Saturday, November 23, 2013

URSULA ORANGE, Ask Me No Questions (aka Tom Tiddler's Ground) (1941)

Never heard of Ursula Orange?  Neither had I until recently (and neither, apparently, has Google).  But when I came across a review of her second novel To Sea in a Sieve (1937), wherein Orange was compared to E. M. Delafield (albeit not entirely favorably), I spontaneously requested the one easily available novel by her from the library—thus bypassing, willy-nilly, a looooonnnnggg list of other titles already on my "to read" list.

There must have been some kind of gut instinct involved, as Ask Me No Questions (originally published in the U.K. as Tom Tiddler's Ground), turns out to be exactly the kind of book that keeps me obsessively digging for unknown writers.  It has immediately become a favorite, and—as so often happens—it has me scratching my head as to why none of Orange's novels have ever been reprinted.  She apparently wrote only six—Begin Again (1936), To Sea in a Sieve (1937), Have Your Cake (1942), Company in the Evening (1944), Portrait of Adrian (1945), and this one. My first thought was that she must have written additional titles under a pseudonym, or perhaps Ursula Orange was her pseudonym.  It just seemed that she was too talented and polished a writer for her entire output to have been six novels.

However, with a bit of help from Andy (who has become extraordinarily talented and doggedly persistent in tracking down writers after I whine that I can't find any information about them—it can be a quite addictive pursuit), I discovered the sad truth—or part of it at least.  After publishing her final novel in 1945, Orange lived only another 10 years before dying at the tragically young age of 46.  We haven't located any details of how this came about, or much of anything beyond her life dates and her family names (her father was Hugh William Orange, who was knighted for his contributions to education), but her silence in the years before her death could perhaps suggest a long illness.  Regardless of the cause, I think anyone who reads the present novel will feel a tinge at the premature loss of Ursula Orange.

The novel opens in July, 1939, with Caroline Cameron awakening in the new house she and her husband of eight years, John, have just moved into.  She lies in bed questioning the taste of the furniture selected by her earlier self after her marriage—recalling that her mother was overheard to say of the dressing-table Caroline had selected, "My dear, I am giving my daughter a surgeon's trolley. It appears that that is what she really wants." Caroline muses:

She was quite ready to repudiate her past taste in furniture, together with most of her past opinions and ambitions. That perverted lamp-stand over there, for instance. That had been another horrible error of taste, and even John, who was not observant over such things, had said "My God!" when first it had risen from its wrappings in all its tormented, writhing, chromium ingenuity.

Although this seems like an (appropriately) idle and frivolous meditation on her part, in fact Caroline's questioning of her past, and even her present, soon becomes a significant plot element.

It's a somewhat bold move, I think, in what is basically a cozy, comforting novel of the very early days of World War II, for Orange to have presented her reader with a heroine who starts out quite lazy, superficial, and immoral.  Charming perhaps, and witty, but unquestionably selfish and self-absorbed.  She is exasperated and flustered by her rather spoiled daughter, Marguerite:

Caroline sometimes trembled aghast at the inexorable compulsion of life. Move on, move on, all the time like a policeman. Develop or die, no half-measures. Exhausting process! Fancy anyone choosing to be a children's nurse, Caroline would think, rushing to the sherry cupboard when Marguerite was at last safely in bed after Nanny's day off. (That absurd, that awful battle in the park. Anything for the sake of peace, but you can't let them take strange children's golliwogs home with them.)

And, more importantly, she is preparing, as the novel opens, to launch herself on an adulterous affair with a stage actor because she has become bored with her husband, who insistently babies her in an effort to make up for his shoddy treatment of his first wife.

This is more, you might think, like the setup of Peyton Place or a Jacqueline Susann novel than a warm, cozy tale of village life.  But it's a gutsy move for Orange to have made—presenting readers with a rather unsympathetic heroine who, in the course of the novel, gains self-knowledge, questions her own behavior, and makes amends.  And I found it very effective.  If it's not exactly Miss Buncle's Book, it's not as far off as it might sound.  Perhaps this novel is what would result from the mating of Miss Buncle's Book and one of E. M. Delafield's non-Provincial Lady, more seriously satirical works (with, okay, perhaps a bit of gene-splicing from Peyton Place).

In the second chapter, however, to ease any tension from having an initially-unsympathetic heroine, Orange presents us with a genuine D. E. Stevenson character, Caroline's old school-friend Constance Smith, who lives in the rural village of Chesterford.  Here is as warm-hearted, social, and loving a character as Stevenson herself could have created—a former social worker who takes the time and energy to really understand the people around her and try to help them.  But she is a bit naïve in her own relationships and has made a catastrophic marriage to the slimy Alfred, a social-climbing car salesman (though she doesn't quite realize yet just how catastrophic).

This type of Ursula Orange I was able to find a photo of, but
it's almost certainly not the one who wrote this lovely novel

We meet Constance first when the billeting officer, exhausted from making the rounds of the village and listening to various excuses as to why no evacuees can possibly be accommodated, shows up at her door:

"Wait till you hear what I've come about before you say you're glad to see me," interrupted Mrs. Latchford warningly. Everyone always interrupted Constance Smith. It was the only way of bringing the warmhearted, impulsive, voluble creature to the point.

