Miss Ranskill Comes Home Barbara Euphan Todd 1946

I saw some interest in Barbara Euphan Todd in the Undervalued Women Writers 1930 to 1960 Facebook group and thought this might be of interest. I love the novel Miss Ranskill Comes Home (and not only because this essay earned me 25 Persephone books!). The novel is a marvellous conception by a writer famous for her Worzel Gummidge stories. Sadly, this is the only novel she wrote for adults. It is a must for reading over and over to find more in every time. Her writing for children may have unlocked her imagination in this eminently serious, yet at the same time humorous commentary not just on the Home Front, but on gender, class, morality and, perhaps above all, the meaning of love.

Nona Ranskill: Accidental Radical?

Miss Ranskill Comes Home: Barbara Euphan Todd 1946

(Sue Kennedy, Hull University: Second Prize in Persephone essay competition 2015)

The more I read and reread Miss Ranskill Comes Home the more remarkable, and radical, it seems. Although published in 1946 there is a great deal more to the novel than a straightforward, if bizarre, narrative of the Home Front. It shows its radical edge in two distinct strands.  Firstly there is a muted love story, and secondly an outsider’s account of life in England four years into war. In each of these strands the text subverts fixed notions of gender, class, patriotism and authoritarianism. It pays little respect to patent manifestations of the absurd in the execution of the monumental mechanisms of war; rather more to a concern for rehabilitation and regeneration.  Yet far from being a polemic this is an elegantly expressed narrative, freighted with humour, anger, and pathos. Curiously it is the author’s only novel for adults written, significantly, at a crisis point in the history of civilization.

Grounded in biblical allusions and Christian morality the extent of Miss Ranskill’s radicalism comes as something of a surprise. Might she not be better engaged as a missionary? Yet her no-nonsense character and overwhelming instinct for survival lay the foundation for a ‘dream team’ combination with Reid, the Carpenter, who hauls her ashore after her fall overboard from a cruise liner just a month before the start of World War Two. (The fact that she embarks at this point in history surely suggests something about her economic and social class position and, perhaps more, about her spirit). Reid’s death ends the desert island story and propels it onto ‘this other island’; a now alien England (192). The narrative takes off from such a preposterous premise to reveal a touching liaison between the two, forged in a cross class relationship worthy of a DH Lawrence situation[1], but without the sex.

Barbara Euphan Todd’s innovative style very effectively takes the reader back to the desert island and to Reid’s words by way of italicised passages in Miss Ranskill’s memory. Although not a first person narration the thoughts, feelings and perceptions of the eponymous protagonist are made crystal clear. The mode of life that prefigures Miss Ranskill’s changed consciousness is skillfully drawn as she and Reid prepare diligently for repatriation.

An unwavering belief in ultimate rescue is sustained by Reid and reinforced by the active collaboration of Miss Ranskill. From the outset, however, Reid upholds the social conventions of the English class system and never stops calling her ‘Miss Ranskill’; probably does not even know her first name. She in turn refers to him as Reid.

The ‘Miss’ and her surname had made her armour against an assault that had never been hinted at. She had called the Carpenter, Reid. His surname seemed to set the right distance between them. At home, on that other island, she had always addressed the village carpenter by his surname, so the distinction had come easily enough (2).

Despite the careful maintenance of social distance over four years Miss Ranskill’s day-to-day living with a working-class man, a fount of resourcefulness and skill, initiates profound changes in the middle-aged spinster’s outlook. His instruction in the practicalities of making fire, the correct manner of digging, of catching and cooking fish, of providing shelter in their scrupulously separate and ‘homely like’ accommodation, combines with an imaginative strength demonstrated in his ingenious way of keeping memories of home alive; ‘going to the pictures’ (12).

Here she learns of his life history; ‘he had gone to sea in the last war and had liked the life’ but returned to learn his trade (13). He tells of his home in the Berkshire village and of his marriage to Annie; ‘you should have seen Annie then – pretty girl she was’ (13); (a veiled hint at what she might be now?). He speaks most often, though of his cherished son, Colin; ‘just over seven’ (13) when Reid had seen him last. Miss Ranskill soaks up the atmosphere of this unfamiliar intimacy, receiving it with respect, and more than a little envy. Her own comfortable bedtime scenes lack the same intensity of interest.

The hospitality promised by Reid on their assured return generates unease in Miss Ranskill. She is well aware of what her sister Edith’s class prejudiced reaction will be when she invites Reid to visit her home. The supposed conversation with her sister constitutes Miss Ranskill’s first attack on the snobbishness of English mid-century life that is just one of a series of biting critiques delivered by the ‘accidental’ radical. Barbara Euphan Todd places Miss Ranskill firmly in the vanguard of a changing class-consciousness accelerated by the conditions of conflict. The contrast between the two sisters flags up the ‘appalling pocks in our civilisation’ exposed during the years of war (191).

 ‘But, Nona, it’s impossible. The man is neither fish, fowl nor good red herring now that you have made a friend of him, as it were. Yes, I know the circumstances are peculiar, but that makes it all the more difficult: people won’t understand. … but you always have managed to do uncomfortable things. … you can’t possibly have anything in common with him. You mustn’t be too democratic’ (16).

