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Posts Tagged ‘Mollie Panter Downes’

This Persephone volume of London War Notes proving once again that I am not always very good at reading nonfiction. I started this huge Persephone a couple of days before Christmas when I had lots of reading time, then on Boxing day decided to take a break from it to read a classic crime from the British Library – finally finishing it on New Year’s Eve. It is a book I know a lot of people love – and I have certainly loved Mollie Panter-Downes fiction – and it seems that I do engage with her fiction better. Still there is a lot to admire in this collection, which I have had tbr for some time. After I had finished the book I realised that of course I would probably have done better to read these pieces over a much longer period of time, dipping in and out – after all the pieces were never originally intended to be read one after the other in this way.

Of course, Mollie Panter-Downes has written about the Second World War in her fiction too, two collections of her short stories, one about wartime and one peacetime are well loved among Persephone readers. While her beautiful novel One Fine Day (1947) takes place in the first real summer of peacetime – 1946 – as families all over the world were learning to adapt to the changes that peacetime brought with it. London War Notes brings us into the war pretty much as it was happening. What she does brilliantly, and right from the first page – is to capture a mood – recreating a kind of collective British (well certainly an English) voice.

“For a week, everybody in London had been saying every day that if there wasn’t a war tomorrow there wouldn’t be a war. Yesterday, people were saying that if there wasn’t a war today it would be a bloody shame. Now there is a war, the English, slow to start, have already in spirit started and are comfortably two laps ahead of the official war machine, which had to wait to drop off somebody’s handkerchief.”

Between the 3rd of September 1939 and May 12th, 1945 Mollie Panter-Downes wrote one hundred and fifty three ‘Letters from London’ for the New Yorker magazine – these are they. This complete collection of them first published in 1971 provides an incredible picture of real wartime life – throughout her tone is delightfully confiding and warm, sometimes amusing or a little cutting – most of all she is honest. She did not seek to curry favour with the government of the day – in fact, she can be sometimes rather critical but capable of praise or appreciation where she considers it due. There is a wisdom in her observant eye and a deep understanding for the people of Britain to whom she was clearly loyal and of whom she was very proud.

In these pieces we observe the first almost disbelieving shock of being at war – barrage balloons in the skies as retired army officers answer the call. ‘Battalions of women’ did so too – anxious to do whatever they could. The evacuation of children from London, and the strangeness of the parks without them. Her observations have something of the novelist’s eye about them, she notices the mothers left behind, the cartons that carry gasmasks – which could be transporting grapes to a sick friend, the advertisements offering sanctuary to London pets. She is tuned in to the varied voices around her the rumour, criticism, the anxieties, and stoicism – the hope.

“The last week has been a bad one. The calmness and cheerfulness of the ordinary citizen aren’t in themselves new or surprising, for to be long on both those qualities is part of the national character. Unless it is stiffened by a realistic comprehension of what it may be required to face, such an attitude is possibly as irritating to objective observers as the blithe unconcern of someone taking his usual constitutional along a cliff which everyone knows is in danger of falling.”

She tells us about the ordinary London dweller – their opinions their reactions to each new development. The reality of rationing, the disappearance of eggs Those who watched the Russians arriving with some suspicion, unused to thinking of them as allies. Reporting on what the government were doing or saying, the reactions to German invasions of Greece or Yugoslavia.

“This Sunday morning’s news of Germany’s aggression against Yugoslavia and Greece was the climax of a fortnight so bewildering that Britons have hardly known from one moment to another what emotions they were going to be called upon to register next.”

I couldn’t help but think how different those times were from today with our constant rolling news, the ability, should we be so inclined to absorb hours of new bulletins – never waiting more than a few minutes for an update. Living in such turbulent times when news was much less readily available must have been quite agonising – those few news bulletins each day a must for many.

The final few entries I found particularly poignant – especially coming after such a lot of long, detailed pieces – that sense of finally the madness ending. Another kind of disbelief as the blackout curtains start to come down and some London restaurants begin to open their doors in celebration. The relief is palpable.

This book is undoubtedly fascinating, Panter-Downes is a really excellent writer – but it is also quite big and quite dense – and I probably didn’t really do it justice by reading it in the way that I did.

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The second of the British Library’s recent publications is My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter Downes. Mollie Panter Downes is probably known best for her wonderful collections of short stories published by Persephone books, and her beautiful post war novel One Fine Day, I also have her volume of London War Notes tbr another lovely Persephone edition I must get around to soon. This wonderful series of books each have an afterword by series consultant Simon of Stuckinabook.

