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 fiancé 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.