Barbara Euphan Todd is best-known as the creator of Worzel Gummidge. But before she got into tales of scarecrow folk, she also wrote this engaging curio: Miss Ranskill Comes Home is the story of a British woman who has been marooned on a desert island, presumed dead.
When Nora Ranskill returns to England, World War Two (economically described as ‘half nightmare, half enchantment’) is in full, deadly swing.
There is a pleasing comic scene in which she becomes only gradually aware that a bomb in a greenhouse is in fact just an exercise organised by the ludicrous Marjorie, an old pal who brings the same jolly hockey sticks gusto to her ARP role as she did to school life, her development arrested in the Lower Sixth.
But a sense of great loss is pervasive. A shopgirl tells Nora, matter-of-factly: ‘My brother is dead, Madam. There was nothing left to bury.’ There is a claustrophobic description of an air raid, heard from a cramped basement. When Nora hears Allied bombers fly over – and knows that some will die – she thinks of what happens ‘at the moment when the foreign ground roared up to meet them’.
Crippling class consciousness and hypocrisy are everywhere, too. ‘Children should have the best of everything’, says one character – but not evacuees because ‘they were different’…
Meanwhile, friends cannot believe that Miss Ranskill had formed a friendship with her sole companion on the island, a fellow shipwreckee (and tradesman below her station); and Mrs Phillips is ‘obviously disappointed that the Carpenter had not been a native and that Miss Ranskill had not put her foot on his neck’. Best of all: ‘Miss Blake, a keen gardener, was disappointed that Miss Ranskill had not brought any plants back with her.’
At times Todd’s writing is beautiful: one character is so ‘anxious and birdlike’ that she resembles a ‘sparrow in a halo’; elsewhere, wind ‘ruffled the puddles to a mackerel shimmering’.
Yes, many of the female characters flirt with caricature, while the ending is a little pat. Yet this is an odd, striking novel about dislocation, disappointment and the truths we all live by. There are, Nora realises, more truths than she first thought.