Monday, 28 November 2011

Penguin no. 1257: The World My Wilderness
by Rose Macaulay

Savagery waited so close on the margins of life; one day it would engulf all: yet another civilization would go down into darkness, so historians and philosophers said, to join les autres, those sunken civilizations of past ages which can be dimly seen, magnificent wrecks, lying fathoms deep in the seas of time. No civilization has lasted more than a few thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its day and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day... We haven't finished, Richie protested, we have scarcely begun, give us a little more time for beauty. O, I love long life better than figs. But beauty vanishes, beauty passes, and he saw only her receding back, menaced and to die.

The above passage captures something of the tone of this book: it is despairing, and unrelentingly sombre and pessimistic. The story is set just after the end of the Second World War, predominately in blitz-ravaged London. Rose Macaulay seems to have been profoundly affected by the experience of living through that war, of witnessing the devastation of the city, and of suffering the loss of all her books, letters, and unpublished manuscripts when her own flat in Luxborough House, Marylebone, was destroyed by a bomb in 1941 (while she was staying elsewhere). She was clearly devastated by her loss; judging from this book, it seems to have left her harbouring a deep sense of disillusionment with humanity, and a complete rejection of any hope in progress, or in the promise of the future.

She touches repeatedly on this idea of the decay of Civilization, alluded to in the descriptions of the ruined landscape around Cheapside and St Giles. It is the markers of a civilized and organised Society which have been destroyed: the churches, offices, and shops. The discarded artifacts of civilised life lie everywhere: fragments of hymn books, broken church bells, staircases that lead nowhere. She intimately documents the wilderness as it encroaches on these devastated areas, naming the small plants and animals gradually moving into an environment most people have abandoned. And she remembers that which is no longer observable, referring to the cratered streets and alleyways by their former names, and recalling the lives formerly lived in the ruined buildings. The bombs have also uncovered the buried remains of civilizations no longer extant: a reminder of the inevitability of decay.

The title seems to be a reference not only to this central London wilderness, but also to the moral wilderness suggested to affect those who lived through the war, and also to the personal wilderness into which the protagonist Barbary is cast when her mother Helen sends her away. Helen is beautiful, knowledgeable and capable, but also indolent and self-concerned, and much more inclined to pursuits providing pleasure than those requiring effort. She had taken Barbary to France years before, leaving her son Rich in England with his upright and distinguished father, and becoming the mistress, and then the wife, and ultimately the widow of a French collaborator, found drowned in the bay once the Germans had gone. She has allowed her daughter Barbary to run wild with the juvenile maquis, individuals who resisted the Germans during the war, and who continue their lawless activities despite the Germans being gone. And in consequence Barbary is wild, untidy, uneducated, and distrusting of authority.

An event which is revealed only in the closing chapters has severed the close relationship between mother and daughter, and Helen sends Barbary away, back to her father in London. Barbary is rejected by her mother, removed from the wild landscape of Collioure that she loves, and finds herself stranded in the bleak grey urban blandness of London. She seeks solace in the ruined buildings and wild landscape of the bombed streets that lie behind St Paul's, and imagines a new maquis comprising the drifters, army deserters, and thieves that occupy this wild part of London; an incompatible barbarism living in the centre of civilization.

These characters seemed conceivable as individuals, but not as a family. It was impossible to ignore the suspicion that each was there to stand as symbol for something else. Helen, with her allure, her knowledge of classical myths, and her love of beauty, and the echoes in her story of Helen of Troy who also left her distinguished husband for a foreign lover, seemed to represent civilization, but one dissipated through apathy. Barbary's name hints at her barbarian qualities, but may also be a reference to the maid in Othello: My mother had a maid call'd Barbary: She was in love, and he she loved proved mad and did forsake her. I was reminded of Kenneth Clark's suggestion that civilization can be undermined by exhaustion and boredom; here the suggestion seemed to be that it can be undermined by apathy. Barbarian qualities are not confined to those dwelling in the wilderness; there are repeated allusions to a widespread recent moral wilderness in which cheating, smuggling, and defying authority have become the norm as a consequence of the war.

Despite its pessimistic tone it is an interesting book, particularly in the way it records the picturesque qualities of the ruined streets, and how the devastated area looked in the years after the war, before it was rebuilt in its bleak modern style. The prose was perhaps a little flowery for my taste, with long and detailed sentences, which sometimes required re-reading if they were to be fully understood, and with many embedded literary references (such as I love long life better than figs in the passage quoted above, taken from Antony and Cleopatra). But it is fascinating to read because it keeps you concentrating, trying to decipher her meaning, and reflecting on whether she had a valid point.


  1. Hello. Questions totally unrelated to your recent post because I'm curious. A natural enquirer. What novel should replace the Gideon's Bible worldwide? What fictional subjects interest you most? And why do you read? That is all. K

  2. Hi Kevin,

    Sorry that it has taken me a little while to get around to answering your questions. I could blame all the children's end of year functions, the pressure of study, an unwelcome visit to the dentist; or perhaps I was procrastinating, and feeling a little intimidated by the questions. Anyway, I'm honoured that you would feel curious enough to ask these things.

    I'm going to answer your questions in reverse order. I feel as though I read in order to better understand the world, and to widen my experience beyond that which I would encounter in my everyday life. And it does widen it - both in time and in space. And yet I wonder if my rationalisations approach the truth, because even as a young child, before I could analyse or discriminate, reading was the activity that I chose above all others; I may read simply because I feel compelled to.

    It is something that I wonder about when I observe my own children. There are five, and although they are all readers, there is only one who reminds me of myself, because you never see her without a book in her hand. I suspect it is a personality-type.

    What fictional subjects interest me most? I think books set in the past. Contemporary views of the past seem to be extrapolated from small samples, so that they become caricatures, as though time filters the subtle details out. I like to read the almost inadvertent descriptions of life that you find in novels written years ago. I enjoy books that reveal how other people think, and ones that explain the world. I am thinking of something like Portnoy's Complaint; it was a complete revelation.

    Does Gideon's Bible refer to the bibles placed in hotel rooms? My first thought would be to the variability an alternative must accommodate: in age and intelligence and in interests. If such a novel exists, I haven't come across it. And so that question defeats me.

    And will you answer these questions too?
    Best wishes,

  3. First things first, five children! A book a week! Plus a Ph.D.! I'm more than a little in awe. Amazing. I have two children and barely have time to scratch my temple.

    I have only a few moments and most type ninja fast....

    I love lanscapes in literature which probably explains why I respond warmly to Cather, C. McCarthy, J. Harrison, P. Mathiessen, and others.

    I read for reasons various and sundry. The most important ones are largely imponderable. This makes sense to me.


    Or Leaves of Grass. Depending on my mood. I realize that Whitman gave us verse not prose but his poetry is so grand that I'm happy to call it by any name, even physics or statistics.


    I still can't believe it....

    Time to run. As always, cheers, K

  4. Yes, five, but two are older; only three require a lot of care. It sometimes feels as though my life is measured out by tennis lessons and music practice. Nothing is done as well as I would like.

    I have thought a lot about your post this week and the lines by Frost that you quoted; I feel that every day. I am counting down now until my break in February, and when I am enjoying my weeks of freedom in the secondhand bookshops of England I will look for the book by Walt Whitman that you recommend.

    For my part, I am in awe of the way you think, and the things you write.

    Best wishes,



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