Born in 1912, Diana Petre was J.R. Ackerley’s half sister and the author of The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley (1975), a family memoir that perfectly complements My Father and Myself. She also published two novels, Portrait of Mellie (1952) and The Cruel Month (1955), and wrote individual short stories, magazine profiles and book reviews.
She was the youngest of the three daughters of Roger Ackerley and his mistress, a woman who called herself Muriel Perry, but was so obsessed by secrecy that she mutilated her passport in order to conceal her true identity. She was probably an illegitim-
ate cousin of Ackerley’s business partner, Arthur Stockley. Shortly after Diana’s birth, she and her sisters were installed in a house on the edge of Barnes Common in the care of an elderly housekeeper, ‘Antie’ Coutts. Muriel simply walked out of their lives, not returning until 1922. Because the children’s existence was supposed to be a secret, they had to be kept away from other families, and while Roger provided a wholly adequate allowance, the neurotically parsimonious Antie never spent more than a fraction of it. The children had no idea that the genial figure who visited them during their mother’s absence, his chauffeur-driven car piled high with gifts, was their father. They addressed him as Uncle Bodger.
By the time Muriel reappeared the children were all suffering the effects of long-term emotional and physical neglect. They were now obliged to cope with their mother’s heavy drinking and erratic behaviour. Diana was already suffering from headaches, eating disorders, panic attacks and uncontrollable fits of crying. These disrupted her education, which took place in a series of private schools and included a term at RADA, and persisted into adult life. A generous nature and the expense of maintaining two families had virtually bankrupted Roger, who consequently left very little money when he died in 1929. Diana was obliged to earn her living as a waitress, cinema usherette and house parlourmaid, later becoming a model and appearing on stage with Sybil Thorndike under the name Diana Bryn.
It was at a theatrical party that she met her first husband, Louis Wilkinson, who wrote under the name of Louis Marlow. He invited her to lunch with the express purpose of seducing her, after which he insisted that they should live together. Diana walked out several times before eventually marrying him in 1932: she was nineteen and he was fifty. They parted amicably after three years, and she got a job with a film company. Her account of ‘Life with Louis’ was published in the London Magazine in 1976.
As she always acknowledged, Wilkinson gave her the self-confidence to start writing, and while living with him she completed two novels and an autobiography titled Seventeen to Twenty, all of which she destroyed. She sent a third novel to an agent, but before he could place for it she asked for its return and destroyed that as well. Her second marriage, into a distinguished Roman Catholic family, gave her the new and enduring surname of Petre, but did not survive the couple’s enforced separation during the Second World War. The major relationship of her life was a five-year affair with a married man which ended only with his premature death. She also had a brief romance with the publisher Hamish Hamilton, whose biography she had once hoped to write.
Like her half brother, Diana Petre was a perfectionist as a writer, and she destroyed far more than she ever published. She was estranged from her mother for long periods, but drew upon Muriel’s life and character in her two novels. Portrait of Mellie is an unforgiving account of a silly, selfish woman who deserts her children and then attempts to reclaim them, while in The Cruel Month a young woman is abandoned by her mother. She eventually realised that her own story was so extraordinary that it needed no fictional embellishment, and in The Secret Orchard of Roger Ackerley she was finally able to come to terms with her past, greatly helped by a two-year course of hypnosis. On publication the book was recognized at once as a minor masterpiece, and in 1979 was adapted by William Trevor for a film broadcast on Granada Television. It has been frequently republished, and is currently available in an edition published by Slightly Foxed with an Introduction by Peter Parker.