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‘Orphan Island’ by Rose Macaulay ***

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.

9781448204267First 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.

2

‘The World My Wilderness’ by Rose Macaulay ****

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.

716iu-tbn5lThe 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.

4

Virago: Ten Books from the Wishlist

Virago are currently celebrating their fortieth birthday, and along with a week-long celebration of their novels, I thought that it would be a good idea to select ten of the books on their wonderful Modern Classics list which I haven’t yet got to.  I did make a conscious effort for several years to choose books from this list, in order to try and get through it and discover some wonderful literature.  However, it has expanded considerably in recent years, along with my TBR list, and I have not got as far with the project as I would have liked.  I am hopeful that, by making this list, I will be able to seek out these particular Viragos and read them in the near future.

 

1396471. A Pin to See the Peepshow by F. Tennyson Jesse (#11)
A Pin to See the Peepshow is a fictionalized account of the life of Edith Thompson, one of the three main players in the “Ilford murder” case of 1922.

2. Joanna Godden by Sheila Kaye-Smith (#115)
Joanna Godden is a ‘damn fine women’, big and blue-eyed with a brown freckled face and a weakness for fancy clothes. On the death bed of her father all her neighbours expect her to marry, for someone (some man) must run Little Ansdore, the Sussex farm she inherits. But Joanna is a person of independent mind: she decides to run it herself. Her strength as a woman and a lover, as a sister and a farmer are all broken by her defiance of convention and the inexorable demands of the land itself. But nothing can finally defeat Joanna: she bounces off the page triumphant, one of the most ebullient, most attractive country heroines in literature.
3. The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns (#224) 2702636
Her father dies and the ten-year-old Frances, her mother and assorted siblings are taken under the wing of their horsey relations, led by bullying Aunt Lawrence. Their new home is small and they can’t afford a maid. Mother occasionally dabs at the furniture with a duster and sister Polly rules the kitchen. Living in patronised poverty isn’t much fun but Frances makes friends with Mrs. Alexander who has a collection of monkeys and a yellow motor car, and the young widow, Vanda, who is friendly if the Major isn’t due to call. But times do change and one day Aunt Lawrence gets her come-uppance and Frances goes to live in the house with “the skin chairs.”
4. In a Summer Season by Elizabeth Taylor (#112)
Kate Heron is a wealthy, charming widow who marries, much to the disapproval of friends and neighbours, a man ten years her junior: the attractive, feckless Dermot. Then comes the return of Kate’s old friend Charles – intelligent, kind and now widowed, with his beautiful young daughter. Kate watches happily as their two families are drawn together, finding his presence reassuringly familiar, but slowly she becomes aware of subtle undercurrents that begin to disturb the calm surface of their friendship. Before long, even she cannot ignore the gathering storm . . .
233532245. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner (#299)
In memory of the wife who had once dishonoured and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.
6. Pirates at Play by Violet Trefusis (#416)
Published to coincide with a biography of Violet Trefusis, this romantic comedy set in the Twenties shows young aristocrat, Elizabeth Caracole being finished in Florence with the family of a Papal count – the dentist. All five brothers fall for her, but their sister, Vica, has plans of her own.
7. Plagued by the Nightingale by Kay Boyle (#47) 1188052
This extraordinary novel, first published in 1931, recounts the love story of the American girl Bridget and the young Frenchman Nicolas whom she marries. Bridget goes to live with his wealthy, close-knit family in their Breton village and finds there a group — mother, father, sisters, and brother-in-law — who love each other to the exclusion of the outside world.  But it is a love that festers, for the family is tainted with an inherited bone disease, a plague which, Bridget slowly discovers, can also infect the soul. Then Luc — young, handsome, healthy — arrives and Bridget is faced with a choice: confronting the Old World with the courage of the New she makes the bravest choice of all…  In subtle, rich and varied prose Kay Boyle echoes Henry James in a novel at once lyrical, delicate and shocking.
8. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (#104)
Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.
13430229. The Fire-Dwellers by Margaret Laurence (#304)
The Fire-Dwellers is an extraordinary novel about a woman who has four children, a hard-working but uncommunicative husband, a spinster sister, and an abiding conviction that life has more to offer her than the tedious routine of her days.  Margaret Laurence has given us another unforgettable heroine – human, compelling, full of poetry, irony and humour. In the telling of her life, Stacey rediscovers for us all the richness of the commonplace, the pain and beauty in being alive, and the secret music that dances in everyone’s soul.
10. I’m Not Complaining by Ruth Adam (#124)
Madge Brigson is a teacher in a Nottinghamshire Elementary school in the 1930s. Here, with her colleagues – ranging from the beautiful, “promiscuous” Jenny to the earnest communist Freda and kind, spinsterish Miss Jones – she battles with the trials and tribulations of that special world: nits in the hair, abusive parents, inspectors’ visits, eternal registers, malnutrition, staff quarrels and staff love affairs. To all of this Madge presents an uncompromisingly intelligent and commonsensical face: laughter is never far away as she copes with her pupils, with the harsh circumstances of life in the Depression, and with her own love affair. For Madge is a splendid heroine: determined, perceptive, warm-hearted, she deals with life, and love, unflinchingly and gets the most out of the best – and worst – of it.

