Friday, 11 June 2010

Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd

Miss Ranskill comes home, after four years on a desert island, to an England utterly changed by the second World War.  She shared the desert island with Mr Reid, the remarkably capable man Miss Ranskill always calls the Carpenter.  But at the start of the novel, the Carpenter has died and Miss Ranskill must bury him.  Inadvertently, she also buries their only knife, without which survival on the island is impossible.  This decides her to attempt an escape in the boat the Carpenter has built.  Reaching England after no little difficulty, she finds her problems are only just starting.  Lacking an identity card and a ration book, she cannot buy new clothes to replace her decayed tweed suit.  New, incomprehensible terms have invaded the English language. She is also, inconveniently, officially dead.

Miss Ranskill is used to great humorous effect by Barbara Euphan Todd to satirise the more ridiculous aspects of wartime life; I particularly liked her reaction to the painted line round the bath, intended to save water.  Miss Ranskill, in the house she is sharing, has the last of three baths, and simply fills the bath with as much hot water is left, whether it rises above the line or not; otherwise, the fuel that heated the water would have been wasted.  This view, unsurprisingly, is not shared by her housemates; Miss Ranskill has failed to Do Her Bit.  There is also some gentle challenge to the boundaries of the English class system.  Her friendship with the working-class Carpenter is suspected on all sides; even on the island Miss Ranskill knows that she could never bring her friend home to meet her sister: "The man is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring now that you've made a friend of him."  The two friends shared many stories of their home lives on the island, and Miss Ranskill conceives of a mission: she will visit the Carpenter's widow, and give the boat he built to his son.  But her overtures of friendship are as inappropriate in a working-class home as they are in her middle-class one.

The Carpenter and his son point to some unassuming Christian allegory.  Miss Ranskill is always (reasonably enough, I thought) furious whenever anyone hints, with prurient delicacy, at a possible sexual relationship between the two friends on the island, and invests their chaste affections with a strongly spiritual, transcendent quality.  She pursues her mission with the diligence of a pilgrim, and in doing so discovers another that will help her fit less awkwardly into the War Effort.

Satire and allegory are achieved with great subtlety in the book, which is also hugely funny.  I particularly enjoyed Miss Ranskill's schoolfriend Marjorie, now an officious ARP warden and having the time of her life in the war, puzzling over why there had been no black-out on the island: "I should have thought you'd have rigged up some kind of screen ... unless you wanted to be neutral?", and sister Edith's inability to comprehend that the Times had not been available to the castaways.   Miss Ranskill is an endearing heroine, resourceful and assertive, and her passage from bewildered refugee to woman with a plan is rather inspiring.

This is another Persephone retrieval, and one of the best of the Persephones that I've read.  I'll be recommending this, tiresomely and repeatedly, to anyone I think might possibly enjoy it.

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