house, where she and her family lived before her mother fled with her to France, but it has changed immeasurably: ‘Engulfed and assaulted by the resurrecting past, Barbary sat on the new bed, tears pricking against her eyes; her face disintegrated into the quivering chaos of sorrow.’ Barbary is both determined and naïve; she is convinced that her parents, both separated for seven years, and both with young children by new partners, will get back together.
From the first page, in finely sculpted and rather sumptuous prose, Macaulay sets her scenes so deftly and vividly. She introduces of Barbary’s home, The Villa Fraises, in the following way: ‘The villa… was strawberry pink, with green shutters shaped like leaves, and some green bogus windows and shutters, with painted ladies looking out of them, but most of the windows were real, and had balconies full of shrubs and blue pots and drying bathing suits and golden cucumbers in piles. There was a flat terraced roof with vine trellises on it, and outside the villa stone steps climbed up to the roof. The garden was crowded with shrubs and flowers and orange and lemon trees, and pomegranates and magnolias and bougainvilleas and vines.’
Macaulay presented me with a view of London I am entirely unfamiliar with, and which feels wonderfully alive, even in its desolation. I very much appreciated the stark, uncompromising landscapes which she built, which are quite at odds with the grand and unspoilt buildings I know of around St. Paul’s Cathedral. She writes of the roaming Barbary and Raoul do around London together, loath as they are to have to spend any more time with their respective families. They spend a lot of time climbing into bombed and abandoned buildings, and meeting other drifters along the way. Macaulay describes one of the spaces they claim as their own like so: ‘In the boards there was a gap large enough to squeeze through; they did so, and stood, with no roof but the sky, while pigeons whirred about them and the wind blew in their faces, on a small plateau, looking down over the wrecked city.’
Macaulay also captures her characters, and their movements, exceedingly well. When Barbary goes to check on her sleeping baby brother at the beginning of the book, for instance, and is interrupted by her rather formidable mother, Macaulay writes: ‘Barbary slipped from the room, as quiet as a despondent breath. She and Raoul had acquired movements almost noiseless, the slinking steps, the affected, furtive glide, the quick, wary glancing right and left, of jungle creatures.’ The conversations which the author captures between characters are involved and in depth, and really help to develop the family dynamics, which shift and mould over time.
Of The World My Wilderness, Fitzgerald writes: ‘The book disturbed [Macaulay’s] readers, because it was no what they expected. The most successful of her early novels had been social satires… The World My Wilderness sowed that the power of ridicule, after all, was not the most important gift she had.’ Fitzgerald goes on to highlight the similarities between Barbary’s life in the novel, and Macaulay’s own. She is also perceptive about Macaulay’s heroine, whom the author herself described as ‘rather lost and strayed and derelict’. Fitzgerald writes that ‘she is not a wanderer by nature, it is only that she needs a home that she can trust.’ In a searching paragraph close to the end of her introduction, she notes: ‘However faulty the main characters may be, there is one striking fact about them; their mistakes are not the result of caring nothing about each other, but of caring too much.’
In some ways, The World My Wilderness is rather a bleak novel, which has been so well situated both socially and historically. I really enjoyed the discussions between characters, particularly with regard to the political situation in Britain and France, and the changing face of Europe. The World My Wilderness, as well as being quite dark and sometimes maudlin, is a wise book; at times, it is almost profound. I did not find the ending of the novel overly satisfying, but felt that it fitted in well with the story. I am keen to seek out more of Macaulay’s fiction in the very near future, and look forward to meeting more of her wonderfully crafted characters.