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-
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.