News from Slightly Foxed: Her name was Muriel Haidée Perry

Her name was Muriel Haidée Perry . . .

Spring, with its sweet shoots, plans and prospects, is upon us at No. 53, Hoxton Square. Slightly Foxed Issue 53 and our two new books, Hilary Mantel’s Giving up the Ghost and Ronald Welch’s Sun of York, should by now have dropped on to subscribers’ doormats around the world and we do hope you’ve enjoyed them, wherever you are. 

Each year our backlist list of books grows by four or more titles, and shrinks by one or two as the earlier and most popular limited editions sell out. This week, as we shuffled books from shelf to shelf to make room for the new, it occurred to us that we really ought to make some recommendations to our readers for Mothering Sunday presents. A plan was hatched to take some tempting photos and find an extract that befits a celebration of mothers. But which extract? The bit with Mrs Durrell and the irate pelican is very good but we used it last year. Mrs Betts in People Who Say Goodbye would work well but that’s just sold out, and Suzanne’s mother in Mango & Mimosa is darling but there are only ten copies left. What to do? We scratched our heads for a bit, until one bright fox piped up, ‘How about Muriel Perry?’ Ah, yes, now how about Muriel Haidée Perry . . . 

As in life, mothers in literature come in all shapes and forms: from the ever-loving and progressive Marmee March, the foolish and frivolous Mrs Bennet, and the thoroughly terrifying Medea (to name but a few) but the real life mother in Diana Petre’s account of a very strange childhood defies categorization. 

‘For God’s sake someone take that child out of the room. I can’t stand the way she watches me,’ Diana’s mother Muriel is reported as saying. Diana was indeed watching, and it was this watchfulness, this ability to stand back and observe, that produced The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, an utterly unselfpitying and often very funny account of what must be one of the oddest childhoods on record.

Diana and her older twin sisters grew up in South London, in the care of an elderly housekeeper, their mother having abandoned them shortly after Diana’s birth in 1912. She didn’t return until 1922. One of the highlights of the children’s lives was visits from a kindly man they knew as ‘Uncle Bodger’. As was finally revealed, he was in fact the children’s father, who lived in happy domesticity with his second family down the road in Richmond. It was a strange situation, and at a time when illegitimacy was an absolute social taboo, a necessarily well-kept secret. But the mystery at the heart of the book is the real identity of Diana’s elusive mother.

Read on for an extract from this extraordinary story. And to follow, some cheering suggestions for presents for this coming Mothering Sunday, or indeed for any occasion.


The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley


Her name was Muriel Haidée Perry and she was born on 5 March 1890, or so I believed when I went to Somerset House to look up the registration of her birth. It wasn’t there. What I was really looking for – this was after she was dead and I had started to write about her – were the names of her parents. This was something that I had never been able to get her to tell me.
    Soon after she came to live with us I asked her something or other about her mother and father – my grandparents – and she shut up like a sprung trap. I pricked my ears and asked more questions. She started to cry. That was how it had all begun. As soon as I started to question her she was padlocked; her face changed at once – it became wooden, implacable – and in two seconds she was in tears.
    Perhaps if she had been an ordinary sort of mother, with us from the beginning, I would not have wanted to collaborate with her youth, to know what she had been doing when she was my own age and what her thoughts were then; what her parents were like, and why, for heaven’s sake, was she unable to remember anything at all that had happened to her before the war, which had started two years after I was born.
    For the moment it is enough to know that everything about her origin and youth had been so abhorrent to her that she had, quite simply, rubbed it out. She wouldn’t have it: it hadn’t been.
    It was always her way to act upon instinct; the more she felt remorse at something the more important it became to her to lock this something up in one of the dungeons in her memory and throw away the key. She was a liar on the most profound level; without the least regard for logic or the truth she would strike an attitude of mind-splintering stubbornness and hang on to it with all the strength of her forceful nature. As a solution, of course, this couldn’t and didn’t work, but she clung to it just the same.
    Anyone could tell she was full of secrets. You only had to look at her to feel the mysteriousness of her. She was a fascinator: one of those creatures who seem to come from nowhere and to be going nowhere, but who permeate the mind as a serum gets into the bloodstream.
    In appearance she was tall – just over five foot ten – with masses of dark hair like Irish hair, and dark eyes, not large and of no especial colour, but wonderfully expressive. Her skin was dramatically white, and she had long arms and hands and straight legs, and a high un-English waist. Her voice was rather low and velvety. She was seldom angry, her nature was too melancholy for that, and even when she was angry she never really shouted . . .

