Monday, 27 February 2012

The World My Wilderness - Rose Macaulay

I hope this will turn out coherent.  I wrote most of it a while ago, sent the book away to a friend, and am now trying to complete a review sans book and sans health.  Here goes...

Here, ladies and gentlemen, is my first overlap of A Century of Books.  Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness was published in 1950, a spot which is already occupied on my list by Margaret Kennedy's Jane Austen.  First come, first reviewed, so it's Kennedy who's on the century list.  But I'm still going to talk about Rose Macaulay, naturally...

This is the fifth novel (and eighth book) that I've read by Rose Macaulay, and she is becoming one of those reliable writers I know I can pick up and enjoy; the only dud I've encountered was Staying With Relations.  Wikipedia tells me that her final novel, The Towers of Trebizond (which I have not read) is 'widely regarded as her masterpiece'.  I am edging ever closer to it, since The World My Wilderness is her penultimate book, and the other one which people tend to have heard of, if they've heard of Macaulay at all.

'Reliable' is just another word for 'consistent', really, and Macaulay does seem to write in a consistently dry, almost satirical style, pursuing a similar theme in each novel - albeit a theme so broad that she could have written two thousand novels and never needed to approach it from the same angle twice.  It is dangerous to summarise thus (and others may have said this before me - indeed, now I see that Karyn has) but I believe Macaulay's broad theme across her novels is: 'What does it mean to be civilised?'  In Keeping Up Appearances this is addressed through literary eschelons; in Crewe Train through the 'civilised savage'; in Dangerous Ages through psychoanalysis, and so on and so forth.  In The World My Wilderness, the title alludes to this debate - and the setting, postwar France and England, offers the physical destruction and moral weariness that the word 'wilderness' suggests.  Macaulay includes an anonymous epigraph, from which she draws the title:
The world my wilderness, its caves my home,
Its weedy wastes the garden where I roam,
Its chasm'd cliffs my castle and my tomb...
The cast of characters is initially broad and confusing (or at least it was to me) and I pesevered by ignoring those who weren't dominant in the narrative at any one time, then slotting them all together later.  There are so many children and stepchildren and half-siblings that I had to throw my hands up in the air in defeat.  Ok.  Stiffen the sinews, summon the blood.  Here goes.

Helen and Gulliver had Barbary and Richie.  Helen and Gulliver divorced; Helen moved to France with Barbary (leaving Richie behind) and married Maurice, while Gulliver married Pamela.  Helen and Maurice had Roland.  Maurice was drowned in mysterious circumstances, leaving Helen with a stepson Raoul.  Gulliver and Pamela had David, and Pamela is pregnant again.  Phew.  That will do - I'm leaving out mother-in-law and uncle, who make cameo appearances.

There are so many characters, but I'm only going to focus on the two I thought most important.

The novel begins with Barbary and Raoul moving to England (Richie visits his mother in France) and these two form the chief interest of the novel.  Macaulay is often quite playful with names, and I don't think it's any coincidence that 'Barbary' is so close to 'barbarous'.  She is used to running amok with the French maquis, a group whose aim was to resist the invading Germans, but who extend this resistance to all forms of authority.  She has the same attitude in England, except now her companions are deserters and thieves, living their lawless lives in the bombed out old churches and houses of London.  Her old nurse warns her against being too trusting:
"And I ask, Miss Barbary, that on no account will you ever trust those young men, for of trust they will never be deserving."

Barbary, experienced in discredited young men, had never thought of trusting any of them.  Lend them something, and you never had it back; leave anything about near them, and you did not see it again.  If they could derive advantage from betraying you, betray you they would; these were the simple laws of their lives, the simple, easy laws of the bad, who had not to reckon with the complication of scruples, but only with gain and loss, comfort and hardship, safety and risk.
[...]
"Oh no, Coxy," Barbary said, in surprise at the eccentric idea suggested to her.  "I should never trust them.  I mean, trust them with what?  Or to do what?  There couldn't be anything..."
Barbary is a very Macaulayan character, if you'll excuse me coining the term: she is something of an outsider, straight-talking, independent, but uncertain of her place in the world.  And the apple hasn't fallen too far from the tree - but while Barbary's inability to cohere with society turns her into a restless, waif-like exile from civilisation, her mother Helen is the selfish, self-absorbed type whose callousness hides behind a veneer of grace and elegance.  She claims to have a 'phobia of being bored', and very little breaks through to her heart.  Helen is overtly uncivilised, as Barbary is, but she respects none of the values of civilisation - preferring, instead, a reckless and ambiguous love for beauty.
"As to one's country, why should one feel any more interest in its welfare than in that of other countries?  And as to the family, I have never understood how that fits in with the other ideals - or, indeed, why it should be an ideal at all.  A group of closely related persons living under one roof; it is a convenience, often a necessity, sometimes a pleasure, sometimes the reverse; but who first exalted it as admirable, an almost religious ideal?"

"My dear Madame, not almost.  It is a religious ideal."  The abbe spoke dryly, and did not add anything about the Holy Family at Nazareth, for he never talked in such a manner to his worldly, unbelieving friends.
It is worth noting that Macaulay delights in giving her characters views that are not her own.  She signposts this with a motif running through her novels; that of looking down on writers and novels.  Some readers always want authors to be making a point, moral or otherwise, in their writing; I am happy if a writer can convey characters acting believably.  That is 'point' enough for me, and I think for Macaulay too - it would be a mistake to extrapolate too much from her writing, other than an examination of the way that certain characters behave in certain circumstances.  She extends beyond this, to questions as vast as the role of civilisations, but she doesn't attempt to answer these questions.  Nor could she.

