I have not been entirely inactive during Persephone Reading Week. I'm not, perhaps, quite as far as I'd hoped to be - but I have managed to re-read Miss Ranskill Comes Home (1946) by Barbara Euphan Todd. I know, I know, re-reading when there are so many Persephones I've yet to read - but my book group are discussing the novel this month (and I didn't even suggest it!) and I felt like revisiting.
Miss Ranskill Comes Home was the third Persephone book I read, after Family Roundabout and Miss Pettigrew Lives For A Day and it's just over six years since I read it. Is it as good as I remember? In a word: yes.
Miss Nona Ranskill is returning to England after four years on a desert island. If that sounds far-fetched, then run with it anyway - somehow Todd is able to make you accept the situation and see what happens. She had fallen overboard, whilst trying to rescue a hat (which she didn't much like anyway) and was washed up on the island - where 'the Carpenter', also known as Reid, had been for some time already. The novel opens with Miss Ranskill having a makeshift funeral for the Carpenter, so we never meet him firsthand, but his voice permeates Miss R's mind and his kind and sympathetic voice recurs throughout the novel.
And so Miss Ranskill heads off in the boat the Carpenter had made, and is eventually rescued and brought back to England. The desert island idea, though interesting, is really just a way of having Miss Ranskill turn up at home in the middle of the Second World War without any idea that it is going on. For this is the main gist of the novel: how surreal and foreign the war seems to one not in the know.
The first person she re-encounters is a school-friend Marjorie, who seems never to have heard of Nona's 'death', and is described as 'her development being arrested midway through the last term in the sixth form'. She reminds me a little of the women in E.M. Delafield's The War Workers, who are selfish in their 'self-sacrifice', although Marjorie is probably just caught up in the excitement of regulations and hierarchies - able to relive her school days through them. And of course, these are all mysterious to Miss Ranskill. She doesn't understand rationing or black-out curtains; 'prohibited area' or air raid sirens. Having anticipated coming home for so long, she is disturbed to find home so very different.
And alongside all this, of course, Miss R is comparing everything to her island experience. I liked the odd unexpected touch Todd threw in, such as:
A flash of red in a draper's window caught her eye and she stopped to look. The sight of a jersey-suit in soft vermilion made her realise how much she had missed all the red shades of the world and how tired she was of blue and grey.I think Miss Ranskill Comes Home was a very brave book to publish in 1946, in its unusual perspective on a very recent war: it refers to soldiers as 'hired assassins', for instance. And yet, the novel was apparently extremely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. And has it translated to the 21st century? Possibly it is even more appropriate now. For people like me, whose parents weren't alive in the Second World War, our only knowledge of it can be second-hand. We experience some of Miss Ranskill's confusion, as she encounters wartime England, and perhaps feel ourselves equally uncertain and alien. While Todd's 1946 readership would have been amused by Miss Ranskill's cluelessness, as the years continue the reader can empathise more and more with her uneasiness.
Miss Ranskill Comes Home was chosen for book group after a discussion between myself and another member as to whether or not any of the Persephone books were out-and-out funny. This seemed to me to be the biggest dividing line between Persephone and the Bloomsbury Group reprints - both are excellent, but the latter is, in general, much funnier. And I think that's probably still true for me - Miss Ranskill has plenty of comedy, but it is comedy heavily dosed with pathos and even a tinge of the tragic. Certain scenes, such as that where Miss R tries and fails to give a speech to a local society on Life on a Desert Island, are painful to read in their awkward sadness. But the novel still manages to have plenty of light-hearted moments alongside - all the rush of emotion of encountering a 'brave new world', I suppose.
And, which is more important, there are some very cute kittens. Now, that's the kind of hard-nosed reviewing you've come to expect, isn't it?