Good Evening Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (Persephone Classics 2008)
Women of all ages liked Winthrop Biddle - 'He's a great dear' was the expression they generally used - and he was devoted to the whole sex in the cosy way of an uncle who enjoys the confidence of a vast number of totally unrelated nieces. His feminine friends knew that he could be relied up to provide a lunch, a bed, sound advice, or a cast-iron alibi as required, and not to go in for jolly avuncular pouncings in taxis. ('Lunch with Mr. Biddle', 1940)
These short stories appeared in The New Yorker during the Second World War. Mollie Panter-Downes was drawn to what the ordinary lives of ordinary people - the 'quotidian' as the Introduction nicely puts it. She wrote, "If the pieces had value, it's because I took note of the trivial, ordinary things that happened to ordinary people." How do the 'ordinary' man and woman on the home-front deal with the changes wrought by war?
Barrage balloons. Source.
Panter-Downes' writing completely blew me away: she has such a gift for the iconic portrait of her subjects (and objects: the barrage balloons are "spread over the sky like some form of silvery dermatitis". Isn't that perfect?). A baby-wear saleswoman "snuffled… with a damp blend of sentiment and catarrh" ('The Waste of it All', 1944)
"Battalions of willing ladies" have "emerged from herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty": "firm-lipped spinsters who yesterday could hardly have said 'Boo!' to an aster." ('Letter from London', 1939)
Major Marriot, "a grizzled Adonis", lives with his sister in the country. He waits for the false war to end so that he can throw himself into air-warden duties. Mrs Trent sees him watching the sky "smiling sweetly as he sometimes smiled at her, with rakish twinkle of the born charmer, the absent-minded tenderness of a man who loved women and danger but had somehow ended up with Miss Marriot and a warden's rattle beneath crossed assegais." When he picks up the air-warden's rattle, she sees him "look at it longingly, and put it down again, like a small boy with a parcel which he knows he mustn't open till Christmas." ('It's the Real Thing This Time', 1940)
Panter-Downes' language is terribly seductive, and she has a very witty line in the revelation of her character's hidden, internal observations. Mrs. Ramsay, in the opening story, who goes to meet an old flame home from Malaya, "noted coldly that he was a good deal yellower than he had been five years ago." ('Date with Romance', 1939)
On a friend's mother who has imposed herself into the Ramsay's Sussex cottage for the duration, Mrs. Ramsay offers the observation ("morbidly"):
All autumn Mrs. Parmenter had run out between the showers and picked the asters, saying brightly that an old woman must be allowed to do something around the house. Opposition would hardly have been hysterical if she had offered to make the beds, but her tastes appeared to be floral. (Mrs. Ramsay's War, 1940)
A number of stories display this delicate wickedness. Other stories are quite melancholic or reveal the tiny tragedies of life in wartime: how can a mistress discover that her married lover is safe? Dare she ring his wife? Do one's domestic squabbles still rate while the world outside faces destruction? What if one realises that one "had almost grown used to doing without him." Will wartime break down the social barriers between the middle-class lady and the char when both share similar heartbreaks? And what about all that interminable waiting, waiting, waiting and pretending not to fear the worst?
When she had hung up the receiver the clock was striking six. She went over to the radio, turned the knob, and sat down with all the other anxious women to knit and listen. ('War Among Strangers', 1942)
In sum: a must read for lovers of the 30s/40s. Beautiful prose. Wonderful, jewel-like stories.
If you liked this... Jan Struther's Mrs Miniver and E. M. Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady, of course.