Speaking of her writing... Macaulay has a dry, ironic tone which I've preferred in other of her novels.  Sometimes, in The World My Wilderness, she seemed to get a bit carried away with a romanticised, flowing, almost baroque writing style.  Perhaps that fits into the themes - but it did include this section, all of which is one sentence:
In this pursuit he was impelled sometimes beyond his reasoning self, to grasp at the rich, trailing panoplies, the swinging censors,of churches from whose creeds and uses he was alien, because at least they embodied some cintuance, some tradition; while cities and buildings, lovely emblems of history, fell shattered, or lost shape and line in a sprawl of common mass newness, while pastoral beauty was overrun and spoilt, while ancient communities were engulfed in the gaping maw of the beast of prey, and Europe dissolved into wavering anonymities, bitter of tongue, servile of deed, faint of heart, always treading the frail plank over the abyss, rotten-ripe for destruction, turning a slanting, doomed eye on death that waited round the corner - during all this frightening evanesence and dissolution, the historic churches kept their strange courses, kept their improbably, incommunicable secret, linking the dim past with the disrupted present and intimidating future, frail, tough chain of legend, myth, and mystery, stronghold of reaction and preserved values.
This isn't particularly representative of The World My Wilderness - 200 pages of this would have driven me crazy - but it does pop up now and then, and adds to the richness of Macaulay's writing, if you can cope with this sort of thing.

I'm afraid this review is going to peter out rather, because I seem to be heading towards semi-consciousness... so, in summary... I liked it, but I think Macaulay newbies might be better off with Crewe Train or Keeping Up Appearances.  Let's hand over to some other folk, who might have been more conscious whilst writing their reviews...


Others who got Stuck in this Book:

"[...]it is despairing, and unrelentingly sombre and pessimistic." - Karyn, A Penguin A Week 

"It's a beautifully written and nuanced story that's filled with amazing (in the fantastic sense) imagery of a post-war London" - Danielle, A Work in Progress

"It’s a stunning, well-written novel." - Katherine, A Girl Walks into a Bookstore

11 comments:

  1. After really enjoying Macaulay's writing style in Crewe Train, I am interested to read more of her work. I love the quote you included of Barbary talking with her old nurse - it's so appealingly Macaulay-esque. Who else would have a character "experienced in discredited young men"?

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    1. I know! She has such a wonderful way with this sort of dry tone.

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  2. I hope you're feeling better Simon.

    You are definitely saving the best till last by STILL not reading The Towers of Trebizond.

    The 'baroque' thingy, was it quite a feature of some earlier 20thC novels? Jocelyn Playfair lapses into it all the time in A House in the Country, and Dorothy Whipple, and Elizabeth Taylor and EM Forster. I'm interested in your description of this phenomena, because I can't put it into words very well myself. Somehow the narrator intrudes and gives us a little earnest overblown outburst of philosophy.

    In Towers of Trebizond, these little philosophical pieces are continuous throughout the novel, but they fit into the themes and tone so seamlessly and feel much more integral to the story. Really fumbling here for the right words, need to do one of those Oxford Uni online courses on literature...

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    1. I will read Towers of T, Merenia, honest I will! This one was lent to me by a friend, hence it getting to the top of the Macaulay pile.

      I think you express yourself very well! 'a little earnest overblown outburst of philosophy' is a very good description - and it does seem to proliferate in early 20th century novels, doesn't it? Although goodness knows why. I suppose sparseness in writing is quite a modern ideal, and these writers were inheriting from the rich Victorian writing which preceded them? Also it is a style admired by some of the reprint publishers, hence us seeing more of it.

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  3. This was actually my first Macaulay and while the things you mentioned like so many characters at first were a little challenging--I really liked this book, so I'm looking forward to reading more. Lots of interesting things in your post about her style--it's nice being able to compare over several different books! Glad you liked it,too, and it sounds like there are even better books in store!

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    1. I did love your enthusiastic review, Danielle, and look forward to hearing your thoughts on other Macaulay novels. As you can see in Merenia's comment above, The Towers of Trebizond is apparently the best one - a very popular opinion, I think. What a shame it was her last!

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  4. Apparently she wrote the anonymous epigraph herself (which I can't help thinking is sort of cheating, although I like it and am glad she includes it).

    You make me want to re-read this... Have you read 'The Lee Shore'? I keep meaning to get round to it.

    Helen (gallimaufry)

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    1. Did she, Helen?! I have to say, that does make me feel a little outraged too... although I suppose it's her prerogative.

      I haven't read The Lee Shore - one for the list!

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  5. I maybe a little late but Towers of Trebizond is my favourite novel so far - not too many characters but wonderful journey through turkey, history and love. The most interesting elemnt in The World My wWilderness was the bombed out City of London, much more compelling than the characters, who seem very stylized.

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  6. Just read it and reviewed it myself http://harrietdevine.typepad.com/harriet_devines_blog/

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  7. I started years ago with Crewe Train which I cannot remember at all. Next came the wonderful Told by an Idiot which is brilliant, with excellent characterisation.

    And then The World my Wilderness - I found a first edition in a second-hand bookshop for £3... I was immediately captivated by this moving story. I feel that the characters were finely drawn and as usual with Macaulay, the writing is superb. I read it a second time almost immediately and regularly recommend it to all and sundry. And I rather liked Helen!

    I started Towers of Trebizond, and couldn't get into it at all!
    Gave up...

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