and the jungle passed in on them, seeking to cover them up

Dear Rose,

Your novel The World My Wilderness (1950) is a powerful depiction of the way the Second World War ravaged people’s physical, emotional and moral landscapes.

Wandering from the South of France to Scotland, and mainly set in the Blitz-ruined London, during the Summer of 1946, the novel follows the seventeen-year-old Barbary, when she is sent to England to live with her barrister father, Gulliver Deniston. Gulliver divorced Barbary’s mother, Helen, who had left him to live in France with Maurice, a Nazi collaborator. While Helen is a free-spirit Bohemian artist and hedonist – and as such, a constant source of scandal -, Gulliver’s new wife, Pamela is as conventional, colorless, self-righteous and uptight as Gulliver himself.

Needless to say, Barbary cannot adjust to her father’s conventional life, and finds herself in constant conflict with the ‘respectable’ image they expect to impose on her. Conventions are not for her, and, like a wild animal struggling not to be tamed, she refuses to conform either to rules or to expectations: she is always badly dressed, dirty, obstinate, unruly.

While living with her mother in France, during the Nazi occupation, Barbary and her stepbrother Raoul spent their childhoods like wild creatures, without limits nor direction. They joined the French Resistance (‘Maquis’) against the Germans, living as outlaws. When both of them move to London, they carry with them the need to resist authority at any price: the British police are seen by them as the equivalent of the Gestapo.

Feeling oppressed by the artificiality of their new lives, Barbary and Raoul roam through the wild side of a ravaged city: they find home in the bombed out ruins of London, and seek a family within the drifters, deserters and thieves who live in the margins of society. They seek refuge out in the open: in what remains of flats and churches whose roofs and windows were blown out, whose staircases lead to nowhere, ravaged ruins overgrown with weeds, covered in open sky.

Like the ghosts of old inhabitants, Barbary and Raoul haunt this savage landscape. And they carry their wilderness wherever they go: some resistant seed of barbarism lodged at the very heart of civilization. The book’s epigraph already gives to it its disenchanted tone: “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…”

If your novel can be read both as an allegory of the post-war times and a coming of age story, it is also a story about the conflicting nature of forgiveness and redemption. People and landscape have been irretrievably bruised, and cannot be restored to the point they were before. Nonetheless, they must go on, and rebuild something new out of ruins. “‘But I don’t see,’ Barbary pursued her thoughts, ‘That it undoes what you’ve done’. ‘What doesn’t?’ They were threading their way down the broken wall and up the other side of the abyss. ‘Repenting and confessing. It only puts you right, not what you’ve done to people.'”

Yours is a novel of sharp contrasts: the wild Helen, the tamed Pamela; wilderness and city; civilization and barbarism; ruins and beauty. It could have easily fallen into na simplistic maniqueism, but you manage to introduce some nuances to this otherwise contrasting picture: Helen, with her love for ancient culture and her dissipating life, symbolizes both civilization and its decay; the civilized Pamela acts mostly in a savage manner, more concerned with keeping up appearances; the wilderness that grows between the ruins is as wild as the city it belongs to; if one form of civilization was destroyed, it was so from inside out, by something this same civilization already had in itself, a wild saxifrage at its blossom; beauty is wrested out of carnage around the London ruins. Both the landscape and the morale are crumbling, but this is not necessarily a negative thing: civilization is losing its facade, it is revealing its true face, its raw nature.

Wilderness was then encroaching on London ruins, only to be soon tamed again, as a new form of ‘civilization’ slowly reasserted itself.

Yours truly,

J.


 Andrew Wyeth. "Christina's World". 1948.
Andrew Wyeth. “Christina’s World”. 1948.

So men’s will to recovery strove against the drifting wilderness and tame it; but the wilderness might slip from their hands, from their spades and trowels and measuring rods, slip darkly away from them, seeking the primeval chaos and old night which had been before Londinium was, which would be when cities were ghosts haunting the ancestral dreams of memory.

– Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness

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.

– Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness

“Behind him, the questionable chaos of broken courts and lanes lay sprawled under the October mist, and the shells of churches gaped like lost myths, and the jungle pressed in on them, seeking to cover them up.”

– Rose Macaulay, The World My Wilderness


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