Wordsworth’s White Wife – Review 3

Review in the Hastings Independent by Christine Sanderson

When Wordsworth McAndrew died in 2008, he was hailed in his home country of Guyana as a ‘National Treasure’ and the voice of Guyanese folklore. But to Rosie McAndrew, who lives locally near to Ore village, he was her ex-husband and an influence that changed her life completely.

‘Mac’, as Rosie usually called him, was ten years older than her and already well-known in 1968 when the two first met. Both were attending courses at the BBC in London, his in connection with his job in broadcasting and hers to prepare her for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) – in the same town, Georgetown, Guyana, working for Broadcasts for Schools (BS) her first real job as a young graduate. There was an instant attraction well before either knew much about the other.

Their friendship grew and he was even part of the welcome committee that greeted her as she stepped out of the plane on arrival for her new posting. She then found he had arranged for her to live with a Guyanese family rather than with a group of VSO’s like herself. So, under his influence, she was not cocooned in the expatriate community of Georgetown, but plunged right into the heart of Guyanese culture. He took her to many places and events. Sharing so many interests, their mutual attraction inevitably blossomed into romance.

Perhaps for Rosie this romance went beyond her relationship with Mac to the whole experience of living in such a fascinating country. Wordsworth’s White Wife gives this impression, showing us a great deal of the Caribbean culture that she was so entranced with. We get an insight into the customs, food, beliefs, social interactions and amazingly diverse racial mix. For me, a particular pleasure was learning something about Guyanese Creole – Creolese, which is quoted liberally throughout. With strong linguistic awareness (her degree was in French and Drama), she learnt Creolose more quickly than most expatriates might, and quotations in it bring the people to life on her pages. She speaks with great warmth of her adopted culture, but not with sentimental idealism: there are aspects she is not comfortable with, not least the apparent acceptability of married men having other relationships.

Her time there covered what must be considered now quite an historic era, the country having become independent in 1966. She tells us something of the political tensions of the time and explains the diverse racial mix in this ‘Land of Six Nations’ and the historical reasons for it. She was still there, at the heart of celebrations, in 1970, when it officially became a republic within the British Commonwealth of Nations.

Cultural insights include the ability to see our British values from the outside. For example, there is an entertaining comparison between what the English mean by ‘You must call round some time’ and what a Guyanese would understand by it. It is also striking how our attitudes to marriage have changed over the last fifty years. I personally identify strongly with her memories of the late 1960s.

Rosie McAndrew is a skilful writer and her descriptions are compelling; for example, of a walk in the bush we are told “every now and then we would come across a long stream of leaf-cutter ants, each flourishing vertically above its head, like a miniature sail, its enormous burden of a fragment of stiff leaf. Together they made an endless wavering single-file brigade traversing the debris of the forest floor”. The sights and sounds of Guyana come alive in her pages.

The main theme, however, is the developing relationship with the man who became her husband. Her preface gives a moving account of the difficulty of writing autobiographically: ‘Perception being partial, memory being fallible, and the letters I wrote home from Guyana at that time being heavily self-censored…’. She goes on to say that she was inspired to write the story of their life together when, after his death, she found his letters to her.  To these she has added many letters she wrote to her parents, kept by her mother and, as if to keep as close to the truth as possible, the author builds a large part of the book around excerpts from those actual letters. There was a subtle level at which she needed to keep from her parents any of her doubts, and this lends piquancy to the book. Frequently there is a heartfelt contrast between the letters and what we are told as an aside…

But all that is in the book. Read it yourself!

Wordsworth’s White Wife, by Rosie McAndrew, Published by Berforts, softcover £9.99.

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