Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Author, Mollie Panter-Downes, started writing short stories for The New Yorker just before the outbreak of WW2 and continued on until the 1980s, contributing articles, fictional stories, poetry, book reviews and so on.



Throughout the war (apart from 1945) she wrote stories depicting life in Britain during the war and these are available in Good Evening, Mrs Craven:The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, published by Persephone. She followed that with a novel, One Fine Day, published by Virago, which dealt with how the middle-classes coped with life in the aftermath of the war. After that came this set of stories which are very much along similar lines and have been published, again by Persephone, as Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes.

There are only ten stories in this collection, written between 1947 and 1965. They deal primarily with how the war changed people’s attitudes, or not. Thus you have a middle-aged couple in The Exiles emigrating to South Africa because of a labour government that was taxing them out of existance in order to pay for the new welfare state. I wasn’t aware of it but some 50,000 people actually did emigrate to South Africa at this time. In the title story, Minnie’s Room, a middle-class family are unable to cope when Minnie, their longtime cook, decides to leave them for a room of her own, a thing she has always promised herself she will do if, at the age of forty five, she remains unmarried. In What are the Wild Waves Saying? and Intimations of Mortality two girls on the verge of womanhood learn valuable lessons about real life, one as opposed to romantic novels, the other as opposed to her comfortable life with ‘Nanny’ in a middle-class home. Beside the Still Waters tells the story of a dying mother, none of whose adult children wish to disturb their own lives by taking her into their homes for her final months. I tend to think of this as a modern-day problem but clearly that’s not the case. I think my favourite story of the lot though was Their Walk of Life. A middle-class couple are told by their eighteen year old daughter that she has met the man she wants to marry - has been seeing him for quite a while behind their backs in fact. When they discover that the fiancĂ© is not some chap she met at the tennis club, destined for a professional career, but a labourer who digs ditches for a living, they are horrified. They go to see his parents, a working class couple (the husband is illiterate) with seven children, where they discover that their point of view is not the only one…

This little volume of short stories could probably be read in one sitting but that would be a shame because these are stories that ought to be savoured. I don’t think I’ve ever come across more perfect short story writing. Every single story was a work of art. That sounds like a ridiculous thing to say, I know, but it’s true - you really don’t come across writing that’s this sumptuous very often. I was frequently stopped in my tracks and had to go back and reread paragraphs just to wallow in the prose. None of the stories are earth shattering, they’re all just small scenes from people’s lives, and the general theme is the middle-class and how they dealt with difficulties presented by the war and after. Each tale is only ten to fifteen pages long but none of them needed to be any longer, they’re all perfect, to my mind, and each time I found myself completely immersed in the story that was unfolding. Fantastic.

I should probably have read the Wartime stories before the Peacetime ones, but the Peacetime volume was what the library had, so that was what I read. However, thanks to a tip-off from Booksplease I’ve just picked up the Wartime volume in Waterstones, where they have a 3 for 2 offer on it. (We won't talk about the fact that I didn't just come home with *one* book, I came home with five. *cough*) And One Fine Day is definitely on my ‘look for’ list now. It horrifies me sometimes to think of how many excellent female authors have been lost to the modern reader. Thank goodness for publishers such as Persephone and Virago, say I.

14 comments:

Juliet said...

Temptress! I'm trying not to buy books because my buying habits are just like yours (ie set out for one, come home with five), and the TBR mountain is reaching Himalayan proportions. But I can definitely feel a Persephone order coming on now . . .

Nan - said...

What a wonderful review. You know, I tried to read One Fine Day (I had seen that beautiful cover on Cornflower's blog) but I couldn't get through it. I still wonder why. I really want to get hold of her letters to the New Yorker during the war - the nonfiction stories.

These stories sound as if they could have been a set with the book I just finished, A House in the Country because in that book the concern and wondering is what will the world be like after the war.

Slightly Foxed (yes, I subscribe, also thanks to Cornflower) is coming out with new editions of older books, too.

http://www.foxedquarterly.com
/?s=whatwepublish&ss=editions

I'm with you, I bless these publishers. Who knew there were so many (mostly women) great writers?

DesLily said...

got a tickle in your throat do you? heh..

let's fact it Cath, going to a book store is no different than going to the grocery store.. there's just no way we are going to either store "for just one thing" and actually walk out "with just one thing" duh! hahahahaha

Tara said...