. . . It is necessary at this point to explain how matters stood at that time in our home. In 1927, when I was fifteen, Uncle had installed us all in a house in Castelnau, Barnes. He had bought it in Muriel’s name. She had taken great trouble with it and done it up charmingly. In the drawing-room, which was a clear apple green and gold, she had had a large bow window built out over the garden, and there were always flowers there in a deep porcelain bowl. She loved porcelain and had picked up some pretty pieces here and there which gave her great pleasure. It was a room of some elegance and it was large enough not to be dwarfed by a grand piano. She had a flair for making a room attractive; the overall effect was not original, but it had a certain delicacy, and she had a pleasant sense of colour. The bedrooms were surprisingly dull; it was in the drawing-room and the dining-room that she had taken the most trouble.
    Altogether, it was a pleasant house set back from the road with a little drive. She must have had high hopes when Uncle bought it for her. Now, at last, everything would be different, everything would start to go right. It would be a new beginning for us all. She had not been happy in the house in which she had joined us in 1922, but that was now in the past and could be forgotten. The new house should be the rightful beginning. And it was directly on the route which Uncle took every day from his office in Bow Street to his home in Richmond. He made this journey in the same car with the same driver, Morland, every working day of his life. Nothing could be simpler for him than to make a call at our house on his way home in the evenings.
    But in all these calculations for a new and better life – a life that should redeem in full the disappointments which had tumbled upon her like an avalanche since the day she had made the decision to take up her role as our mother – in all her calculations for the real beginning she had left out something. There was a flaw to these plans, and at that time this flaw was still known only to herself.

Extract from The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley, Chapter 2 © The Estate of Diana Petre 1975 

Presents for Mothering Sunday (or any other occasion) may be wrapped in brown paper, tied up with foxed ribbon, and sent with a handwritten card bearing a handsome wood engraving and a message of your choice.

Gift wrap from £2.50. Free gift box with all orders over £30.
Use code MOTHERS at the checkout.

Secrets & Lies

The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley

Diana Petre’s utterly unselfpitying and often very funny account of what must be one of the oddest childhoods on record.

From £16 or £15
when paired with


Marrying Out

In this darkly comic story of a Jewish family’s rise and fall it’s glorious, ghastly Grandma who takes centre-stage. An arch manipulator and expert in emotional blackmail, she is determined to foil her younger son’s plans to marry a shiksa by shipping him off to New York.

Pair from £30

Subscription Bundle

Give a booklover (or yourself) the gift of a year of good reading and a set of recent issues. Our spring bundle includes SF Issues 49 – 56 (Spring 2016 – Winter 2017), two smart grey slipcases and digital access to the full archive of back issues.

From £90

Ladies of Letters

In 84, Charing Cross Road and The Real Mrs Miniver, Helene Hanff and Jan Struther’s granddaughter Ysenda wield their pens under rather different circumstances, but both are masters of their craft.

Pair from £30

Found on the Shelves Set

Hand-picked from the archives of the London Library, these charming pocket books span a wealth of topics from modern manners to cycling. 

From £35

Under Siege

While Christabel Bielenberg’s extraordinary daring in the face of the Nazis in The Past Is Myself is hard to match, we feel Mrs Durrell also deserves a mention for her boundless reserves of tolerance and love for her Family & Other Animals.

Pair from £30

A Taste of
Slightly Foxed

The combination of the spring SF and our latest limited edition: Hilary Mantel’s haunting and uncompromisingly honest memoir, Giving up the Ghost, makes an ideal introduction to the world of Slightly Foxed.

From £24

Adventures Abroad

Be transported to warmer climes by Elspeth Huxley’s
The Flame Trees of Thika and Mango & Mimosa by Suzanne St Albans.

