Among the small horde of papers Diana Petre left me as her literary executor when she died in 2001 was a folder labelled: ‘Excuses. Lies. Evasions. Deceits.’
I thought at first that it might contain further notes about her mother, whose unhappy story is so brilliantly told in The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley and whose attempts to hold on to her many secrets involved all these ploys. In fact, it merely contained material Diana had collected for an anthology she once thought of compiling about the ways in which people get out of awkward or unwanted social engagements.
This was one of several projects she started and then abandoned. A proposed biography of the publisher Hamish (Jamie) Hamilton, with whom she’d had a brief affair, foundered partly because of the subject’s over-enthusiastic co-operation: she eventually told him that she would never be able to write the book unless he stopped bombarding her with daily letters and telephone calls. In later life uncertain health meant that a collection of profiles of people in old age – among them Daphne Fielding, Ursula Vaughan Williams and her great friend Molly Keane – remained in draft, although a sketch of Max Wall was published in Harpers & Queen.
The principal reason she published less than she might have done, however, was that she set herself very high standards. Occasional short stories, book reviews and articles appeared – notably ‘Living with Louis’, a wonderfully frank and funny account of her first marriage to the writer Louis Wilkinson, published in the London Magazine in 1976 – but she was rarely satisfied with what she had written. It was Wilkinson, over thirty years her senior when they married in 1932, who had first encouraged her to write: ‘All his wives – there were four and I was number three – wrote and were published,’ she recalled. She completed two novels and an autobiography titled Seventeen to Twenty, but threw them away because they dissatisfied her. Her next novel was taken on by the agent Curtis Brown, but before he could place it she had second thoughts, asked for its return and destroyed that as well.
It wasn’t until after her brief and ill-advised second marriage to Edward Petre (‘I can’t remember five minutes of fun or enjoyment’) that she wrote a novel she was prepared to see in print. In Portrait of Mellie (1952) she drew upon her mother’s life to portray a silly, selfish woman who deserts her children and then attempts to reclaim them, while her only other novel, The Cruel Month (1955), reprises the theme of parental abandonment. Good as these books are, the true story that lies behind them was so remarkable that it needed no fictional embellishment, and when The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley was published in 1975 it was recognized at once as a minor masterpiece.
It perfectly complements My Father and Myself (1968), in which Diana’s half-brother J. R. Ackerley tells the same story from a different perspective. Their father, Roger Ackerley, was a director of the fruit-importing company Elders & Fyffes and was popularly known as ‘the Banana King’. He worked from offices in Covent Garden, commuting from his home in Richmond, where he lived with a former actress who styled herself ‘Mrs Ackerley’ although they were not in fact married, and their three children, Peter (b. 1895), Joe (b. 1896) and Nancy (b. 1899). Returning from work each day in a chauffeurdriven car piled high with gifts, Roger would frequently drop in at a house in Barnes where he had installed a second family: identical twins called Sally and Elizabeth (b. 1910) and their younger sister, Diana (b. 1912). The girls’ mother called herself Mrs Muriel Perry, but her true name and identity remain a mystery: her birth was never registered and she carefully scissored the relevant information from her passport. She abandoned her daughters soon after Diana was born, leaving them in the charge of an elderly housekeeper. They lived in utter isolation and had no idea that the genial and affectionate man they knew as ‘Uncle Bodger’ was in fact their father. In 1922, after an absence of ten years, Muriel reappeared and took charge of her children, with disastrous results for all concerned.
The story has all the elements of what is known today as a ‘misery memoir’, a genre that hovers uncomfortably but profitably between therapy for the author and emotional pornography for the reader. In both its tone and approach, however, The Secret Orchard is a world away from this kind of thing. It is an extraordinarily dispassionate book, written with exceptional skill and grace and without the faintest flicker of self-pity. Like Diana herself, it is forthright, fearless and often very funny. ‘For God’s sake someone take that child out of the room,’ her mother once complained. ‘I can’t stand the way she watches me.’ It is precisely this watchfulness that made Diana Petre such a good writer, and she watches her younger self with the same detachment as she does everyone else in the narrative. The book is as deftly put together as any novel, opening with the laconic revelation of the story’s principal secret (‘“It was Uncle who was your father,” she said.’) and closing with one of the most satisfying, perfectly judged and beautifully told conclusions of any family memoir. The narrative does not unfold in strict chronological order, and part of the reason the book exerts such a strong grip on the reader is that it is constructed like a detective story in which the author asks questions, follows clues and pores over photographs and documents in an attempt to unravel the truth.
The book’s opening thunderclap of revelation matches the famous first sentence of My Father and Myself, the other panel of what amounts to a biographical diptych: ‘I was born in 1896 and my parents were married in 1919.’ Although single parents are now a recognized and morally neutral social category, it is not long ago that illegitimacy was a wholly taboo subject, and people are still living with the legacy of a time when the origins of children born out of wedlock had somehow to be disguised or concealed. The subject certainly needed delicate handling when The Secret Orchard was first published. Neither Diana nor Joe were any respecters of convention, and they found the circumstances of their birth fascinating rather than shameful; but it was a very different matter for their sister Sally, whose husband had, through a succession of family misadventures, unexpectedly become the Duke of Westminster in 1963. The fiction had been maintained in their social circles – and in Debrett’s Peerage – that Sally’s father was a Mr George Perry, which is what Roger had falsely stated when registering her birth. It is for this reason that Sally and Elizabeth are given the names Stella and Helen in the book, though it would not take too much ingenuity to penetrate these cursory disguises.
Roger Ackerley, whose cavalier approach to contraception resulted in the birth of six illegitimate children, none of them planned, may strike the modern reader as spectacularly irresponsible, but he was not untypical of the age in which he lived. In the letter he left for Joe, which revealed the existence of his second family, he wrote: ‘I’m not going to make any excuses, old man. I have done my duty towards everybody as far as my nature would allow and I hope people generally will be kind to my memory.’ The two of his children who wrote books about him certainly were, and Diana was always at pains to emphasize that among other things her memoir was a love story, that Roger and Muriel genuinely adored each other.
There was one aspect of the book that disappointed her: the final piece of the puzzle – her mother’s true identity – was still missing. After the book was published, however, she received a letter from a former employee of Elders & Fyffes who provided new information that, if not conclusive, seemed highly plausible, and led back to Roger Ackerley’s rather staid business partner, Arthur Stockley. Diana carried out further research and became convinced that Muriel was one of four illegitimate children fathered by one of Stockley’s uncles, who came from a prominent family on the Isle of Man.
As readers of this marvellous book will recognize, Diana Petre’s whole life was haunted by her mother, but in the end she felt that they had reached an understanding. ‘The older I get, the more sorry for her I feel,’ she would say. ‘And I was impossible.’ She would tell visitors the story of the spreading magnolia that dominated the small garden of her house in Chelsea. ‘It came from Muriel’s garden, just around the corner in Graham Terrace, where it never flowered,’ she would say. ‘After Muriel died, Sally dug it up and transplanted it here, and now it blooms and blooms. Some years the fallen petals fill four large dustbin bags.’
Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 49 © Peter Parker 2016
This article also appears as a preface to Slightly Foxed Edition No. 33: Diana Petre, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley