I haven't been lucky enough yet to find an affordable copy of Mollie Panter-Downes's celebrated London War Notes, a collection of her weekly columns written from England for The New Yorker during World War II. I was able to borrow a copy through inter-library loan last year, but I couldn't finish it in time, and I'm not sure what the statute of limitations is for requesting a book again. I've had better luck with her fiction. In fact, I was stunned to find the Persephone edition of Good Evening, Mrs. Craven last year, since Persephones are even rarer than Viragoes in Houston bookstores. And while One Fine Day was re-printed by Virago, I was very happy to find an American first edition on-line.
It seems fitting that this book is dedicated to William Shawn, the long-time editor of The New Yorker, where her fiction as well as the war pieces were published for so many years. I didn't realize until I read her entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that she continued to write her column after the war ended, up until 1984. In all she wrote an astounding 852 pieces for the magazine, which has to be some kind of record!
To me, she seems to have brought something of the journalist's observant eye to this novel, which chronicles a single day in the summer of 1946. The central character is Laura Marshall, who lives in a country village with her husband Stephen, a veteran of the war, and their ten-year-old daughter Victoria. Stephen commutes into London every day from their house in Wealding (which seems to be somewhere on the south coast, not too far from the sea). Laura and Victoria stayed in their home during the war, joined by displaced friends, women like Laura on their own with children. Now, without the servants they rather took for granted, the Marshalls are finding the house and garden almost too much for them, yet they continue to cling to pre-war standards and expectations.
This hot summer day is not a special one in any way. Stephen goes off to work, Victoria to school. Laura is at home when her daily cleaner arrives, but then she leaves to shop and run other errands. She speaks to her mother on the phone, she inquires about hiring a gardener, she stops in a tea room, she goes after an idiotic dog that has run away (and who is likely to return in the family way). As Laura moves through the day, the story moves back and forth in time, giving us a glimpse of life during wartime, or her introduction to Stephen, or a dinner party with friends who are leaving for Ireland. With Laura we meet people in the village, including the owner of the manor house, forced to let it go to the National Trust. Buying sweets, Laura chats with the young woman minding the shop, a war widow, whose announcement of a second marriage rather shocks Laura. The story also briefly shifts to Victoria and Stephen, in their very different days.
I am a comparative reader. As I read a book, I'm usually reminded of others, and I tend to compare and contrast. The most obvious comparison here for me is with the post-war novels of Angela Thirkell. This felt like a much more realistic account of life in peace-time, still recovering from the effects of the war, surrounded by reminders of it, including German prisoners working in the fields. It is also an account of a marriage and a family, coping with the strains imposed by war and long years of separation, reunited but still divided. This is of course an important theme in Thirkell's novels of the 1940s, though her Barsetshire families have managed to hang on their servants. None of her heroines is forced like Laura into doing her own cooking, none of her heroes after a hard day's work in London joins his wife in the washing-up, as Stephen does (however reluctantly and crankily). Thirkell's stories are leavened with comedy, like the running jokes over Mixo-Lydian refugees (available for kitchen work) and the constant warfare with the Bishop of Barchester and his wife. Panter-Downes's story is more straight-forward and serious, though that isn't to say it is humorless. I particularly enjoyed her description of the garden, which is proving too much for Stephen and Old Voller, who comes twice a week to potter around helping him:
The garden's vitality was indeed monstrous and somehow alarming . . . The result was that a vegetable war to the death appeared to be on, green in tooth and claw. The flowers rampaged and ate each other, red-hot poker devouring lily, aster swallowing bergamot, rose gulping jasmine. Cannibals, assassins, they sat complacent with corners of green tendrils hanging from their jaws. The cutthroat bindweed slip up the hollyhock and neatly slipped the wire round its throat."Green in tooth and claw" - "complacent with with corners of green tendrils hanging from their jaws" - I am chuckling as I type this (and casting an uneasy eye over at my house plants).
The DNB calls this "one of the great British novels of the twentieth century." I don't know enough about the literature of the period to agree or disagree, but it's one of the best novels I've read about life after World War II. And as all good novels do, it left me wanting to know what happened next, particularly for Laura and Victoria.