I've had my eye on this, and have also thought I ought to read the wartime stories first. I'm waiting for that to be sold by amazon us in fall of 2008! I enjoyed how you described each story briefly, you made me want to know more. Teriffic review.

Cath said...

:::cackle:::: Sorry, Juliet. (Well, I'm trying to be...) Persephone is such a terrible temptation though isn't it? I got the new one in Waterstones but am now eyeing up the website with at least four new ones in mind. 29, 40, 74 and 75 if you're interested. But really and truly - I would love to have them *all*.

Nan, is there a volume of her letters to The New Yorker during the war? I know about the fictional short stories but it would be wonderful to get hold of the letters and non-fiction items. Perhaps you might prefer the short stories to One Fine Day?

I'm inclined to think the women's writing could well have been dismissed as less important than the men's, which is why so much disappeared without trace. Until now of course.

Yes, a real tickle, Pat. *cough, cough, cough* Hee.

In my defense, *ahem*, only three were new from the bookshop and those were 3 for 2 in price... the other two were charity shops buys. Still got five new books to find space for though...8-S

Thanks, Tara. I don't think you'd regret buying these two books. The cover of my new copy of the Wartime stories is not the usual dovegrey but has a wonderful painting called, The Queue at the Fish Shop, by Evelyn Dunbar. It's kept at The Imperial War Museum in London, a place we actually visited two years ago. I just wish I could remember seeing it there. You can see the cover on the Persephone homepage, on the left towards the bottom, it's one of their new Persephone classics.

And did I mention Foyle's War to you? LOL. I believe the latest series airs on PBS in July. (This is for Pat too.)

BooksPlease said...

Cath, I can't wait to get to the Wartime stories.

I'm reading her London War Notes 1939 - 1945 which is a collection of the letters she wrote for the New Yorker at weekly or fortnightly intervals. Our local library had a copy in its Reserve Stock. It's very much a commentary on Britain's reactions and attitudes to the war - so far anyway, I'm only up to August 1940.

I'm so glad someone else can't leave Waterstones without a bagful of books!

Tara said...

Cath, that is the one I want - the one with the lovely painting on the cover. Is the Imperial War Museum the same as the Cabinet War Rooms? Because I've been there. Several people have mentioned Foyle's War to me - this is something I need to aquaint myself with.

Cath said...

Booksplease: I can't wait to get to my copy of the wartime stories either, though I don't know if I'll be able to manage it in June.

I didn't know there was a book of her wartime letters to The New Yorker, I'm thrilled to hear that and will try to get hold of those. Thanks for another useful tip-off.

Tara: No, The Imperial War Museum is different to The Cabinet War Rooms. Stupidly, I can't remember what the area of London is called where the IWM is situated but if you're ever back in London it's *well* worth a visit. Their mock-up of the WW1 trenches is amazing and they have a WW2 bombing raid experience which is quite scary! There's also a holocaust exhibition, which I think is permanent, and an excellent art gallery.

You must watch Foyle's War in July! Did I say that before? ;-)

Susie Vereker said...

How interesting the world of book bloggers is. I'd love to read Mollie P-D (wonderful name!)

Cath said...

Susie: I agree, the world of book blogging is a fascinating one. So many wonderful people and so many books I never would have heard of (such as Mollie P-D) if it weren't for book blogs.

StuckInABook said...

I've read One Fine Day and liked it a lot, and have Mollie P-D's short stories waiting for me... your lovely review has moved them one step closer to my bedside tbr pile....

Cath said...

You won't be disappointed in them, Simon. (At least I hope not...) I was really taken by surprise at the quality of the stories and the writing, even though I'd seen from your blog and a couple of others that M P-D's books are delightful. I'm eager to read more now.

Danielle said...

I do hope you find One Fine Day--It's a wonderful novel! I'm not surprised her short stories are gorgeously done as well, and I can't wait to read them. I did read one story that is in the wartime volume as it happens to be in another anthology I'm reading at the moment. And it was a wonderfully done slice of life of a married couple as the husband gets ready to leave for war.

Cath said...

The problem with me, Danielle, is that the edition of One Fine Day I want is the earlier Virago with the view out of a window. I think I can get it from Amazon Marketplace but I keep hoping to come across a copy in a charity shop. Prevaricating, as usual. It will be mine though!