This is a charming book even if it is a morality tale. It uses a Rip Van Winkle device – marooned for four years on a desert island, Barbara Euphan Todd brings back her 39-year old protagonist, Miss Ranskill, to see the world she left in 1939. It has been turned upside down by the Second World War. Miss Ranskill Comes Home was first published in 1946, and although it was reviewed favourably both in Britain and in America, it more or less disappeared until Persephone Books republished it in 2008.
The story begins with Nona Ranskill digging a grave for her desert island companion, the Carpenter, who died of a heart attack. The story follows her from her rescue by a naval convoy, her first encounters with daily life in England and a meeting with her former school friend to reunion with her sister. Miss Ranskill is startled by significant changes, in topics of conversation and vocabulary, the necessity of coupons to buy clothes and food, the need for blackout and the daily concerns of middle class women. Readers were being invited to look again at things they took for granted and to reassess their reactions. Miss Ranskill’s adjustments to this new life and her challenges to some of the idiocy she meets are the focus of the second half of the novel.
The housing shortage, for example, compels Nona and her sister to live with Mrs Phillips.
Mrs Phillips loomed large in the cottage, the village and the nearby town. She had, so she frequently hinted, blue blood in her veins. Certainly some of it showed through the skin of her nose, which was of an aquamarine tint in chilly weather. Her politics were blue and rather bleak; so, though she admitted with generous gesture that the Russians were wonderful, she always added, ‘It seemed strange now to think how we talked about “poor brave little Finland”.’ For some time Miss Ranskill, uninformed in recent history, was very perplexed by the statement.
Mrs Phillips’ outlook was Red, White and Blue. She stood stout and stalwart for thin red lines, for British Possessions coloured red, for white feathers (to be given to all men not in uniform), and for true blue of every shade. She believed in the flogging of boys and coloured persons, the shooting of shirkers, the quashing of Jews, the Feudal System, cold baths for invalids, the abolition of hot-water bottles, and (rather curiously) the torture of Adolf Hitler. She softened to horses and she adored dogs, whom she addressed in baby-talk.
These two paragraphs capture the opinionated and prejudiced behaviour and opinions of many middle class people in Britain in the middle years of last century. They also refer to the swift realignment of enemies as friends and vice versa (see the references to Russia and Finland). Mrs Phillips represents the attitudes that are a particular target for Barbara Euphan Todd, along with the women with their smug busy committee work and for their self-adopted stance as moral arbiters of all kinds – their interference forever justified by the war.
As the novel progresses a critique of the class system becomes clearer. What use were class barriers on the desert island? Individual respect and resourcefulness were of more assistance in helping Miss Ranskill and the Carpenter to survive. On her return Miss Ranskill experiences a misplaced and slightly prurient interest in propriety (what was Miss Ranskill’s relationship to the Carpenter on the island? Did he manage to restrain himself, despite being of a lower class?)
The Carpenter is actually a kind of Christ figure, forever speaking to Miss Ranskill in her mind. The author was a committed Christian, the daughter of a country parson. It is the Carpenter’s philosophy that brings them through their four years on the island, and sustains Miss Ranskill on her return to England. She tells the Carpenter’s widow that she owes him a debt. ‘I don’t mean a money debt: he taught me things I shall never forget.’
And so I came to see that Barbara Euphan Todd was showing the parallels between survival on a desert island, and on an island isolated against a powerful enemy. She poses questions about people’s duty to other citizens, to the young, to the future. The novel was published the year following the end of the war in Europe, and one of its central themes is a warning about the post-war experiences for servicemen and children.
Through the words of a magistrate she expresses her fears for the young. He suggests that it is hard for them to see the difference between war and murder.
‘Remember another thing, these boys are too young to remember peace conditions properly. Four years, more now, is a long time in a child’s life. The best people in the country, the disciplined younger people are mostly out of the country. All their examples are gone and their fathers are away. Old fogies like myself can’t do a great deal of good though we try our best. Yet these children must be saved or the war will be a mockery and we shall have bred a race of hooligans who will menace peace as the Germans have menaced it.’
Barbara Euphan Todd also referred to the difficulties experienced by ex-servicemen after the first war. Miss Ranskill Comes Home was a plea to people to look up from the detail of the war, the dreariness of accommodation shortages, and the long hours of hard work to consider what they valued about life in Britain.
But if this seems rather heavy, I am misleading you, as it is a very readable book. The narrative is strong, the humour never far away, a litter of kittens is thrown in to soften the terrors of an air raid, and babies are born and children are rescued.
Barbara Euphan Todd wrote the Worzel Gummidge series, which I enjoyed as a child. In that series she used the device of a scarecrow to comment on silly adult behaviour, rules and attitudes; a character who both shares and is different from the people in his/her community – like Miss Ranskill – and this allows the author to remind her readers of an important thing or two.