Pair from £30

If you are a print subscriber to Slightly Foxed you can access the digital edition and full archive of back issues for free. If you don’t know your membership number, please get in touch with Hattie by phone or email:
+44 (0) 20 7033 0258

Our readers write

Your letters, emails, cards and phone calls bring us great cheer throughout the year. Here is just a small selection of recent favourites.

‘I just want to let you know that the package arrived safe and sound. What a beautiful little book – almost too nicely bound to even open! And the little handwritten note made it even more special.’ A. Harrison, New Zealand

‘My thanks to everyone who is part of producing a wonderful publication, along with some stunning reproductions of writers who should never be forgotten. With best wishes for a long and brilliant future.’ G. Hewlett, Middlesex

‘I have just received my parcel from you – it was obviously packed with much care and the things are gorgeous, just as I’ve come to expect from the Fox!’ L. MacGrath, Dorset

‘Please pass on my thanks to whoever is responsible for thinking of featuring 84, Charing Cross Road. I borrowed it from my library based on that recommendation and loved it! So much so I was almost compelled to follow in Helene Hanff’s footsteps and start up a similar correspondence with Foxed . . . I held off until now. I’m very much looking forward to reading the latest issue.’ H. Francis, Surrey

This May, fellow bibliophile Katy is embarking on a 600-mile journey across Europe, in memory of her best friend Harriet Clarke and to raise awareness for Never Too Young, Bowel Cancer UK’s campaign for the under-50s. Her route will follow the first leg of Paddy Leigh Fermor’s 1933 journey, from the Hook of Holland to Budapest, recounted in A Time of Gifts. During Katy’s three-week trip we’ll be mapping her route and sharing news of her progress on our website and through our Instagram feed. Of which, more in due course.

Meantime, can you help Katy on her way? This isn’t a plea for donations. Instead, in the sociable spirit of both Paddy Leigh Fermor and Harriet, Katy wants to meet as many people as she can on her journey. She’d love to beg bed and board from anyone willing to put her up for a night or so. For details please visit her website:
Thank you so much to all of you who sent supportive messages to Katy or have donated to her JustGiving page. She’s touched and delighted by your generosity, as are all of us here. It just reinforces our opinion that Slightly Foxed readers really are the very best of sorts. 

Matrons, Maths and Midnight Feasts

Ysenda Maxtone Graham
with Allison Pearson

12 p.m. Thursday 16 March

Daunt Books, Marylebone

Tickets £6

Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival

The second Chiddingstone Castle Literary Festival takes place during the Bank Holiday weekend of Sunday 30 April – Tuesday 2 May. With more than twenty authors appearing over the three days, highlights include appearances from Terry Waite, Rev Richard Coles, Artemis Cooper, Nicholas CraneSir Anthony Seldon, Alison Weir, Conn Iggulden and Anne Sebba.

Adult events will take place on Sunday, while Bank Holiday Monday sees a range of author events for all the family, along with storytelling shows for children, Sock Puppet Shakespeare, a tour of Chiddingstone with a local historian and much more.

All tickets to the festival include free entry to the Castle and its collections of Japanese, Egyptian, Jacobite and Buddhist artefacts. View the full programme here. Tickets are available from

From Abbey, Edward to Zweig, Stefan

The Slightly Foxed index is an invaluable tool for navigating your collection of back issues or deciding which issues to catch up with and our new interactive online index is now live. We hope you’ll enjoy using it. Jennie’s project for 2017 is to add all the articles from back issues and link them up to the index so you can read the full archive on our website as well as via Exact Editions and the Slightly Foxed app, and send single articles to fellow booklovers too. Watch this space. 

Get in touch

If you need help or have any questions about your order or membership, you can always phone the office on 020 7033 0258 and speak to one of us for more information, email Hattie on or write to us by post at 53 Hoxton Square, London N1 6PB.

With very best wishes from the SF office staff
Jennie, Anna, Olivia, Hattie and Katy
Copyright © 2017 Slightly Foxed, All rights reserved.

Want to change how you receive these emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe from this list