Wordsworth’s White Wife – Review 1

Review by Frank Birbal Singh, Emeritus Professor of Post-Colonial Literature at York University, Toronto, Canada.

“Rosie’s documentary zeal in meticulously cataloguing social, cultural, and political aspects of her experience in Guyana, with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, in spite of frustration and grief, is nothing less than exemplary in Wordsworth’s White Wife. “

The chief focus of Rosie McAndrew’s memoir – Wordsworth’s White Wife: Living in Guyana from 1968 -1973 – is her relationship and marriage to Wordsworth McAndrew (Mac), an African-Guyanese poet, folklorist, radio producer and broadcaster who died in 2008. Rosie, an English woman, was twenty-two years old when she met Mac in 1968, in London, where he and other Guyanese broadcasters were finishing a course in Television Production at the B.B.C.  Rosie was also at the B.B.C. training for “Broadcasts to Schools” in Guyana,  through an international development charity:  “Voluntary Service Overseas” (VSO).

The initial impact of Mac on Rosie was of an: “attractive, self-assured, bearded black man. I liked the jaunty but determined way he moved, full of contained energy. He was quite short…slim and compact, his eyes were alert and he looked intriguing and charismatic“(p.2).  More impressively, Mac: “was the authority on all things Guyanese, from the intricacies of Creolese [Guyanese creole speech] to the songs, proverbs, festivals and rituals of its folklore”(p.3).  Rosie confesses: “I was dazzled by the attentions of this older, [by ten years] much more experienced man, who seemed very smitten with me”(p.5).  The temperature of the relationship rose when Rosie visited Mac’s sister Waveney and her husband Jack, Guyanese immigrants living in Barnes, England; and Mac then received a reciprocal invitation to meet Rosie’s parents in their home village of Graffham, where Mac’s visit was “survived”, and Rosie “evaded my parents’ more searching questions” (p.9). Evasion suggests that implicit signs of danger were either ignored or faced down; in any case, Mac returned to Guyana as planned, and Rosie followed soon after.

On Rosie’s arrival in Georgetown, Guyana, in late 1968, Mac helps to show her around and explore hidden depths of Georgetown and the Guyanese countryside: “So much of my early experience of Guyana was due to Mac. He took me everywhere; he showed me everything” (p.13).  Whether it is the contents of cake shops, Stabroek market and Bourda market, or Guyana’s exotic fruits, the ritual of cinema going, or playing the steel pan – of which Mac was a maestro – Rosie emerges as an observant, eager and enthusiastic researcher.

Rosie also has a lively interest in Creolese, which she quickly masters, to present probably the most eye-opening spectacle in Wordsworth’s White Wife – of herself perched on her bicycle, riding through crowded, Georgetown streets, and being exuberantly hailed by guffaws and sneers from bystanders: “Eh, eh! Look de white gyal deh pun she bicycle!” or “You tink you deh in London, nuh?”(p.31).  In 1968/69, in the immediate aftermath of independence (1966), when Forbes Burnham had just begun to establish an Afro-centric régime, in the historical context of the race-class-and-colour structure of a British-Caribbean, colonial society, in which Whites held the highest socio-economic status, with Browns/Coloureds in the middle, and Blacks/Indians at the bottom, Rosie’s biking is seen as a revolutionary gesture violating or, at least, questioning an unwritten taboo that protected the sacrosanct status of White women who generally appear, in public, only in cars.

Despite previously mentioned danger signs, Rosie accepts Mac’s proposal of marriage, completes her tour of VSO service in 1969, and briefly goes home to England while Mac searches for a house in Georgetown for them to live in.  Upon returning to Georgetown, Rosie takes a job as teacher in a Catholic school, St. Joseph High School for girls, while she and Mac set up house together.  Simmering suspicions and problems of jealousy begin to boil.  Then, on a work-related visit to Germany, there is some confusion about Mac’s neglect to visit Rosie’s parents while passing through England.  Worse still, Mac regularly goes out, ignores the Christmas presents she buys him, leaves Rosie at home during her pregnancy, and he is seldom around even during a visit by her parents to Guyana.  Worst of all, Mac is completely indifferent when Rosie gives birth to their daughter; and although there is some help from Mac’s mother, strangely called “Phillips,” Rosie is left to fend for herself, facing care of her baby, housing difficulties, and study for a Diploma in Education at the University of Guyana.

In such testing times, relations between Mac and Rosie sharply deteriorate, prompting her to move out on her own. With a young child and urgent needs, in unfamiliar conditions, in a new country, Rosie’s situation is perilous. It is only through her innate courage and persistence, and the timely kindness of Guyanese friends, that she and her child survive. But her diverting saga of adventure, including her once cherished aim of becoming an actress, and discovery of new horizons in Guyana had, sadly, run its course; and divorce proceedings ensue before, in 1973, she returns home to England.

Rosie’s documentary zeal in meticulously cataloguing social, cultural, and political aspects of her experience in Guyana, with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, in spite of frustration and grief, is nothing less than exemplary in Wordsworth White Wife.  So also is her technical feat, forty years after the events, in contriving a narrative containing excerpts of letters redolent with the exact thoughts and feelings of her protagonists, (Mac most of all), from earlier years. But the penetrating self-examination and analysis of her long-suffering love and loyalty toward Mac is what finally accounts for her real triumph when, bitten by the viper of love, she desperately struggles to stanch the deadly effect of its venom, within an alien environment of climate, customs and manners so different from her own. Tragically, her rueful sense of epiphany comes far too late: “to subsume my own life and ambitions into the service of his [Mac’s] – was a big mistake… he wanted to keep me for himself.  I was young enough then to find this interpretation flattering, but I now think that my willing sacrifice of self actually made me less, not more attractive to him in the long run”(p.33).

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