My second read for the 1947 club hosted by Karen and Simon was One Fine Day by Mollie Panter Downes, a novel which has been on my radar for a long time.
Taking place on one long hot summer day in 1946, the first real summer of peacetime, One Fine Day recreates the mood, atmosphere and changing times that peace has brought to an English village. The village in question is Wealding, a village commutable to London, surrounded by a perfect English landscape.
“Up here, on the empty hilltop, something said I am England. I will remain. The explosions in the valley, the muffled rumbles and the distant flashes far out to sea, had sounded remote as the quarrelling voices of children somewhere in the high, cool rooms of an ancient house from which they would soon be gone. But the house said I will stand when you are dust.”
At the time Panter Downes was writing this novel, thousands of families were adapting themselves to the changes that came with the end of the war. One Fine Day goes right to the heart of those difficulties. Mollie Panter Downes doesn’t limit her story to a plot driven domestic drama, although a small middle class family are the focus. She is a superb observer of people and communities, and demonstrates an astute understanding for the challenges for people coming out of a long, uncertain conflict.
Laura and Stephen Marshall and their ten-year-old daughter Victoria must learn how to live with each other again in this new world. A world inhabited by widows, where food is as strictly rationed as ever, and domestic help is hard to come by. The Marshalls’ garden is badly overgrown, attended to by a man too old for the work. Laura is helped in the house by her daily Mrs Prout – a local woman who jibs at calling her employer Madam. Laura is vague, distracted a slightly bohemian character, she isn’t as distressed by the domestic disharmony as her puzzled husband who views the evidence of these more straitened times at home with some dismay.
As the novel opens, the family dog Stuffy has got out again, the family know she has gone up to Barrow Down where the gypsy lives, where she will run wild with his dogs, later – no doubt – presenting her family with yet more puppies. Before Stephen leaves for his day at work outside the village, the two contemplate the difficulty of the garden, and Laura resigns herself to going to look for Stuffy later that day. Victoria leaves for school in a rush with satchel and music case. Reminded by her mother that she is having tea that afternoon with her friend Mouse Watson. Laura, alone finally, contemplates the day ahead, as she clears the breakfast dishes, which will include picking gooseberries, cooking, the weekly shop, seeing to the ducks and hens. It’s an evocative portrait of domesticity, one at which Panter-Downes excels.
“Now, said the house to Laura, we are alone together. Now I am yours again. The yellow roses in the bowl shed half a rose in a sudden soft, fat slump on the polished wood, a board creaked on the stairs, distant pipes chirped. She knew all her house’s little voices. As she had never done in the old days when there had been more people under her roof.”
Stephen has returned to his little family after the war, aware of how many years have been wasted by the grey in his wife’s hair – testament to the years of struggle she has endured without him, cooking, cleaning, washing; all the domestic chores she was not born to. Now Stephen commutes to his office in London, sharing a railway carriage with other men like him. Suddenly he is aware that he could, quite easily spend the next twenty years catching the 8.47 to London, it’s a shattering idea. He has another image, the dream of another life, a new life in another land. Knowing, of course that in reality he will never leave England.
The perspective is almost always Laura’s we see the world of Wealding through her eyes – and occasionally through her young daughter’s or her husband’s – it is in Laura ‘s head the reader is placed. Laura stays in Wealding – unlike her husband who leaves each day for the city – and so it is in her company that we meet other members of that village community. There’s the vicar Mr Vyner, Miss Grant; Victoria’s teacher in her home made jumpers, Mrs Porter with her various offspring by various fathers, including her Adonis of a son, and strange Annabel, the beautiful young war widow of poor Jim Trumper. The family at the big house, friends of Laura’s, we learn, are leaving, a sign of the changing times, it will soon be in the hands of the National Trust. Laura pays the family a visit as they prepare to leave.
“The house, thought Laura looked completely uninhabited, rotting away, basking and staring with blank eyes at the weedy gravel and the lawns, which were now hayfields. It had, for a moment a disconcerting air of being already a ruin, quite hollow behind the plum-pink bricks and the Cranmer hatchments. Rooks cawed, flopping in their crazy-looking settlement in the big old trees; neither she nor Edward spoke for a moment, and Laura had a feeling that the silence would surely be broken up by the boots of the custodian, popping out of his little room, wiping tea from the ends of his moustache, and starting to gabble about the dining hall and the site of the old keep.”
A novel, taking place over the course of one day is a difficult thing to achieve – yet in Mollie Panter-Downes’s hands it seems effortless, the past and present weave together, as she reveals the world of her characters. We get a sense of Laura’s upbringing – the man her mother wanted her to marry. Over the phone we witness the disapproval of Laura’s mother that she chose Stephen – and has spent the war ruining her hands.
This beautifully written novel is well worth spending time on, it benefits from slow reading I think, although it is so readable I could imagine gobbling it down in no time had I not had to go to work or not had two evenings out last week.