Most of the action of The World My Wilderness takes place in London, where, in spite of her protests, Barbary Deniston has been sent by her mother to live with her father. The reason for Helen Michel’s dismissal of her daughter is not revealed until the closing pages of the novel, when Helen realizes not only how important her daughter is to her but also how the war contributed to her feelings of estrangement from her daughter.
Growing up in France during the Nazi occupation, Barbary and her stepbrother, Raoul, are indoctrinated early by the French Resistance forces and accept the view that any action that leads to driving the Germans out of France is both moral and necessary. Barbary’s stepfather, Maurice Michel, however, is what some call a “collaborator,” a person with the view that since France has come to terms with Germany, there is no reason for French citizens to wage a private war of their own against the Germans. Maurice has tolerated the Nazis, made money from them, and invited them to his house. He believes that accommodation to the fortunes of war defines civilized behavior, not guerrilla warfare carried out in the name of futile vengeance. Though Maurice has done business with the Germans, however, he more than once has sheltered escaped Allied prisoners—even Richie, Helen’s son, who escaped from a German prison and was trying to make his way with the help of the French Resistance to Spain.
Helen and Maurice are well suited to each other. Indeed, given their differences, one wonders how it was possible for Helen to stay with Sir Gulliver for the ten years they remained married. Caught in France after the German invasion, Helen chooses to remain with Maurice, deserting her husband and Richie. Sir Gulliver declares that it is not so much Helen’s desertion of him that he considers intolerable but her embracing the attitude that it is possible to live in an occupied country on amicable terms with its occupiers. Helen, however, has another view. She thinks of herself as neither noble nor high-minded. She is, rather, a hedonist, demanding of life only that she should be left alone to occupy herself with pleasurable activities.
The drowning of Maurice by the maquis, the plan of which Barbary and...
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