Whatever reading slump I was in last month seems to have worked itself out and I'm feeling much more contented with my books at the moment. As a matter of fact I'm enjoying what I'm reading and have gone back to my reading pile to pick up a few false starts, of which Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness was one, and I'm so glad I did. This was Macaulay's second to last book, written in 1950, which was reissued at some point by Virago. I happened to read a library copy, but I wouldn't mind looking for a Virago edition of my own.
This is my first foray into Macaulay's work (save one short story) and it certainly won't be my last. Although it is in a way a simple story (perhaps deceptively so), it's very unique to what I've read about London after the war. Macaulay served as a nurse and as a civil servant in the War Office during World War I. During the Blitz of the Second World War her London flat was bombed and completely destroyed, and she had to build her life again from scratch. She wrote about the experience in a short story called Miss Anstruther's Letters, which I read several years ago and wrote about here.
The bombed out ruins of London serve as the backdrop for a story about one young woman who must come to terms with a world at odds with her experience. Seventeen year-old Barbary has been sent to London from France where she lived with her mother during the war. Helen Michel is an indolent woman, beautiful and sensual but more concerned with pleasing herself than raising a daughter to be a proper young woman. As a matter of fact Barbary has run wild growing up and is accustomed to roaming about with her half-brother Raoul getting into scrapes and worse involving themselves in subversive acts against the Germans with the French maquis.
Barbary is sent to England after the war to spend time with her father, Gulliver Deniston, who divorced her mother when she left him for another man. Both parents have since remarried, Helen to a Frenchman and a collaborator who drowned very suspiciously in the last days of the war. Barbary's stepmother, Pamela, is as conventional as Helen is indulgent, and Barbary finds her new life to be oppressive. She's meant to be studying art at the Slade, but she's more at home in the ruins of London which are populated by spivs and deserters. She spends her time painting postcards for tourists of the bombed churches and charging inflated prices for them. She and Raoul think nothing of stealing to fulfill their needs so turned upside down are their moral compasses.
There are a number of interesting juxtapositions in this story. Barbary's life in France more closely resembles, certainly she is more at home in, the ruins which have a wildness of their own like the maquis/terrain of Provence. When she travels with her father and Pamela to Scotland to visit family for their holidays she doesn't know how to act properly and is bored by her more reserved and complacent cousins. While Barbary's older brother Richie spent the war years training to fight and likely killing the enemy he is able after the war to settle down again in England and return to his studies. His response to violence is to react with a gentleness so at odds with how Barbary sees the world, a world she defines by her experiences in France--where collaborators were as much an enemy and there was a need to resist authority. Lessons Barbary learned well and cannot adapt to her new environment without causing problems.
I really enjoyed The World My Wilderness. It's a beautifully written and nuanced story that's filled with amazing (in the fantastic sense) imagery of a post-war London that probably resides in a few memories still, but is long gone--now so clean and tidy and modern. Imagine churches without roofs open to the night sky and shells of rooms with windows blown out where one can simply step into, stairways leading to nowhere and broken signs fluttering in the wind. Macaulay obviously writes from an insider's perspective and it makes for both entertaining and fascinating read.