The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre

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Reviewed by Simon

I am always unable to pass on the chance to read a Slightly Foxed Edition and, having re-loved 84, Charing Cross Road in the last issue of Shiny New Books, it was fun to go and read something about which I knew absolutely nothing. Who was Roger Ackerley? Who, for that matter, was Diana Petre? And what was this orchard? The answers weren’t what I was expecting, but this memoir is none the less brilliant for that.

The title made me think that it might be a charming portrayal of the countryside. Something like The Secret Garden, perhaps, but real life. Well… no. It turns out that the orchard is metaphorical, and that Petre went through some rather tough times.

Roger Ackerley might be better known to some of you as the father of J.R. Ackerley, and thus one of the men in the title of the latter’s famous autobiography My Father and Myself. Ackerley’s memoir was published in 1968; Petre’s tells the same story from a different perspective, and was published a few years later in 1975. And what was that story? Well, the opening line tells us:

“It was your Uncle who was your father,” she said.

Shortly after ‘Uncle’s’ death, Diana and her sisters – twins Sally and Elizabeth, called Stella and Helen in The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley as a half-hearted way to preserve their anonymity – learn that the man they knew as a family friend was, in fact, their mother’s lover and their natural father. The ‘orchard’? That metaphor is taken from Roger Ackerley’s will – the first time that his son found out about his half-sisters:

Now for the ‘secret orchard’ part of my story. For many years I had a mistress and she presented me with twin girls ten years ago and another girl eight years ago. The children are alive and are very sweet things and very dear to me.

It was a discovery that shaped much of the rest of their lives, and is the bedrock of this memoir – but there is much more to their lives than this.

Diana takes us back to the beginning. Muriel, their mother, abandoned the family shortly after Diana was born, when the twins were two years old. At first, this might have been to help with war work – she was in her element looking after wounded soldiers – but it was a full decade before she re-appeared in their lives, reclaiming her place from a series of mother-figures. This question of abandonment seems to have affected each of the girls in different ways – making them clingier, more independent, or more desperate.

Diana had many gaps in her knowledge of Muriel’s life – from Muriel’s name, parentage, and place of birth onwards. She could never establish who her grandparents were, despite much asking, or work out much of what happened to Muriel before she had children. The least successful sections of the memoir, to my mind, are where Diana tries to reconstruct Muriel’s life from her letters and other information. It’s never quite clear how much is fact and how much conjecture, and the authenticity of the story fades a little during this section.

Having said that, though, this is, as Peter Parker writes in his introduction, ‘an extraordinarily dispassionate book’. Indeed, it may be an effect of Muriel leaving Diana, and their subsequent very difficult relationship (she does not see her mother for many years before her death, though there is some sort of reconciliation later on) that makes Petre into the sort of narrator she is.

It is dispassionate as far as Petre is herself concerned, I mean. We get extremely vital portraits of Muriel, Stella, and Helen, all of whom are described with a searing honesty that could only be achieved by a close relative, but which most relatives would forbear from giving. Stella – always called a son by Muriel, indeed called ‘Sam’ – is shown as an unvanquishably determined girl and woman, while Helen is a weak, uncertain, and unhappy figure. This may be only be one angle on their lives, but they come alive from Petre’s descriptions – as does Muriel herself.

This must be one of the most complex portraits in all biographical writing – we see Muriel as the selfish, hurt, passionate, foolish, desperate woman she was. Petre has crafted an astonishing depiction. But Petre herself is barely there. She mentions two marriages in passing. We see very little of her life, and even her reactions seem underdeveloped and under-interrogated. Petre has flipped memoir on its head, where introspection is almost entirely absent, and the people around the narrator are much more vivid than the narrator herself.

This isn’t one of the Slightly Foxed Editions that will charm and comfort, but it is every bit as fascinating and good as their best publications. I have nothing but praise for this series, and The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley is a worthy addition.

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Simon is one of the Shiny New Books editors and is still in love with Slightly Foxed Editions.

Diana Petre, The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (Slightly Foxed, 2016). 978-1906562854, 272pp., hardback.

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