I found, to my delight, that my local library system had a copy of Rose Macaulay’s Orphan Island in their stock deposit collection, and I duly reserved it. The copy which I received was rather an ugly hardback, with library stamps in it dating from the 1960s and 1970s. Regardless, I settled down with it happily, eager to read more of Macaulay’s writing.
First published in 1924, and set during the mid-Victorian 1850s and the 1920s, Orphan Island takes one on rather a memorable romp to an island in the South Pacific, ‘far beyond even Tahiti’. This island is, ‘at times… almost too perfect, too well-equipped by nature.’ Here, one family, fresh from Cambridge, arrives during the Roaring Twenties. They land on the same island which Miss Charlotte Smith has, in effect, colonised, after landing there in 1855.
Miss Smith, a ‘kind-hearted lady of thirty or so’ at this point, has been tasked with taking ‘some fifty orphans, of various nationalities and all of them under ten years of age’ to San Francisco from England, where an orphanage has been provided for them. Of course, this does not go to plan, and after the ship in which they are travelling becomes damaged, they are squashed into lifeboats and set adrift, finally ending up on a ‘peaceful and uninhabited’ island. Miss Smith and ‘her orphans’ became castaways, ‘with nothing but a meagre library and an ideal vision of Queen Victoria at Balmoral to guide them towards the future.’ Of course, the island also provides the castaways, which include a doctor and a nursemaid, with an abundance of delicious fruits, and a freshwater spring. The two sailors who travel with them soon abscond, and more adventure ensues.
The Cambridge-based grandson of one of these soldiers, sociologist Mr Thinkwell, finds out about the island during the 1920s. Soon, he and his three grown-up children – Charles, William, and Rosamond – all of whom are conveniently at a relatively loose end, decide to make a journey there, to see if there are any survivors. Their ‘voyage passed,’ writes Macaulay, ‘like a strange and lovely dream. For days and nights they flew full-sail…’. Of course, they find a fully-established colony, in which the now elderly Miss Smith is the fully-fledged matriarch. She has built her very particular persona upon that of Queen Victoria.
However, the island’s society is hardly a utopian one. Rather, the hierarchical class system is very much in place, and they rely on slaves who ‘don’t expect’ to be paid. There are huge differences, too, between the island’s inhabitants and the Thinkwells: ‘Between them seventy years seemed to yawn, and neither understood.’ We are given a sweeping history of the island, as well as many musings upon religion.
The edition which I read featured an introduction written by Alan Pryce-Jones. He calls Macaulay a ‘moralist’, explaining that ‘she found the spectacle of life extraordinary and fascinating; she was never deceived by appearances; but she was always unwilling to pass a final judgment.’ Pryce-Jones is well aware of the ‘gleam in Rose Macaulay’s eye which is would be unwise to overlook: she is seeing how far she can go, playing with her reader as she plays with her own fantasy.’ He believes that Orphan Island is ‘an admirable point of entry’ to her work.
As with other Macaulay novels which I have read, she has a great deal to say in Orphan Island, and writes very well. Her descriptions of place and person are rich and sensuous; for instance, when she writes of Rosamond: ‘She wanted to swim, to wade, to curl up in the warm sand and sleep. A small wind spiced with vanilla stroked her cheek, stole into her mouth. There was a stirring of birds in the woods, and sharp, staccato cries, and it seemed that a monkey also woke and sang.’ Of one of the island’s inhabitants, who takes Rosamond under her wing, Macaulay notes: ‘Her voice was clear and cool, like a small waterfall, or ice tinkling on glass; her face was a blown candle, which smoulders still.’
Macaulay, throughout, poses much for her reader to consider, and Orphan Island is certainly an interesting novel in a lot of ways. It does not, however, contain a driving narrative; there are some segments which are quite slow, and almost plod along. Other sections are constructed like an interview, telling of practices on the island from the mouth of one of its citizens. Orphan Island is rather a far-fetched novel in many ways, but it does provide a slice of escapist fiction. The novel feels, at times, like an adventure story, somewhat in the vein of Swallows and Amazons but on a far more exotic scale.