Friday, May 2, 2014

The wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

This was my first book-box draw of 2014, and as usual, the box gave me something that I didn't think I wanted to read.  Given the choice, I'd have said that I'd read enough about World War II for a while, between Nevil Shute's secret mission and Agatha Christie's spies on the homefront, not to mention the quiet heroism of real-life war work in Jambusters. But once again the book box chose wisely, and I enjoyed this selection of Mollie Panter-Downes' stories, reprinted in a Persephone edition.  I have to mention again that this is the only Persephone that I have ever found in the Houston bookstores. I'd almost have bought it just for that.

These stories were originally published, like her celebrated "Letters from London" column, in The New Yorker.  Here the fiction is book-ended by two "Letters," the first dated October 14, 1939; and the second, June 11, 1944.  I was struck by a detail in the 1939 column:
Posting a letter has acquired a new interest, too, since His Majesty's tubby scarlet pillar boxes have been done up in squares of yellow detector paint, which changes colour if there is poison gas in the air and is said to be as sensitive as a chameleon.
In all that I have read about the Second World War in Britain, I had never come across that before.  Somehow that little detail - squares of gas-detecting paint - brought the war very close for a moment, perhaps because I could picture those red pillars so clearly, and myself dropping a note or card into them.

The stories that follow also date from the fall of 1939, through the winter of  1944.  But they are not a chronicle of the war - that was for her columns, I suppose.  And they are free from any sensationalism - no Fifth Columnists here.  Most are set in the country, outside the bombing zones and day-to-day danger.  On the surface they are quiet stories - an account of a sewing party, where members debate donating their clothing to Greek refugees; a couple who have nerved themselves to ask guests to leave; a mother worried about her children, evacuated to California, in the wake of Pearl Harbor.  Through her stories, Mollie Panter-Downes explores the war's effects on ordinary people going about their daily lives.  And their reactions seems very human, very psychologically and emotionally right.  I could see a connection between these stories and her later book, One Fine Day, set in 1946, which feels like a natural sequel, where she considers one family's adjustment to peace.

With this book, I particularly enjoyed Helen Ramsay, who appears in several of the stories (the editor, Gregory LeStage, suggests that she is a stand-in for Panter-Downes).  She copes in part through an acerbic interior monologue.  In "Mrs. Ramsay's War," she is living in a small country cottage with her daughter Susan, as well as a friend's two children, their nurse and their grandmother, evacuĂ©es from London.  The grandmother, Mrs. Parmenter, has also brought her two darling Pekinese with her.
That evening Susan, saying good night, remarked that she didn't want Camilla and Alan to go, ever.  Mrs. Ramsay felt impelled to hit her smartly over the head but instead went downstairs to the living room, where Mrs. Parmenter was knitting under the good light and listening to the wireless  . . .  Mrs. Ramsay, picking her way among suspiciously growling Pekinese, remembered with a good deal of wistfulness the poet's assurance that the grave was a fine and private place.
It doesn't take a war to make me feel like that - just a vacation with too much "family time" can do it.

Given how prolific a writer Mollie Panter-Downes was, with five novels and all those New Yorker pieces, fact and fiction, it is surprising how little of her work is available today.  The editor of my Persephone edition says that she "disowned" four of her five published novels. I haven't been able to discover yet if that means she suppressed them, as Georgette Heyer did her early books.  I suppose I could use my New Yorker subscription to access their archives and track down her pieces - all 852 of them.  That could be a long-term project.  Maybe I'll look for Minnie's Room: The Peacetime Stories... first.

8 comments:

  1. Her details are so good, aren't they? I haven't read the Peacetime stories yet, but I have her London War Notes on my pile (happily my library had it, as it isn't easy to find).

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  2. vicki, our library system doesn't have the London War Notes, but I can get it through interlibrary loan. I can't believe the prices for used copies!

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  3. I read this book a few years ago and enjoyed most of the stories, but haven't read anything else by Mollie Panter-Downes yet. I had never come across that fact about the pillar boxes anywhere else either!

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  4. I've been nervous to read this, after loving London War Note, and fearing that the fiction might not live up to the high expectations set by the journalism, but you might have shaken my resolve ....

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  5. I think this will be on my annual Persephone shopping list! I love short stories and I love reading about normal people in war time. The London War Notes also sounds like something I'd enjoy. I'll have to order it from ILL when I get back from Italy.

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  6. Helen, I really enjoyed One Fine Day, which I think has been reprinted by Virago. I wish more of her writing was easily available.

    Jane, I think you would enjoy these. They are simple on the surface, rather like Jane Austen - with depths below.

    Anbolyn, I have been avoiding the Persephone site, because I know I will end up with way too many books! London War Notes will be worth the ILL charges.

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  7. I very much want to read some Mollie Panter-Downes books. I was just reading a book about the Raj in Madras, and it referenced her book about the Madras summer residence (Ootacamund, called Ooty), so that's probably the one I'll go with first.

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  8. Jenny, thank you for the reminder. I saw something about that book, in looking for information about MPD, and I thought it sounded interesting.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!