Book Review : The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley by Diana Petre
3rd January, 2017
This is Diana Petre’s recollection of growing up with her sisters in South London as the illegitimate children of a wealthy business man. She tries to find out her mother’s past through her letters, broken conversations and silent observation.
The book begins with “It was Uncle who was your father,” she said. What a powerful sentence! It grabbed me right away. The ‘secret orchard’ is what Roger Ackerley mentions in his will as “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.” This is the story of the ‘other woman’ penned down by her youngest daughter. After reading Petre’s book, I want to read My Father and Myself ( an autobiography penned down by J.R. Ackerley, son of Roger Ackerley) about the other side of the coin.
Muriel Perry was a young girl working in a bar when she met Roger Ackerley, a man many years her senior who later became her protector and lover. Muriel was happy being the ‘other woman’ and Roger was every woman’s dream man. Though Petre later points out that Roger was not married when he first met Muriel, a fact he kept from her, we see no resentment on Muriel’s part (perhaps because she never knew that he could have married her).
When the love-nest slowly transforms into a domestic household with the kids being born, we see Roger stifling under the changes and Muriel is helpless, but happy. She later abandons her children (when the twins were two and Diana an infant) and sets off to help soldiers at war. Perhaps this was her way of consoling herself. She comes back several years later and takes control of the lives of the three sisters. Muriel despises the housekeeper who looked after the children when she was away. However the children remain attached to the housekeeper and refuse to listen to Muriel’s arguments defaming her. On the other hand, Muriel often lands herself in embarrassing situations – she would invite guests for lunch and then drink so much that she would not be in a position to talk. The children have an ordinary childhood with frequent visits from their ‘Uncle’. Muriel’s return kickstarts a parody of motherhood that enlarges the rift between her and her children.
Petre is an unbiased writer. When writing about Roger, she holds no grudge against him. He was an excellent uncle to them, but as a reader I couldn’t help thinking, what if he had not hidden the fact that he was unmarried when he met Muriel and later married her? How would their lives have been different? But Petre offers no such speculations. Perhaps in stating the facts as they are, she leaves more room for the reader to weave versions of alternate stories that could have happened in the family.
The main character in the book is definitely Muriel who tends to Roger’s secret orchard, as the title claims. Petre has crafted to perfection the selfish, desperate, fool in love that Muriel was. She has captured beautifully the selfless love she had for Roger. She loves Roger and is devoted to him and blind to his shortcomings. The character sketch of Muriel is brilliant – she shows no remorse for her mistakes, and is adept at covering her tracks. Till the end, Diana and her sisters had no knowledge of their grandparents or ancestry. Muriel even destroyed her passport to preserve secrets. This should come as no surprise from the woman who introduced Roger to the children as their grandfather (Muriel’s father) at first and later as their Uncle until the truth of the fatherhood came out years later.
We do not see much of Petre’s own life, except occasional glimpses to her relationship with her mother and sisters. She mentions two marriages, but does not delve deep into her personal life or that of her sisters’. Throughout the memoir, Diana asks questions and follows clues to reconstruct the past of her mother who refused her answers when she asked for them.
Final Verdict :
I immensely enjoyed this read. Usually memoirs and biographies bore me. But Petre is a charming writer indeed. I was eager to find out how the story progressed. I owe this eagerness to the raw portrayal of Muriel, both the good and the bad. Like Diana, the reader is also searching for some answers and assurances, but Muriel evades everyone and fades away. This isn’t a happily-ever-after read. There are happy memories as well as sad ones, and many passages that seem happy but are tinted with sorrow on retrospect. If you like stories told with honesty in the most real way imaginable, generously sprinkled with funny accounts, you will love this book.
Read an extract from the book here
About the Edition
I adore Slightly Foxed paperbacks and hardbacks. The paper and binding is of the highest quality. It is a delight to read from the creamy pages in a pocket book that is the just the right size to carry around. Here is an interesting video uploaded by The Telegraph about the printing process in Slightly Foxed – Birth of a Book
If you are interested, check out Dodie Smith’s memoir Look Back with Love, also published by Slightly Foxed.
Title : The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley
Author : Diana Petre
Publisher : Slightly Foxed
Published : 2016 (Originally 1975)
Language : English
Pages : 272
Rating : 4.5/5
Much thanks to Slightly Foxed for a copy of the book. All opinions are my own.
Have you read this book? Do you have any favourites among those published by Slightly Foxed?