Mollie Panter Downes really was a very fine writer, and this is demonstrated on every page of this novel which really has been out of print for far too long. Apart from being extremely well written – that is almost a given with this writer surely? but it is also a wonderful portrayal of London life in the early 1930s, and to a degree the position of women and the subtle class distinctions still prevalent at the time. It is also a novel that accurately demonstrates the desire for self-expression, the frustration of an artist (in this case a writer) unable to work in the way they wish to.

The novel is narrated by Nevis Falconer a young novelist, who toward the end of 1930 muses upon her meeting with her husband Simon Quinn four years earlier.

“I sometimes wonder, looking back at everything with the experience that four years ought to have brought, whether I would make up my mind quite so precipitously to marry Simon Quinn if I met him for the first time today. There are moods in which I tell myself: ‘Not a hope! Freedom and work are the only important things. My God haven’t four years taught you anything at all, you little fool?’ But at the back of my head I know quite clearly that if it happened all over again I should marry Simon just the same.”

As the novel opens Nevis is just twenty-four, and we learn that at the tender age of twenty-one when she had met her husband she was already the author of a successfully published novel. Invited to a weekend party by her good friend Cora – an older happily married woman, clearly settled into a comfortable domesticity. Here Nevis meets Simon Quinn, and the two are instantly physically drawn to one another, despite their obvious differences. Right from the start, Simon is a big presence in the novel – his effect on Nevis and her work is all consuming. At the end of the weekend Simon drives Nevis back to London, they stop at a roadside hotel, where inevitably they spend the night together. At home in London where she lives alone (making her immediately a little unconventional) Nevis views her current manuscript with some distraction, an attitude which heralds the difficulties she will have in balancing her relationship and her beloved work. Already it seems as if her head if not her heart is full of Simon.

Soon enough Nevis marries Simon, something she sees as having been practically inevitable from the moment they met. Their relationship remains a largely physical one, certainly they seem to have little in common. Simon is proud to say he never reads, enjoys telling Nevis’ friends that he is practically illiterate, he treats her writing as an eccentric little pastime, that she has no need to bother with now. Family and their social positions also provide potential division. Nevis is an orphan who has scandalously been living alone, but she does have a grandmother with a title. Simon’s family who Nevis always think of collectively as The Quinns – simply suffocate her. For Nevis they are of a type, a type she rather looks down on.

“Dining with the Quinns was not my idea of a stimulant after a depressing day. Our periodical family gatherings always gave me the sensation that I couldn’t breathe, that all of life and intelligence were being slowly crushed out of me by these terrible people. While I sat decorously eating saddle of mutton at the big mahogany table, I would have a crazy, panic-stricken longing to spring up and rush away from everyone – even from Simon, because he too was a Quinn. The phrase ‘a Quinn’ had come to symbolise a whole class of society in my mind, just as Galsworthy uses the phrase ‘Forsytes’ and Sinclair Lewis ‘Babbits.’ London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars; thinking that ‘art’ meant the Royal Academy, and ‘beauty’ was the sort of wishy-washy, rubber-stamp, damnable prettiness that you see on the lid of a chocolate box.”

Yes, Nevis is both a social and an intellectual snob, though she is very alive to the differences that exist between her and Simon. After they marry, Nevis publishes her second novel which neither she nor her publishers regard very highly. Now Nevis desperately wants to improve upon that disappointment and write her third novel – but her creativity is constantly in competition with her domestic and emotional life. She is nervous of her servants to whom she speaks very courteously, but who seem to despise her, while Simon who growls and snaps at them can do no wrong.

After three years living a fairly superficial life, with Simon, Nevis’ American publisher Marcus Chard comes to London. They meet to discuss her work; he has great faith in her writing and what she could achieve. He is a no nonsense tough talking individual, who ignites something in Nevis who becomes more desperate than ever to get down to work properly. As their friendship grows so does the likelihood that Nevis’ marriage may end. When Marcus offers Nevis the chance to spend some time in America in an apartment he owns, where she can work undisturbed, she has a lot to consider. Marcus most certainly has an ulterior motive, but Nevis decides she will deal with that later – the implication of course that she doesn’t much mind that idea.

This new Women Writers series from the British Library has certainly got off to a fabulous beginning, the third book they have published is the magnificent Chatterton Square by E H Young, which I read a few years ago, you can read my review of that here.

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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.1947club

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.

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