I have to admit that I don’t often re-read books these days. My reason for this is that I have something like a billion books on my TBR list (perhaps not quite, but close enough), accumulated from all of my research on nearly 1,900 women writers, during which I have regularly thought, “Hmmmm, that sounds intriguing,” and whoop, onto the list another book goes. As a result, I always seem to pressure myself to be exploring new ground rather than revisiting old haunts.
This is perhaps questionable logic, since I do, after all, know that a book I love is, almost without doubt (though there have been exceptions), going to provide me hours of enjoyment, while a book I’ve selected more or less out of a hat is really just as likely—despite the excitement of exploration and of, often, reading a book no one else has so much as glanced at for several decades—to disappoint as to reward. Sometimes, indeed, I feel a yearning to spend a year or so reading nothing but old favorites.
Now I’m not doing anything quite that radical yet (though honestly, it might make for interesting blogging, as there are quite a few of my best-loved books that I’ve never properly written about here). But I did recently feel compelled to pull this gorgeous gem off the shelf, and I loved it even more on a second reading than I had on the first.
For those who don’t know about Macaulay, she is probably best known now for her final novel, The Towers of Trebizond (1956), which, famously and hilariously, features this evocative opening line: “‘Take my camel, dear,’ said my aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” It’s a really delightful novel exploring eccentricity, culture shock, and religious conflict and doubt, and is, amazingly, readily in print these days (and highly recommended).
But Macaulay at that time had already been a successful and highly-regarded novelist for well over four decades, even if she had her ups and downs in terms of critical reception. She was known for her sometimes giddy sense of humor and sharp satire of society’s idiosyncrasies. But she also had a persistent and serious interest in religious belief, and many of her novels deal with religion as a central or secondary theme—sometimes hilariously, sometimes poignantly. Now, in some writers I might be put off by this, but for me, Macaulay is never heavy-handed about it, and certainly never preachy. In that, she is perhaps a bit like Muriel Spark, though Spark is certainly darker and more snide in her humor (a good thing, for me, but I don’t want anyone who dislikes Spark to imagine that Macaulay is like her in style). Macaulay is interested in religious belief, but as an element of human behavior, as something that drives people (and occasionally drives them mad), not as something one should or should not have. At any rate, even for a reader like me, with a general interest in religion and the clergy but no belief in any direction, Macaulay’s attention to the church is interesting and profound, not distracting or annoying.
In The World My Wilderness, religious concerns are present but very much the poignant background rather than the central focus. That focus is on the rather alarming Barbary Deniston, who has come of age in France during the Nazi occupation, living with her glamorous mother, who divorced her father and ran off with a Frenchman. Barbary has spent most of the war in league with the maqui, or French guerrilla resistance fighters, and the trauma and paranoia of those times linger, though the details of what she experienced are mostly only hinted at (with one harrowing exception).
But the war has now ended, and Barbary’s mother—half mourning the loss of her second husband, killed as a collaborator by the maqui (perhaps with the assistance of Barbary herself?), half already infatuated by yet another man—has sent her to live with her father and his new wife in London. The intent, apart from getting a young daughter out of the way of a new romance, is to civilize the sullenly barbarian Barbary (pun intended, clearly). But instead, Barbary, in collaboration with Raoul, a French stepbrother who has also been sent to London, sees the bombed-out ruins of London as a new realm of maqui resistance. And she is not alone in her continued spirit of resistance, as her older brother Richie makes clear to their father on arrival:
“Did you have a good journey?"
"Yes, thank you".
Richie expanded and qualified this. The journey had been tolerable as journeys went, which, in 1946, was badly. The train had lost its way and wandered about the Hautes Pyrenees, till finally held up by a blocked line, arranged, the passengers had surmised, by the local maquis. Sir Gulliver inquired why. Richie explained that impeding trains was a maquis habit, contracted in the enterprising days of the Occupation, and now automatically continued; these Resisters still waged their war, resisting policemen, factories, rentiers, capitalists, collaborators, mayors and trains.
The difficulty of Barbary and others to leave both the trauma and the excitement of the war behind (also the subject of David Hare’s excellent play Plenty, made into a film with Meryl Streep and, of all people, Tracey Ullman) means I could say that Wilderness is a dissection of postwar delinquency, which is accurate but makes it sound dry and serious and perhaps too socially conscious. In fact, it’s an absolutely glowing, shimmering, lovely meditation on civilization vs. barbarianism, freedom vs. social constraints, discipline vs. rebellion—in short, all of those conflicts that we’re always wrestling with from childhood right on. And the particularly wonderful thing here is that, as I read the novel at least, it’s all very much open to interpretation which side wins, or even which side Macaulay believes should win. If life isn’t cut and dried and easy to interpret, I’ve never seen why literature should be, and Wilderness has all the subtleties and complexities and endless opportunities for analysis that any really great novel should have.
