Miss Ranskill Comes Home – Barbara Euphan Todd

(Persephone Books 2008, originally published 1946)

This delightful and satirical book begins on a desert island, where Miss Nona Ranskill is burying the body of her companion and friend of the last four years, a man whom she refers to constantly as The Carpenter, though his name was Reid. It was he who helped her and gave her skills to survive their ordeal, and who encouraged her to plan their escape, and they talked together of home, their lives and their hopes. He always called her Miss Ranskill, and she always called him Reid.

Finally, she is able to leave the island in the boat that they had managed to build together, and sets off, though she is sadly aware of all the knowledge in the Carpenter’s head which she does not have, and which would be of help to her in her desperate journey. Suddenly, however, her tiny boat is encountered by a convoy of ships, and she’s rescued and taken on board a destroyer. It’s there that she discovers that Britain is in the middle of a war she had no idea was happening, and her sense of dislocation grows when she is landed back in Britain, bereft of ration card (or any conception of rationing) and under suspicion of being a spy.

Todd uses the rather fantastical idea to gently satirise the war effort, and all the details of life under wartime conditions which were taken for granted by people who had lived through four years of it, but which seems strangely puzzling and irrelevant to Miss Ranskill on her return. There are many bits of humour as Miss Ranskill gardually becomes accustomed to these new conditions, particularly in the character of Marjorie, a former school-friend, who seems never to have outgrown her school-girl code, and is horrified by Miss Ranskill’s failure to observe the black-out, and by the peculiar things she says. Then there’s Miss Ranskill’s sister, who had thought she was dead, and now must accustom herself to the fact of Nona being alive – and inconveniently unable to fit into her new life. Her experiences have made Miss Ranskill impatient with niceties; for example, she doesn’t see why she she shouldn’t use up  the last of the hot water – since it would be cold by the morning – yet her companions seem to consider that this luxurious wallow is somehow not Doing One’s Bit. Miss Ranskill has affinity for young people, whom she likes, and who like and confide in her – Rex and his sweetheart, for example – partly because she takes them all serenely and without imposing her own feelings or emotions on their feelings or emotions.

There’s also pathos and a very moving sub-plot, in which Miss Ranskill steels herself finally to visit the Carpenter’s family, about whom he had talked longingly and lovingly, and finds that her news is not new at all, and in fact her visit is unwelcome: Mrs Reid did her period of mourning when her husband was first reported missing, and she is keen to marry another man. Todd conveys Miss Ranskill’s sense of shock and bewilderment at this first encounter, the wife being so different a person as Reid’s descriptions had led her to believe. However, Miss Ranskill, after she recovers from the shock, is determined to help Colin, the Carpenter’s son, in whom she sees her friend very clearly, and eventually manages this.

This was, apparently, Barbara Euphan Todd’s only novel for adults – she had also written the Worzel Gummidge stories for children, about a scarecrow who can talk – and it’s a shame she didn’t write more, because Miss Ranskill Comes Home is well-written, has a realistic and moving plot, with episodes of danger and sadness and great joy, too. Miss Ranskill’s first experience of an air-raid is both terrifying and incomprehensible:

“And now the cellar itself seemed to be shaking, as lumps of plaster fell from the ceiling, guttering out the candles and suffocating her with dust. There followed the thunderous cracking of guns and other showers of plaster shuddered down into the cellar. Something splashed on to her hand and a warm wet trickle ran down her wrist. Had the child been hurt? She lifted her wrist to her mouth, dreading the salty taste of blood that might be streaming in the darkness, resenting her blindness now instead of pitying it. Her lips were wet and her tongue was exploring, not the savour of blood, but a sickliness of sugar and luke-warm tea. A cup must have turned over, that was all.”

(pp 153-154)

This is a lovely and beautiful book, and is thoroughly recommended.

This entry was posted in 2010 New Reads, Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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