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.