Her vehement, imagined retaliation reveals a transformation in her viewpoint brought about by Miss Ranskill’s growing affinity to Reid. Could it be that for her ‘the personal’ is becoming ‘the political’? She goes on to articulate their relationship with reference to political systems, though claiming adherence to none exclusively.

‘As for democracy – it was more a mixture of monarchy and communism. He was the monarch – he made the rules and I had to keep them to save my own life. I didn’t know the rules of tree-cutting and fishing and boat-building. I suppose we were communistic in a way – neither of us took the bigger share of fish or anything like that’ (17).

 She articulates a system that ensures the best deployment of resources at the same time as it challenges gender roles and class divisions; a system radically different from the one left behind in England. More than this simple practicality, though, she acknowledges the merits of shared effort and reward, of mutuality. It happens that the ‘masculine’ skills that the craftsman Reid possesses are enhanced by Miss Ranskill’s ‘feminine’ aptitude for stitching and making use of scant resources; typical, maybe, but not stereotypical. But Reid also displays a softer, more ‘feminised’ version of masculinity, more akin to the ‘New Man’, valuing domesticity and parenthood. In turn he appreciates Miss Ranskill’s growing strength and capability.

Interestingly, other male characters in the novel are portrayed more sympathetically than the women whose behaviour appears deplorable. The sailors on her rescuing ship show more kindness than the shop girls and ‘knock-kneed chits’ in the department store, and certainly more imagination than her sister Edith, or Philippa Phillips, or Marjorie, the school friend, or saddest of all, the slatternly Mrs Reid. Miss Ranskill may not be a radical feminist, in the sense that we have come to understand the term today; a battler against male oppression, or ‘man hater’. Rather she is a woman who enacts the aspiration for women and men to have equal rights and opportunities, without limitation on the basis of their gender. Neither does she shy away from ‘telling it like it is’. Her most stinging rebukes are actually aimed at the stupidities perpetrated by women in the name of the war effort; a position that could be viewed in the twenty-first century as ‘propping up the patriarchy’. Miss Ranskill’s challenge to their interpretation of the male generated rules of the war effort is, in effect, telling women to think for themselves; to ‘get out from under’; a truly progressive sentiment.

What is, I think, truly radical is that as the scales fall from her eyes Miss Ranskill confronts the reality of genuine equal human value between man and woman, working-class and upper class. The work they undertake together is based not just on survival, but also on fellowship. It is creative as well as essential.  In terms of gender roles it exceeds the vision of utopia expressed by thinkers such as William Morris in News From Nowhere (1890) that retains the domestic position of women. What is more their desert island microcosm is not one of guilt-free sex. Miss Ranskill’s growing awareness of Reid’s personal qualities and her consequent esteem for him is not consummated in a sexual, or even in an openly loving manner. The revelation of the depth of her feelings for Reid occurs only after his death when she buries him ‘reverently because she revered him, practically because of what she had once heard, lovingly because she had loved him’. Yet she ‘had cherished the flower of her virginity’ and proudly retains her integrity, and that of Reid, too, making ‘between them a greater story than the ones usually begotten on desert islands in books’ (2-3). She freely chooses celibacy and comradeship.

Euphan Todd’s ‘soft science fiction’ conceit of the traveller’s return to a now alien homeland empowers Miss Ranskill’s transformed attitudes. The ‘eyes wide open’ vision of an expatriate returning to England, four years into war is revelatory. Viewing the ‘condition of England’ through the gaze of a virtual outsider lays bare many of the absurdities of life on the Home Front. The disturbing reunion with the old school friend finds Marjorie behaving much as she did as Head Girl in her new role as ARP organiser; bossy and unremitting, and loving every minute. Miss Ranskill’s near miraculous return is given little consideration, and her seemingly strange appearance and behaviour only give rise to suspicions of espionage, or even worse, deserting from ‘any of the Women’s Services’ (133).  Poor Miss Ranskill is viewed with the tunnel vision created by propaganda, rules and regulations. She herself observes uneasily

‘…a little petty people, strangled by red tape, nagging along, intent on their own tiny quarrels, fretting over the fat ration, playing at war and pretending to be important in their ARP uniforms and gardening dungarees’ (234)

The novel might simply be construed as ‘anti-Home Front’ narrative. Yet, written at the end of the war it is more centrally concerned with recovery and regeneration. In Marjorie’s house, Miss Ranskill has her first shocking experience of the actuality of bombing raids, hearing first the siren, then seeing a young boy transformed into a ‘pig-faced goblin’ by the wearing of a gas mask. On top of her own terror at the noise and debris of destruction, she encounters the fear of the boy, the birth of a litter of kittens, and, in this rarified atmosphere, meets Marjorie’s son, a fighter pilot. They are both outsiders looking in on an unfamiliar world; a world to which he finds it equally disorienting to return on his ‘leaves’.  Later Miss Ranskill reflects on the fate of such young men as she sits in the train and meditates on the damaging effect of war on unformed youth.

