Author: Rose Macaulay
First published: 1950
Locale: A village in the south of France and London
Plot: Social realism
Time: The years immediately following World War II
Helen Michel, the handsome and sensuous widow of Maurice Michel and former wife of Sir Gulliver Deniston. In her early forties, curvaceous, with tawny eyes, dark hair, and classical features, she is highly sexed and quite attractive. Intelligent but indolent, well-educated, artistic, and unconventional, she lives in a secluded seaside villa in France, for amusement translating Greek, playing chess, and occasionally gambling compulsively. Maurice Michel mysteriously drowned a few months earlier, and Helen is stepmother to his son Raoul. Her own children are Richie and Barbary Deniston and the infant Roland Michel, on whom both she and Barbary dote. Because Maurice had for a time been considered a “collaborator” of sorts, attempting to coexist with the Germans after they occupied France, Helen is shunned by many neighbors. Much preferring her own company and that of Maurice's cousin Lucien Michel, a married man who becomes her lover after Maurice's death, she is grateful for their distance. As the novel begins, she seems detached from Barbary, sending her to spend time with Sir Gully in England. After Barbary's true parentage is revealed, Helen reclaims her, taking her back to France for the good of both mother and daughter.
Barbary Deniston, Helen's seventeen-year-old daughter by her second lover, a fact that is revealed at the end of the story. Small and young-looking, with olive skin, full lips, dark hair, and gray, slanting eyes, she always appears watchful and ill at ease. Although she trusts nobody, she worships Helen and has inherited her artistic ability. Caught in the tumult of World War II, she has joined the resistance, engaging in anarchy almost casually and continuing to do so after the need has passed, accompanied always by her stepbrother Raoul. Barbary prefers wilderness to civilization because it provides better places of refuge. Her name is indicative of her innocently barbarian nature. In London, she gravitates toward its “wilderness” of bombed-out ruins, teaming up again with Raoul, who has been sent by his grandmother to live with an uncle. After setting up a flat in the shell of an apartment building, she is drawn to a ruined church, where she performs daily penance. Although her father is wealthy, she steals as an act of rebellion against his conventional ways and his conventional new wife. As the story ends, the mystery of her penitence is solved: Her friends had drowned Maurice Michel. Unwilling or unable to prevent the murder (she was evidently tortured into providing information), she has suffered her own and Helen's grief. Her brush with death enables Helen to forgive and be reunited with her. Because Barbary is illegitimate, Helen feels that only Barbary is really all hers.
Raoul Michel, Barbary's stepbrother, a boy in his mid-teens. Born of a marriage of convenience, he is small and olive-skinned, with large brown eyes and an often furtive air. Like Barbary, Raoul has joined the resistance; unlike her, he appears not to suffer from having been allied with his father's murderers, although at the end of the story he truly grieves. Having been sent to London by his grandmother, who heartily disapproves of Helen Michel, he joins Barbary in the “wilderness” of London's ruins. After her accident, he decides to settle down and learn how to live in civilization.
Richmond (Richie) Deniston, Helen's eldest son, a man in his early twenties. Slim, well-educated, and elegant, he sees most of the world as Philistines, and he relishes civilization, fearing the encroachment of chaos. Although he had escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp and been smuggled back to England by the very resistance of which Barbary is a part, he disapproves of his “wild” sister; his stilted worship of civilization contrasts with her fear of it. An admitted intellectual snob, he practices Catholicism only because he likes tradition.
Sir Gulliver Deniston, Helen's former husband, a somewhat cynical lawyer who is still in love with her but is now married to the much younger Pamela. He is intelligent and distinguished looking but pale. He considers honor his guiding principle and is crushed to learn that Barbary is not really his child. Partly because he cannot fathom Barbary and partly because of his hurt, he agrees to let Helen take her back to her “wild” life in France; because of his honor, he promises not to tell Richie of Barbary's parentage.
Pamela Deniston, Sir Gulliver's young second wife, the mother of his son and expecting another child. She is handsome and athletic, with clear skin and brown hair. She resents Barbary's invasion of her life and disapproves of her “barbarian” ways. Barbary senses her dislike and returns it in full measure, refusing to acknowledge her young half brother's existence.