The ‘lost’ authors who have been re-published by Dean Street Press under the Furrowed Middlebrow umbrella have been generally well received, but I have to admit the first few pages of Ursula Orange’s Tom Tiddler’s Ground left me wondering if some books have been forgotten for a reason. The opening chapter is a bit of a scene setter, but those early pages were tedious, the dialogue stagey, and the central character seemed a spoiled and heartless woman – I did NOT like her, I decided. But I kept going, and I’m glad I did, because the first few pages didn’t reflect the book as a whole, and once the author got into her stride I enjoyed it, and our heroine, who grows and changes as the novel progresses, turned out to be thoroughly likable.
The book begins in July 1939, on the eve of WW2, but takes place mainly during the ‘phoney war’ – the period between September and December, before hostilities started in earnest, when thousands of children were evacuated from London, gas masks issued, and preparations made.
Beautiful, sophisticated Caroline Cameron has been spoiled and cosseted all her life – first by her doting parents, then by her husband John (he treats as if she is still a little girl, even calling her ‘child’). The couple have just moved into her dream home, a large house on the edge of the park, overlooking the canal, with plenty of room for their two-year-old daughter Marguerite, Nanny, and the sleep-in maid. However, at the outset of war Caroline leaves London for the safety of Chesterford, accompanied by Marguerite and Nanny.
She stays with an old schoolfriend, Constance, and her husband Alfred Smith, (of whom Caroline is deeply suspicious because his eyes are too close together). Constance is desperate for a child, but this seems unlikely to happen as she and Alfred, married for two years, now have separate rooms. The household also includes Gladys (the cook and maid), and slum mother Mrs Gossage with under-sized, under-nourished baby Norman… So you begin to see the way things might pan out. There’s a host of other lively characters, including Alfred’s half-sister Mary Hodges who unwittingly plays a key role in his downfall, and 17-year-old Lavinia who thinks she is in love with Albert and doesn’t mind who knows it.
To start with, Caroline finds village life hilariously funny, but gradually she becomes genuinely interested in people, and cares about them and what happens to them, But is she a realist. She knows that people are not always what they seem. Everyone, she says, has a secret, a hidden past, which affects the way they live now. She tells her friend:
Oh Constance, do believe me, every one has something in their past. Not exactly a skeleton in the cupboard – not as dramatic as that – but, oh, a sort of patch they’re ashamed of. A sort of Tom Tiddler’s Ground which you keep to yourself and chase other people off.
Constance, a clergyman’s daughter and former social worker naively thought that when Albert kissed her it meant he wanted to marry her, so she told a visitor they were engaged. Caroline herself is conducting a clandestine affair with an actor, and her husband John, a prosperous lawyer, has been married before, but refuses to talk about that period in his life. There is some mystery surrounding his first wife’s death, and why does he no longer keep in touch with one-time best friend George, who did him a good turn – and (as is the way of things in novels), turns out to be Constance’s older brother… And why has gentle, kindly, patient George made such a failure of his life?
Then there’s the strange woman who is searching for ‘Alf’ – who is she, and what does she want? And there is Alfred himself, a used-car salesman with ideas above his station, who has been very economical with the truth about his past. He is such an obvious villain I wondered how anybody ever trusted him, but even so I almost felt sorry for him as his world began to fall apart, and he desperately tried to cover his tracks.
Eventually the mysteries are solved and old secrets revealed, largely due to the efforts of John Cameron, who also enables people to move on to new lives which are right for them. He turns out to be much nicer, kinder and more understanding than I initially thought.
But it is Caroline herself who changes the most – a fact which she herself recognises, and she is finally able to make decisions about her future, and to establish a partnership with her husband where she can be treated as an equal, not as a child. She explains to him:
Only I think the past should be – disinfected – before it it’s finally buried. And your past certainly wasn’t disinfected when you married me. And that put us a bit wrong, didn’t it John? Didn’t it? You admitted it the other day when we were talking about Edna. You said you’d always wanted to make it up to me for being such a rotten husband to Edna. It sounds rather grand and noble, John, but it wasn’t really treating me with sufficient – responsibility. Oh, I liked it all right at first, of course. I’d always been spoilt. It was what I was accustomed to. Only recently I haven’t liked it at all.
She is no longer the spoilt, indolent, selfish woman we met at the start of the novel, but someone who has acquired warmth, humanity, and a genuine interest in other people and their well-being, and she’s prepared to stand up for them and can be relied on to help in tricky situations. She keeps her sense of humour, and her love of fun, but understands her actions can hurt others, and she turns out to be a keen observer of people and a shrewd judge of character (rather like her creator I imagine). By the end I rather liked her, especially the final view of her cooking and cleaning in a small bungalow in Woking, in a ‘safe’ area away from London but within easy reach of the city for John’s job, and acknowledging that the most important thing in life is that she, John and Marguerite are together.
Overall it was a light-hearted, humorous read, but it does raise serious issues about relationships, identity, and independence, and I liked the way the author showed us the characters’ inmost thoughts, which were often at a variance with what they actually said and did.
*In case you wonder (well, I did) Tom Tiddler’s Ground is a children’s game, a variation on on tag perhaps, where one person is chosen to be Tom Tiddler, and has to catch and eject the other players as they try to invade the space around him while shouting ‘Here I am on Tom Tiddler’s Ground’. It’s not a game that I’ve ever come across, but there are, apparently, references in some Dickens’ novels, and he also wrote a short story of that name. And there’s a lovely song of that name by Roy Harper which I include because I like Roy Harper, and we all need more music in our lives! You can find here.