 

Are you a fan of Virago?  Have you read any of these books?  Which books from the Modern Classics list do you have on your TBR pile to read, and which are you wishing for?

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The Book Trail: Albert Nobbs to The Pastor’s Wife

Another Book Trail is upon us.  This begins with an underrated novella which I read back in August and very much enjoyed, and takes us through a wealth of fascinating Virago-esque books.

1. Albert Nobbs by George Moore
‘Long out of print, George Moore’s classic novella returns just in time for the major motion picture starring Glenn Close as a woman disguised as a man in nineteenth-century Ireland.Set in a posh hotel in nineteenth-century Dublin, Albert Nobbs is the story of an unassuming waiter hiding a shocking secret. Forced one night to share his bed with an out-of-town laborer, Albert Nobbs’ carefully constructed facade nearly implodes when the stranger disovers his true identity-that he’s actually a woman. Forced by this revelation to look himself in the mirror, Albert sets off in a desperate pursuit of companionship and love, a search he’s unwilling to abandon so long as he’s able to preserve his fragile persona at the same time. A tale of longing and romance, Albert Nobbs is a moving and startlingly frank gender-bending tale about the risks of being true to oneself.’

2. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault 9781844089529
‘Set in 1937, The Friendly Young Ladies is a romantic comedy of off-Bloomsbury bohemia. Sheltered, naïve, and just eighteen, Elsie leaves the stifling environment of her parents’ home in Cornwall to seek out her sister, Leo, who had run away nine years earlier. She finds Leo sharing a houseboat, and a bed, with the beautiful, fair-haired Helen. While Elsie’s arrival seems innocent enough, it is the first of a series of events that will turn Helen and Leo’s contented life inside out. Soon a randy young doctor is chasing after all three women at once, a neighborly friendship begins to show an erotic tinge, and long-quiet ghosts from Leo’s past begin to surface. Before long, no one is sure just who feels what for whom.’

3. Olivia by Dorothy Strachey
‘Considered one of the most subtle and beautifully written lesbian novels of the century, this 1949 classic returns to print in a Cleis Press edition. Dorothy Strachey’s classic Olivia captures the awakening passions of an English adolescent sent away for a year to a small finishing school outside Paris. The innocent but watchful Olivia develops an infatuation for her headmistress, Mlle. Julie, and through this screen of love observes the tense romance between Mlle. Julie and the other head of the school, Mlle. Cara, in its final months.’

97808606834074. The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay
‘Banished by her mother to England, Barbara is thrown into the ordered formality of English life. Confused and unhappy, she discovers the wrecked and flowering wastes around St Paul’s, where she finds an echo of the wilderness of Provence and is forced to confront the wilderness within herself.’

5. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner
‘In memory of the wife who had once dishonored and always despised him, Brian de Retteville founded a 12th-century convent in Norfolk. Two centuries later, the Benedictine community is well established there and, as befits a convent whose origin had such ironic beginnings, the inhabitants are prey to the ambitions, squabbles, jealousies, and pleasures of less spiritual environments. An outbreak of the Black Death, the collapse of the convent spire, the Bishop’s visitation, and a nun’s disappearance are interwoven with the everyday life of the nuns, novices, and prioresses in this marvelous imagined history of a 14th-century nunnery.’

6. The Lost Traveller by Antonia White 9781844083695
‘When Clara returns home from the convent of her childhood to begin life at a local girls’ school, she is at a loss: although she has comparative freedom, she misses the discipline the nuns imposed and worries about keeping her faith in a secular world. Against the background of the First World War, Clara experiences the confusions of adolescence – its promise, its threat of change. She longs for love, yet fears it, and wonders what the future will hold. Then tragedy strikes and her childhood haltingly comes to an end as she realises that neither parents nor her faith can help her.’

7. Cousin Rosamund by Rebecca West
‘Rich in period detail, lyrical in its evocation of the Thames, a novel that reveals both the problems of marriage and the ecstasies of sexual love’

97818440828038. The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
‘Ingeborg Bullivant decides spontaneously to join a tour to Lucerne-and returns engaged. Yet her new life as a rural Prussian pastor’s wife restricts her as much as her old; and when the dashing artist Ingram appears, musing about wondrous Italy, wanderlust tempts her a second time. Von Arnim’s accomplished and comic novel is based on her own first marriage and life in provincial Germany at the turn of the century.’

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