Mollie Panter-Downes, we hardly knew you…

11 Feb

Good Evening Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes (Persephone, £9)

I’ve just finished a collection of short stories by long-time contributor to the New Yorker, the late Mollie Panter-Downes. After reading about her writing and career in the publisher’s afterword (in the beautiful edition published by Persephone Books), I feel compelled to let everyone know about this shamefully overlooked author and this fantastic set of stories. In them we meet a variety of characters, some charicatures, others perceptively rendered, living, struggling and making do during World War II. There’s Miss Mildred Ewing, living in her hotel at Crumpington-on-Sea, probably the best-named place ever. If this place was real, (it’s not, I checked) I’d live there. The charming Mr Winthrop Biddle, who I suspect, from what I’ve read, might have been modeled on Noel Coward, though I may be wrong, is a fantastic piece of characterisation that managed to be both humorous and psychologically perceptive. One of my favourites are the ladies’ of the Red Cross sewing party, a less than demure circle fraught by the tensions that result from the ‘mixing of the classes.’ This, it seems, is one of the collection’s recurring themes: the conflict that the War inadvertently provoked on the home front as millions were uprooted to the countryside to escape the Blitz, or as in many cases, as a result of it. When the Clarks arrive at Mrs. Fletcher’s manor to escape London, it soon becomes clear that their differences are irreconcilable. Mrs. Fletcher is aghast at the look and smell of their poverty-stricken family and the Clarks are equally ill at ease amongst the greenhouses and lime avenues. Mrs. Dudley feels similarly harassed by the presence of Mrs. Rudd, in her ‘libidinous’ high heels and fur monkey jacket, her ‘jaunty maternal behind’ encased in her tight trousers. For Dossie, her mistress’ transgression of class boundaries is just part of ‘the conspiracy against her way of life which they called war’; she wants nothing more than the gentry to know their place and stop eating their dinners in her kitchen. Panter-Downes writes in a way that is both gently mocking, darkly humorous and tragically moving.

I urge you to read this book and come along to our next classic bookclub meeting on Monday the 21st of February, where we will hopefully be joined by a member of the Persephone team, to talk about these wonderful stories. Hope to see you there!

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