The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

Beautiful, haunting and evocative, The World My Wilderness is something of a rediscovered gem, set as it is in the challenging years following the end of WW2. As a novel, it explores the fallout from fractured family relationships – particularly in terms of their impact on children, needlessly caught up in the damaging effects of war.

As the novel opens, seventeen-year-old Barbary Deniston and her mother, Helen Michel, are in the South of France where they have been living during the war. Helen – a rather enigmatic yet lazy creature with artistic leanings – no longer lives with Barbary’s father, Sir Gulliver Deniston, following the couple’s divorce some years earlier. Two other children also reside at Villa Fraises (the Michels’ home in Collioure): Barbary’s step-brother, Raoul (the son of Helen’s second husband, Maurice Michel), and baby Roly (born to Helen and Maurice). To complicate matters further, Maurice is no longer alive, having drowned in suspicious circumstances following rumours of a collaboration with the Occupiers.

Life for Barbary has been primitive and unconventional, a free-spirited existence in the natural world. Left mostly to their own devices, both Barbary and Raoul have fallen in with the local Maquis, a French resistance movement that defies the authorities. In essence, Helen has allowed the children to run wild, her own interests lying elsewhere – either tending to Roly or playing cards and chess, painting less and less in favour of lounging around.

At an early stage in the story, it becomes clear that Barbary and Raoul are to be sent to live in London as the city is no longer under the threat of attack. While Raoul will stay with his uncle (Maurice’s brother), Barbary is to go to her father, Gulliver, who lives in London with his new wife, Pamela, and their baby, David. It is hoped that Barbary will study art at the Slade, and learn to become a lady under the guidance of her guardians.

Unlike the lax and casual Helen, Sir Gulliver – an eminent lawyer by trade – is rather stern and impatient. Above all, he values honesty, respectability and discipline – qualities that seem alien to Barbary after the freedom of her life in France. As a consequence, Barbary feels utterly restricted by her new environment, and she longs to return to the wilds of Collioure.

…there were too many things between them; he [Gulliver] was clever and knew about everything, she was stupid and knew about nothing; he had taken Pamela instead of her mother, she was for ever her mother’s; he stood for law and order and the police, she for the Resistance and the maquis, he for honesty and reputability, she for low life, the black market, deserters on the run, broken ruins, loot hidden in caves. All the wild, desperate squalor, of the enfants du maquis years – would he even believe it if she told him? His clever, cultured, law-bound civilisation was too remote. (p. 77, Virago)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Barbary also takes a dislike to Gulliver wife, Pamela, a rather dull, straight-laced woman in her early thirties, a pale shadow compared to Barbary’s bohemian mother, Helen. Barbary resents Pamela for the place she has taken in Gulliver’s affections, believing her to have usurped Helen, even though the marriage was over long before Pamela’s arrival on the scene. In turn, Pamela despairs at Barbary with her shabby appearance and disregard for the conventions of society, viewing the child as a constant source of exasperation and worry, particularly for Gulliver.

Unhappy with their new lives in London, Barbary and Raoul spend their afternoons combing the streets of Cheapside and the surrounding areas. It is here that Barbary finds solace, amidst the bombed-out ruins of offices, apartments and churches – a wilderness dotted with wildflowers and weeds, a special place for her to explore with Raoul.

 They climbed out through the window, and made their way about the ruined, jungled waste, walking along broken lines of wall, diving into the cellars and caves of the underground city, where opulent merchants had once stored their wine, where gaily tiled rooms opened into one another and burrowed under great eaves of overhanging earth, where fosses and ditches ran, bright with marigolds and choked with thistles, through one-time halls of commerce, and yellow ragwort waved its gaudy banners over the ruins of defeated businessmen. (p. 49)

While here, the pair encounter other occupants of the ruins, mostly petty thieves and deserters who also fly in the face of the authorities with their restrictive regulations. In effect, this environment becomes another kind of Maquis for Barbary, an opportunity for her to recapture something of the life she has left behind in France. Consequently, Barbary spends as little time as possible with Gulliver and Pamela, preferring instead to hang out in the abandoned flat she and Raoul have found in Somerset Chambers. The pair make a little money for themselves by selling Barbary’s paintings of a local church, postcard-sized mementos that prove popular with tourists. Shoplifting provides another source of income, especially once Barbary is schooled in the art of thieving by Mavis, a fellow fugitive and occupant of the ruins.

