Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange

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Reviewed by Simon

Tom Tiddler’s Ground by Ursula Orange

One of the authors I’ve been on the look-out for, for years, is Ursula Orange – entirely the responsibility of Scott (from the Furrowed Middlebrow blog) who has championed her in the past. But finding her novels was nigh-on impossible, and I more or less gave up hope. So I met, with joy, the prospect of three of Orange’s novels coming into print into the Furrowed Middlebrow series, published by Dean Street Press and curated by Scott. And it completely lived up to my expectations.

The novel was published in 1941, and takes place in the midst of war on the home front – specifically, the issue of evacuation. Caroline Cameron lives with her husband John in London – Constance Smith lives in the rural idyll of Chesterford. A throwaway offer (but sincerely meant) is followed up upon, and Caroline moves to live with Constance. Also in the house: Constance’s husband Alfred (a chauffeur made good, and with an enormous chip on his shoulder about having coming up in the world), occasionally Alfred’s sister, and another mother and baby who’ve come from the London working class and is unstintingly vague and ungrateful about being welcomed into Constance’s home.

Constance is one of this wonderful and rare characters: somebody who is very good, and not at all annoying. She is kind and humble – worrying about the people around her; completely selfless – and was once a social worker. There’s a lovely scene towards the beginning where the billeting officer, wearied by the village’s lack of interest in evacuees, is pleasantly surprised by Constance’s willingness to take people – it feels like a wonderful antidote to the spite of Evelyn Waugh’s Put Out More Flags.

Caroline, on the other hand (and how I wish they had names which began with different letters! I got confused quite often), is rather selfish. Not a wicked character by any means, and grudgingly affectionate towards her young daughter – albeit recognising that she is something of a nuisance – but more interested in herself and her amusements than anybody else. She finds the village of Chesterford rather silly and laughs at its foibles, while also mourning the gradual fading of her own marriage (and is having an affair).

The novel, like so many domestic-life-in-village novels of the period, is mostly concerned with the personalities and interactions of the village. The war has brought them together, but otherwise doesn’t have much of an effect – people are more preoccupied with, say, the young woman flirting with Alfred, or the potential drunkenness of a local chauffeur. And against all this, there is a secret threatening to blow apart the central family…

Tom Tiddler’s Ground is brilliantly structured and plotted – disparate threads come together with great success – but what made me love this novel so much is Orange’s writing. She is very, very funny – in the dialogue spoken by the characters, but more the sarcastic authorial tone. Orange often puts tags after dialogue that undermines what went before, or slightly surprises the reader:

“I regret it, then. I apologise,” said Alfred in such a noble, manly way that George felt a strong desire to kick him.

And this was another moment that I noted down, as I loved it – it’s a great example of the tone Orange uses throughout:

Were there maids in the cottage? Nobody, not even Esme seemed quite sure, although there was a general feeling that a woman, or possibly women, ‘from the village’ might turn up at some not precisely specified hour, having guessed by some unspecific means, that their services would be required that week-end.

It’s this writing style that helps prevent Tom Tiddler’s Ground ever too sound too earnest – because there are also moral journeys and character transformations. In the hands of another author, it could have been sanctimonious or simply a little too trite – but Orange handles it brilliantly.

I can’t wait to read the other Orange reprints from Furrowed Middlebrow – and I’m so delighted that they’re back and available to the public, as is richly deserved.

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Simon is an Editor at Large for Shiny New Books.

Ursula Orange, Tom Tiddler’s Ground (Dean Street Press, London, 2017). 978-1911579250, paperback, 222pp.

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