Spring, with its sweet shoots, plans and prospects, is upon us at No. 53, Hoxton Square. Slightly Foxed Issue 53 and our two new books, Hilary Mantel’s Giving up the Ghost and Ronald Welch’s Sun of York, should by now have dropped on to subscribers’ doormats around the world and we do hope you’ve enjoyed them, wherever you are.
Each year our backlist of books grows by four or more titles, and shrinks by one or two as the earlier and most popular limited editions sell out. This week, as we shuffled books from shelf to shelf to make room for the new, it occurred to us that we really ought to make some recommendations to our readers for Mothering Sunday presents. A plan was hatched to take some tempting photos and find an extract that befits a celebration of mothers. But which extract? The bit with Mrs Durrell and the irate pelican is very good but we used it last year. Mrs Betts in People Who Say Goodbye would work well but that’s just sold out, and Suzanne’s mother in Mango & Mimosa is darling but there are only ten copies left. What to do? We scratched our heads for a bit, until one bright fox piped up, ‘How about Muriel Perry?’ Ah, yes, now how about Muriel Haidée Perry . . .
As in life, mothers in literature come in all shapes and forms: from the ever-loving and progressive Marmee March, the foolish and frivolous Mrs Bennet, and the thoroughly terrifying Medea (to name but a few) but the real life mother in Diana Petre’s account of a very strange childhood defies categorization.
‘For God’s sake someone take that child out of the room. I can’t stand the way she watches me,’ Diana’s mother Muriel is reported as saying. Diana was indeed watching, and it was this watchfulness, this ability to stand back and observe, that produced The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, an utterly unselfpitying and often very funny account of what must be one of the oddest childhoods on record.
Diana and her older twin sisters grew up in South London, in the care of an elderly housekeeper, their mother having abandoned them shortly after Diana’s birth in 1912. She didn’t return until 1922. One of the highlights of the children’s lives was visits from a kindly man they knew as ‘Uncle Bodger’. As was finally revealed, he was in fact the children’s father, who lived in happy domesticity with his second family down the road in Richmond. It was a strange situation, and at a time when illegitimacy was an absolute social taboo, a necessarily well-kept secret. But the mystery at the heart of the book is the real identity of Diana’s elusive mother.
Read on for an extract from this extraordinary story. And to follow, some cheering suggestions for presents for this coming Mothering Sunday, or indeed for any occasion.
The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley
Her name was Muriel Haidée Perry and she was born on 5 March 1890, or so I believed when I went to Somerset House to look up the registration of her birth. It wasn’t there. What I was really looking for – this was after she was dead and I had started to write about her – were the names of her parents. This was something that I had never been able to get her to tell me.
Soon after she came to live with us I asked her something or other about her mother and father – my grandparents – and she shut up like a sprung trap. I pricked my ears and asked more questions. She started to cry. That was how it had all begun. As soon as I started to question her she was padlocked; her face changed at once – it became wooden, implacable – and in two seconds she was in tears.
Perhaps if she had been an ordinary sort of mother, with us from the beginning, I would not have wanted to collaborate with her youth, to know what she had been doing when she was my own age and what her thoughts were then; what her parents were like, and why, for heaven’s sake, was she unable to remember anything at all that had happened to her before the war, which had started two years after I was born.
For the moment it is enough to know that everything about her origin and youth had been so abhorrent to her that she had, quite simply, rubbed it out. She wouldn’t have it: it hadn’t been.
It was always her way to act upon instinct; the more she felt remorse at something the more important it became to her to lock this something up in one of the dungeons in her memory and throw away the key. She was a liar on the most profound level; without the least regard for logic or the truth she would strike an attitude of mind-splintering stubbornness and hang on to it with all the strength of her forceful nature. As a solution, of course, this couldn’t and didn’t work, but she clung to it just the same.
Anyone could tell she was full of secrets. You only had to look at her to feel the mysteriousness of her. She was a fascinator: one of those creatures who seem to come from nowhere and to be going nowhere, but who permeate the mind as a serum gets into the bloodstream.
In appearance she was tall – just over five foot ten – with masses of dark hair like Irish hair, and dark eyes, not large and of no especial colour, but wonderfully expressive. Her skin was dramatically white, and she had long arms and hands and straight legs, and a high un-English waist. Her voice was rather low and velvety. She was seldom angry, her nature was too melancholy for that, and even when she was angry she never really shouted . . .
. . . It is necessary at this point to explain how matters stood at that time in our home. In 1927, when I was fifteen, Uncle had installed us all in a house in Castelnau, Barnes. He had bought it in Muriel’s name. She had taken great trouble with it and done it up charmingly. In the drawing-room, which was a clear apple green and gold, she had had a large bow window built out over the garden, and there were always flowers there in a deep porcelain bowl. She loved porcelain and had picked up some pretty pieces here and there which gave her great pleasure. It was a room of some elegance and it was large enough not to be dwarfed by a grand piano. She had a flair for making a room attractive; the overall effect was not original, but it had a certain delicacy, and she had a pleasant sense of colour. The bedrooms were surprisingly dull; it was in the drawing-room and the dining-room that she had taken the most trouble.
Altogether, it was a pleasant house set back from the road with a little drive. She must have had high hopes when Uncle bought it for her. Now, at last, everything would be different, everything would start to go right. It would be a new beginning for us all. She had not been happy in the house in which she had joined us in 1922, but that was now in the past and could be forgotten. The new house should be the rightful beginning. And it was directly on the route which Uncle took every day from his office in Bow Street to his home in Richmond. He made this journey in the same car with the same driver, Morland, every working day of his life. Nothing could be simpler for him than to make a call at our house on his way home in the evenings.
But in all these calculations for a new and better life – a life that should redeem in full the disappointments which had tumbled upon her like an avalanche since the day she had made the decision to take up her role as our mother – in all her calculations for the real beginning she had left out something. There was a flaw to these plans, and at that time this flaw was still known only to herself.
Extract from The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, Chapter 2 © The Estate of Diana Petre 1975