Naturally, this kind of existence cannot last forever, much as Barbary would like it too. There is a brush with the authorities – a dramatic incident which brings the situation to a head, culminating in the arrival of Helen at the Denistons’ London home, a situation that puts Pamela’s nose firmly out of joint.

The World My Wilderness is a very evocative novel, nuanced and poignant in its portrayal of Barbary’s circumstances. Both parents have failed Barbary in their own individual ways: Helen for letting her run wild with the Marquis; Gulliver for trying to mould her into something she doesn’t want to be.

As the story unfolds, we learn of traumatic experiences in Barbary’s past, most notably the suggestion of a sexual assault by a member of the Gestapo. In essence, Barbary has been suppressing this incident and other distressing experiences for some years, trying to control her feelings as they threaten to bubble up. The one person who senses her inner anxiety is Gulliver’s brother-in-law, Angus, who specialises in nervous conditions and disorders of the mind. But when Angus reaches out to Barbary, she baulks at the idea of opening up, preferring instead to return to her own world, the new-found wilderness in the midst of the city.

Macaulay’s portrayal of post-war London is absolutely stunning, so atmospheric and evocative in its depiction of an area ravaged by war. The empty shells of bombed-out churches; the thriving businesses wiped away; the sense of history destroyed – it’s all captured to great effect.

Equally atmospheric are the descriptions of France, which illustrate the deep sense of savagery that lurks below the surface, an ever-present hangover from the days of war.

The peace that shrouded land and sea was a mask, lying thinly over terror, over hate, over cruel deeds done. Barbarism prowled and padded, lurking in the hot sunshine, in the warm scents of the maquis, in the deep shadows of the forest. Visigoths, Franks, Catalans, Spanish, French, Germans, Anglo-American armies, savageries without number, the Gestapo torturing captured French patriots, rounding up fleeing Jews, the Resistance murdering, derailing trains full of people, lurking in the shadows to kill, collaborators betraying Jews and escaped prisoners, working together with the victors, being in their turn killed and mauled, hunted down by mobs hot with rage; everywhere cruelty; everywhere vengeance; everywhere the barbarian on the march. (p. 140)

There is a sense of redemption in this novel, of coming to terms with past failings – not only for Barbary’s parents but for Barbary too. For the most part, these failings are treated with insight and clemency – every character comes with their own virtues and values, their own faults and transgressions.

While certain elements of the denouement feel somewhat contrived, this is a relatively minor drawback in the scheme of things, particularly given the novel’s other strengths. Overall, this is a very moving and striking novel with a vivid sense of place. An excellent introduction to Macaulay’s work.

The World My Wilderness is published by Virago; personal copy.

29 thoughts on “The World My Wilderness by Rose Macaulay

  1. Brian Joseph

    The book sounds great. The contrast between the lawless areas of France verses postwar London are of particular interest. I can empathize with the children when they were displaced even though thier earlier life may not have been ideal.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a very impressive book, shot through with some beautiful descriptive writing. Macaulay captures that feeling of loss and displacement so well. It’s hard not to feel for Barbary as she struggles to find her place in such an alien environment…

      Reply
  2. Radz Pandit

    This sounds very intriguing Jacqui, especially since I am always drawn towards novels that are haunting and atmospheric. I don’t think I had heard of Rose Macaulay until I read your review, so it’s good to know that this is the one to start with.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think I first heard about Macaulay a year or so ago via Heaven Ali’s blog, possibly in a review of this very novel – I can’t quite remember now, but I’m sure that Ali has covered 3 or 4 or her books at various points in time. Macaulay’s also been featured on the Backlisted podcast run by Andy Miller and John Mitchinson. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that, but if not it’s well worth checking out. I’ve picked up lots of excellent recommendations there, particularly for novels from the mid-20th century, a period I love. Plus the relatively recent reissues from Virago have probably given this author a bit of a boost. They’re really beautifully produced, with much nicer covers than some of the other contemporary Viragos!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Juliana. I’m glad you liked it so much too. There’s definitely a feeling of atonement towards the end, an attempt to right the wrongs of the past. I liked that aspect of the ending.

      Reply
  3. madamebibilophile

    Your opening paragraph had me convinced Jacqui! This sounds great. The post-war, ravaged London setting is so appealing too. I’ve not read Macaulay but I’ll definitely be seeking this out.

    Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Lovely post as always Jacqui. It’s wonderful that Macaulay’s being rediscovered, though I think she was extensively republished in green Virago some time ago – I have a few on my shelves including possibly this one (I know I owned an old Penguin of it once as well). It’s the evocation of post-War London which appeals to me particularly – I loved that element in the Ealing Film “Hue and Cry”, that sense of a place in the middle of a big change from the past into a modern future. I shall definitely need to pick this one up soon!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Ah, I wasn’t aware that Virago had published this before in the old green livery. (I think I’d seen Told by an Idiot, but not this one.) You’re lucky to have some of them on your shelves, very covetable indeed.

      Yes, I’m a sucker for this kind of post-war setting, and Macaulay seems to capture it so well. Do you know, I don’t think I’ve ever seen the film Hue and Cry! Definitely something to remedy one day, maybe via Talking Pictures or the like. It’s the sort of film that would crop up in their schedules…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I’ll take a look at your post. Maybe I’m being a bit hard on Helen, but she does rather abandon Barbary at a very delicate age. I do think she comes through for Barbary in the end, but quite a lot of damage has already been done by that stage…Maybe we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one!

      Reply
  5. heavenali

    I loved this one, it was my first Macaulay and I have now read several others. I loved the feeling of post war London with all the debris lying in the Streets etc. Lots of wonderful descriptions. Great review.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Well, your enthusiasm for Macaulay was fully justified! I loved this too – such an affecting little novel with a brilliant feel for the period.

      Reply
  6. Tredynas Days

    I’ll return to this when I’ve read it. From what I skimmed here it’s one for the list – though I’ve read a couple of hers now, and enjoyed both of them. Like Vita Sackville-West, her name and reputation seem to have been eclipsed by other contemporaries, or those just before and after her – time she was given more attention

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Great. I’ll be very interested to see what you think of it. Macaulay’s tone/style takes a bit of getting used to — I can imagine some readers finding it slightly precious — but it seems to work well within the context of this story. There’s a good chance you’ll like this one, Simon, especially as you’ve already read a couple of her others.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It never ceases to surprise me how many aspects of novels written in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s still feel quite relevant in the current environment. The contemporary resonances are often very striking. In terms of the Macaulay, it’s the sense of abandonment and dislocation that stands out. Even though the context has changed since the end of WW2, the emotions Barbary experiences would still hold true today.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, I’m so glad to hear that you loved it! (I don’t think I was aware that you’d read this one.) Did you ever write it up, Caroline? If so, please feel free to leave a link to your review. I’d love to see what you think. And yes, the descriptions are so vivid and evocative, from the wilds of Collioure to the bombed-out buildings of London. Even the descriptions of Barbary’s brief visit to the Scottish Highlands are alive with beauty.

      Reply
  7. Maureen Cook

    Must say thank you for this fantastic review of a book I’ve dithered over too long. I’ve finally bought it thanks to you and I’m sure I’m going to love it !

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome, Maureen! Thank you for dropping by to let me know – it’s comments like yours that make these reviews seem worthwhile. I do hope you enjoy the novel as much as I did.

      Reply
  8. bookbii

    This sounds like a nice read, very evocative from those quotations. You seem to have rich pickings at the moment, lots of undiscovered gems on the shelves. Lovely review, as always.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. I’ve been on a bit of a mid-20th-century kick recently, and this book falls firmly within that territory. Macaulay appears to be a good ‘discovery’ for me.

      Reply
  9. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

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