But Mrs. Latchford underestimates Constance, who explains that she has already invited Caroline and Madeleine to stay with her but has another spare room.  She asks if Mrs. Latchford has any mothers with infants left:

"Any left! My dear Constance! What everybody says, if you want to know, is that a mother and baby is the one thing they absolutely and definitely draw the line at!"

"What, even people who are mothers themselves?" cried Constance, horrified.

"Oh, all the more so!"

"They'd rather have children?"

"Children of school age—yes!"

"Of course, children of school age are very interesting, but I'm afraid they'll find it more difficult than they think," said Constance rather surprisingly.

"Oh, do you?" (Of course, it will be perfectly frightful, but I should have thought she'd have taken the sentimental point of view.)

"Yes—school age, you know, eight or nine—it's too late already. You can't catch them too young in this job, you can't really. So terribly soon it's too late."

Job? Light suddenly dawned on Mrs. Latchford. Of course! Social work! That had been Constance's job before her mother died and she had come home to look after her father. A "Club Leader" in North Kensington or something of the sort. Fancy her forgetting!

(Of course, the unquestioned assumption here is that all the evacuated children will be a "job"—that all the urban mothers will have been incompetent at raising their own children to such an extent that a social worker with no children of her own will know what's better for them.  And in fact, the mother, when she arrives, is conveniently indifferent to her child and thankful for the opportunity to abandon all responsibility for him.)  At any rate, we soon see Constance's maternal instincts kick in and realize the extent of her discontent that the loathsome Alfred refuses to have children.

Caroline and Constance are perfect contrasts for one another.  Caroline begins to write a witty play for her actor lover, mocking and making light of the problems of Constance and the other villagers, but as she becomes more involved and more attached to the people in question, she loses interest in the play (and, finally, in her actor lover as well).  Constance brings out the empathy and depth in Caroline, and Caroline's sophistication and wit help the rather doormat-ish Constance face the realities of her unhappy marriage.  Complicating the situation are Constance's brother George, who has a history with Caroline's husband and his first wife; Alfred's working class half-sister, Mary, of whom he is ashamed (but whom Constance, predictably, loves); the naïve Lavinia Conway, daughter of Alfred's benefactor, who fancies herself in love with him; and the unexpected reappearance of Alfred's first wife, of whose existence Constance remains unaware.

It all gets worked out in predictable enough yet entertaining ways, and I just couldn't put it down.  There's not a lot in the way of riotous humor to quote—it's more a matter of charm and compulsive readability—but there are certainly moments of mirth.  In the closing of Caroline's first letter to her husband who has remained in London, we might wonder if there's a question of infidelity on his side as well as hers:

P.S.-Of course I loathe not being in London. Is Florence looking after the house all right? I thought it was rather touching of her to say she would like to stay and be bombed with you. Mind you put her underneath when you're lying down flat in an air-raid.

And Caroline's actor's phone call to her makes quite a contrast with the quiet life she's leading in Chesterford:

"Hello, darling. I say, we're having a terrific party in an air-raid shelter. I felt I must ring you up. I pinched the warden's telephone and he doesn't like it at all. Darling, how are you, and when are you coming up to see me?"

The wartime content of the novel generally takes a back seat to domestic complications, but there are still references here and there to shelters and blackouts and the ominous approach of war.  One comment that Caroline makes early on, about how she and John refuse to acknowledge the threat of war, somewhat bewildered me: "I mean John and I are pooh-poohers. Like Gugnuncs, you know, only not in the least like."  I tried to determine the meaning of "Gugnuncs," and found two articles about the World War I-era cartoons from which the name seems to come—this one and this one.  But I have to say neither gets me a lot closer to understanding Caroline's use of the term, which seems to imply a sort of ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand quality.  Anyone out there able to shed any light?

I admit that when I finished reading this novel, I was seriously tempted to turn back to page one and start all over again.  Although people are always saying such things, and it's a great way of stressing that a book really is quite good, it's not something I genuinely feel very often.  But in this case I did.  The novel is not a masterpiece.  It's not brilliant or profound or heartrendingly eloquent.  It's not War and Peace or Sense and Sensibility.  But it's definitely an addictive slice of life that will merit an occasional, blissful re-read. 

If other, more sporting types can have their Fantasy Football and Fantasy Baseball leagues, perhaps I should start my own Fantasy Publishing league?  At any rate, I've found the first title for "Furrowed Middlebrow Books" to reprint!  And I'm already in hot pursuit of Ursula Orange's other five novels, so you haven't heard the last of her here...


  1. Ursula Orange's death was suicide. Her daughter, Gillian Tindall, wrote about it in her 2009 autobiographical book Footprints in Paris.

    1. Thanks so much for sharing this. I'll check out the Tindall book. It's sad to hear, but obviously her early age at death meant that it would be sad whatever the cause. Thanks.

  2. Somewhere I have To Sea In A Sieve- I never got far into it, it seemed clever but brittle. I must try it again


NOTE: The comment function on Blogger is notoriously cranky. If you're having problems, try selecting "Name/URL" or "Anonymous" from the "Comment as" drop-down (be sure to "sign" your comment, though, so I know who dropped by). Some people also find it easier using a browser like Firefox or Chrome instead of Internet Explorer.

But it can still be a pain, and if you can't get any of that to work, please email me at I do want to hear from you!