In some ways, this is a much more subtle retelling of Macaulay’s early novel, Crewe Train (1926), which is also enjoyable (and also pretty readily available, having been reprinted by Virago), but which seems harsher somehow, as if Macaulay was still too close to her subject matter, was angry about it all and angry at many of the characters, while in Wilderness she is able to approach it all with more wisdom and eloquence, with apparently genuine affection for characters both civilized and barbarian. I’m sure there’s some sort of profound lesson for writers of fiction that could be learned from reading these two novels written by a single author on similar themes, 24 years apart.
What’s more, beyond its fascinating insights into postwar delinquency, I also love this novel for its vivid characters, both lovable and not, and its wonderful complexities concerning love, maturity, authority, manipulation, ego, and all kinds of other good stuff. Barbary’s mother is one of the novel's most interesting creations: totally self-absorbed and focused on men, and caring little about the impacts of her scandalous behavior on those around her, she clearly loves Barbary in her way, but has also completely neglected her during the war years. Yet despite all these negatives, she is presented by Macaulay in such a way that one clearly sees how seductive and lovable she is, and how she has gotten away with so much.
Any of these qualities would be sufficient for me to recommend the novel, but there’s an additional factor that, on its own, makes it riveting reading for me, with my fascination with wartime and postwar London: It contains amazingly detailed descriptions of bomb ruins throughout. It feels very much as if Macaulay saw it as her responsibility to document exactly what it was like to walk through (or climb through) the ruins, and to record the businesses, churches, and other establishments that had been destroyed. One could (I suspect, though I haven’t tested my theory) track Barbary’s movements through the ruins on any good map of London, and no doubt it would be fascinating to see before and after photos of the neighborhoods described. Here’s one of many such descriptions:
The maze of little streets threading through the wilderness, the broken walls, the great pits with their dense forests of bracken and bramble, golden ragwort and coltsfoot, fennel and foxglove and vetch, all the wild rambling shrubs that spring from ruin, the vaults and cellars and deep caves, the wrecked guild halls that had belonged to saddlers, merchant tailors, haberdashers, waxchandlers, barbers, brewers, coopers and coachmakers, all the ancient city fraternities, the broken office stairways that spiraled steeply past empty doorways and rubbled closets into the sky, empty shells of churches with their towers still strangely spiring above the wilderness, their empty window arches where green boughs pushed in, their broken pavement floors—St. Vedast's, St. Alban' s, St. Anne's and St. Agnes's, St. Giles Cripplegate, its tower high above the rest, the ghosts of churches burned in an earlier fire, St. Olave's and St. John Zachary's, haunting the green-flowered churchyards that bore their names, the ghosts of taverns where merchants and clerks had drunk, of restaurants where they had eaten—all this scarred and haunted green and stone and brambled wilderness lying under the August sun, a-hum with insects and astir with secret, darting, burrowing life, received the returned traveler into its dwellings with a wrecked, indifferent calm. Here, its cliffs and chasms and caves seemed to say, is your home; here you belong; you cannot get away, you do not wish to get away, for this is the maquis that lies about, the margins of the wrecked world, and here your feet are set; here you find the irremediable barbarism that comes up from the depth of the earth, and that you have known elsewhere. "Where are the roots that clutch, what branches grow, out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, you cannot say, or guess ...." But you can say, you can guess, that it is you yourself, your own roots, that clutch the stony rubbish, the branches of your own being that grow from it and from nowhere else.
The central image of the novel seems to be the bombed-out St. Giles, which the teenagers make a sort of home away from home. There is a traumatic scene in which a deranged former priest invades the church and conducts a fire-and-brimstone sermon with only Barbary and Raoul for congregation. The children listen awestruck, and when a fellow clergyman finally tracks the priest and leads him back to his home, we catch a rather heartbreaking glimpse of the intense vulnerability lying under Barbary’s fearless exterior:
"You mustn't," he said to Barbary, "be troubled about him.'' Dropping his voice, he added: "He often wanders about the ruined churches, looking for his own. His church was bombed in 1940; he was trapped in the wreckage for two days; he could scarcely move, and the flames raged round him. He hasn't, of course, been the same since. He lives in a clergy house now; we all love him, but we can't always save him from his nightmares. He thinks he's in hell and can't get out. I'm afraid he frightened you.''
"No," said Barbary. "Not more than I was already."
It would take much more than a review to get a handle on all the things I love about this book. It shares some themes with Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, another favorite novel about immediate postwar London, which also makes prominent use of bomb ruins. But ultimately, I don’t think any other book manages to accomplish quite what Wilderness does.
I should add, because some of you might wonder after such a rave review of an out-of-print novel, that yes, we did check recently on the rights situation, in the hope of making not only Wilderness, but also Crewe Train and several other more obscure Macaulay novels from the 1930s and 1940s (some never reprinted) available as Furrowed Middlebrow titles. But alas, the agency which manages rights for Macaulay’s estate apparently doesn’t like the idea of print-on-demand publishers, and so they unceremoniously turned us down. Phooey. We did, however, hear just a squeak of a rumor that someone else may already be in the process of acquiring rights to Wilderness and Crewe Train, so fingers crossed that those two, at least, may be available again soon!