‘The young airman in the far corner of the carriage was asleep. There were dark shadows under his eyes and his mouth was restless. It must be odd for him to be travelling like this. He and his kind were evolving slowly into a race apart. Engendered just before the last war, they were already incomprehensible and remote. They had seen what none but their generation could see – cities burning below them and the bowl of stars above’ (193).

Miss Ranskill’s engagement with the Home Front is rendered with the humour that attaches to the absurd. Barbara Euphan Todd’s acute powers of observation (already fully exercised in her Worzel Gummidge stories) are now deployed in representing the struggle of the upper classes to be conspicuous in their contribution to the war effort. In so doing they blithely enforce the rules in their habitual disciplinarian, unquestioning manner. For instance, Marjorie ‘shops’ Miss Ranskill for trying to steal her identity card; Philippa remonstrates with her for using too much bath water, and Edith castigates her for many transgressions, not least amongst them wishing to bring Colin to stay:

 ‘“If you knew these children as I do”, Edith put down the half-finished seaman’s sock, “you would know that the idea is absolutely impossible. The village is only just clear of evacuees. I know, if you don’t that it is perfectly senseless to try to take these children out of their proper places’

A Line from Blake frisked through Miss Ranskill’s mind – “White as an angel is the English child”. But only the child of the upper middle classes, not the little gutter boy…’ (259-60).

 The gulf that separates Nona Ranskill from Edith is summed up here; highlighted by the emblematic ‘half-finished seaman’s sock’. She need never meet the foot that wears that sock. Nona, on the other hand has more ‘hands on’ nurturing sensibilities, especially towards the young, who must be offered support in recovering from the trauma of loss and the dismantling of old certainties

Philippa Phillips, the host and exploiter of Edith, and widow of Captain Phillips, is keen to co-opt Nona’s island adventure, even to suggest a holiday trip there after the war! She envisions it as ‘one of our islands’, a possession of ‘My Country’ (233) and presses Nona to give a talk about it to the women of the village. Indeed, Philippa Phillips is the perfect vehicle for lambasting all the prejudices of upper middle class England incorporating an incisive challenge to British colonialism.

 ‘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…’

Edith Ranskill was terrified of her; Nona Ranskill was not (223).

Miss Ranskill’s steely fearlessness has been tempered in the furnace of the island, with Reid as flux. She can now see the wood from the trees; she knows what matters. And what is most important to her is to preserve the memory of Reid through his son, Colin. ‘From the moment she had been left alone on the island, she had known herself inheritor, not only of the boat and the jack-knife and the Carpenter’s ragged clothing, but of his purpose also…. the restoring of a father to a son’ (261). This visionary concern is a metaphor for the task of ensuring a future for the inheritors of the mess of war. Miss Ranskill’s remit extends also to the babies and sweethearts of fighter pilots, who, like Reid, might not live to fulfil their paternal role. She has no hesitation in taking on that surrogacy. Ultimately the privileges of her social class background permit her to reclaim the family home after requisitioning when, instead of retreating to relative personal security at home she strikes out in yet another startling way to provide a homestead for all of these vulnerable individuals. This in itself is a radical manifestation of doing things differently for reasons of good sense and pragmatism as well as emotion and ideology. Paradoxically her determination to restore ‘a father to a son’ is not literally fulfilled. Her solution, though, previsions a principle of twenty-first century social policy that holds that the gender of a parent is not the overriding measure of effectiveness. Single parents, same-sex parents and communal parenting are equally viable models in fulfilling the role. Ahead of its time, hers is a twentieth-century utopia; a communal mode of life, similar to those of the nineteen-sixties, where the mutual esteem and collaboration learned on the island can flourish afresh.

Miss Ranskill’s radicalisation is, of course, more than accidental. The pre-conditions for being receptive to change are present in her character, awaiting ignition. The extraordinary circumstances she experiences open up many sites for Miss Ranskill’s radical vision. She readily rejects those roles dictated by gender alone and follows a model based firmly on practical outcomes and shared humanity. Her pride in sexual integrity seems not to flow from repression or prudishness but from a consciously weighed choice. Her easy dismissal of feminine pride in appearance demonstrates a considered distancing from stereotypes. The fierce decrying of the class-ridden, war depleted society in England is firmly based in a form of humanitarian socialism. Most powerfully of all the dominant theme of regeneration of the young after the cataclysm of war is expressed in the metaphor of a safe haven as a legacy for the young. Across all these areas Miss Ranskill offers a glimmer of hope for the future. Ultimately, she stands out as more than an accidental radical, (or even as a missionary). Euphan Todd positions her as a ‘fifth columnist’, unleashing an outsider’s critique using the inside knowledge of a member of the upper classes.

So, by demonstrating such progressive methods, she is more than an ‘accidental radical’, nor solely an incipient feminist. In fact, I would dare to position Nona as a ‘postfeminist’ prototype, and, for me, something of a personal heroine. ‘What would the Carpenter make of that?’ (192).

[1] See, Sons and Lovers (1913); The Rainbow (1915); Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928); or, famously, in the 1951 movie adaptation of CS Forester’s 1935 novel The African Queen, in which the protagonists, Charlie Allnutt and ‘Miss Sayer’ move slowly but steadily towards a sexual liaison and indeed, marriage.