‘For God’s sake someone take that child out of the room. I can’t stand the way she watches me,’ Diana Petre’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 Barnes, South London, in the care of an elderly housekeeper, their mother having abandoned them shortly after Diana’s birth in 1912. She didn’t reappear again until 1922, with disastrous results for all concerned. She called herself Mrs Muriel Perry, but her true name and identity were mysterious. Her birth was never registered and she had carefully removed the relevant information from her passport.
For the girls, one of the highlights of their isolated lives were visits from a kindly man they knew as ‘Uncle Bodger’. In fact, as Diana’s mother finally revealed in characteristically brutal fashion, he was their father, Roger Ackerley, a director of the fruit-importing company Elders & Fyffes and popularly known as ‘the Banana King’. Down the road in Richmond, unbeknownst to the girls, he lived with a retired actress who called herself ‘Mrs Ackerley’ and his three further children. One of them, Joe, born in 1896, has also given his account of this strange upbringing in his famous memoir My Father and Myself, published in 1968.
Diana tells the story from another perspective. Such a situation might be thought strange today, but at the time illegitimacy was a serious social stigma, and something to be hidden at all costs. One of the things that makes The Secret Orchard so gripping is that it is constructed like a detective story, in which Diana asks questions, follows clues and pores over documents in an attempt to unravel the truth. As she herself was at pains to emphasize, this book is, among many other things, a love story. Muriel may have been a difficult, unstable character and a disastrous mother, but she was always loyal to Roger. It seems greatly to Diana’s credit that she was able as an adult to appreciate the poignancy of their relationship and bring their extraordinary story so vividly to life on the page.
Her name was Muriel Haidée Perry . . .
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...Read more
March News: Her name was Muriel Haidée PerryRead more
Evasions and Deceits
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...Read more
Slightly Foxed Issue 49: From the Editors
As everyone who lives here knows, spring in London doesn’t just signal daffodils in window boxes and budding trees in squares. It signals building projects. The whole city seems to be in a state of...Read more