One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

In this beautifully written novel, we follow a day in the life of the Marshalls, an upper-middle-class family struggling to find a new way to live in an England irrevocably altered by the Second World War. While Britain has emerged victorious from the conflict, life in the country has not returned to ‘normal’, to the way things were before – and for many people, it never will. Set on a blisteringly hot day in the summer of 1946, the novel captures a moment of great social change as thousands of families find themselves having to adapt to significant shifts in circumstances. For some inhabitants of Wealding, a picturesque village in the home counties, the war has opened up fresh opportunities and pastures new; but for others like Laura Marshall and her husband Stephen, it has led to a marked decline in living standards compared to the glory days of the late 1930s.

Laura – sensitive, wistful, bohemian – is trying to maintain some semblance of domestic harmony around the house now that the family’s servants are now longer there to maintain order, the invisible ‘caps and aprons’ who worked the strings of their world so perfectly. The cook and nanny are long gone; the maids who left to help with the war effort will not be returning, lured away by the chance to work in a local factory with all the benefits this new environment has to offer.

Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to run your legs off, where you knew where you were, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin. (p. 13)

While Laura tries her best, she is a hopeless cook, forever pulling something unidentifiable out the oven, or leaving the milk to boil over, her thoughts often elsewhere. There is skeleton help in the form of Mrs Prout, a local charwoman who comes to the Marshalls’ a few mornings a week to ‘circulate the dust a little’. Mrs Prout likes Laura even though she considers her a daydreamer, prone to contemplation and reflection while the house slowly crumbles around her feet. A keen observer of people, Panter-Downes has a wonderful knack for capturing a character in just a few sentences, as evidenced by this brief portrait of Mrs Prout.

Mrs. Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls. (p. 18)

By contrast to Laura, Stephen is more troubled and dismayed by the loss of their servants, particularly the trusty gardener, Chandler – killed on the battlefields of Holland – who once tended their roses with such care and affection. Now there is only Voller from the village, a slow, plodding presence in the garden for one or two evenings a week, a man too old and weary to cope with any heavy work. As a consequence, the garden is hopelessly overgrown, the house tired and dilapidated, no longer filled with the gaiety and chatter of days gone by. Stephen longs for times past when everything ran efficiently, the house spick and span, the garden beautifully tended, their young daughter Victoria delivered to them fresh and clean in her towelling bath robe, cared for largely by the family’s nanny. Those days are but a dim and distant memory in the mind.

Meanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which, all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now, on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. (p. 13)

Recently returned from the war, Stephen travels to London for work each day, while his evenings are spent battling with the weeds in the garden. On top of the worries with the house, he is a little dismayed to find Laura looking middle-aged at thirty-eight, her hair grey, her face tired and weary. The couple’s ten-year-old daughter, Victoria, is a bit of a mystery to Stephen too, vastly changed from the inconspicuous child he left behind for the battlefield.

Laura too feels a little uncertain about her ability to adapt to this new life. She realises that her looks have faded, that others may see her as an ‘old sofa,’ worn but comfortable. Every now and again, Laura’s thoughts return to her mother, Mrs Herriot, a formidable woman who lives in Cornwall with Laura’s rather conservative father. Life for the Herriots has remained largely unchanged by the war. The new ideas have yet to catch on in St. Pol, the Herriot household still full of young girls willing to bow to the family’s every need. By contrast, Mrs Herriot bemoans the fact that Laura should be reduced to cooking, cleaning and looking after Victoria, unable to understand why the Marshalls’ servants have not returned to the fold. Moreover, she blames Stephen – whom she has never liked – for this sorry state of affairs, for not taking care of her daughter properly. As far as Mrs Herriot is concerned, Laura should have married her old flame, Philip Drayton, now a successful politician living comfortably in Westminster with his wonderful wife, Cicely, their old family cook and parlourmaid still firmly in position.

While Panter-Downes slips seamlessly between the minds of several of the characters, her main focus is always Laura; it is Laura’s thoughts that drive the narrative forward as we go through the day. By focusing on this one woman and her domestic situation, the author builds up a insightful picture of the inhabitants of a broader community, their lives touched and altered by the war in various ways. We follow Laura during her regular trip to the local town in an effort to buy food for the family’s dinner. Supplies are scarce, almost more so than during the war itself, as illustrated by this scene at Mr Kellett’s, Bridbury’s fishmonger.

It’s terrible, Mr. Kellett had grumbled, diving his scarlet hands into a bucket of goggling monsters, it’s never been worse, not even in the war, it hasn’t. The line of women had swayed and sighed, murmuring uneasily, staring with depression at the dwindling pile of fish, summoning up a false brightness when their turn came to step forward under Mr. Kellett’s angry little blue eyes. And to-night, chewing the dead slab which she would disguise as something or other, Stephen would say thoughtfully that it was odd what had happened to the soles. Had they disappeared from the seas, a war-time casualty? Not that this was not, of course, perfectly delicious, he would add kindly… (pp. 60-61)

Later, Laura calls in on a local family, the Porters, to ask if their son, George, would be interested in helping with the garden; but the young man in question has been offered a job at a garage in Coventry, lured away from the village by the promise of money and a livelier social life. We meet the Cranmers, a formerly grand family who have just sold the bulk of their vast estate as they can no longer afford to maintain it – the remaining members are to live more modestly in the stable wing. There is a fleeting visit to a shop where Laura encounters a young war widow – referred to here as Mrs Jim – a beautiful woman who, much to Laura’s dismay, seems all set to marry the stuffy and pernickety Stanley Rudge. As far as Laura is concerned, Mrs Jim could do so much better for herself, someone young and handsome like George Porter, for example. But Mr Rudge has prospects, he is a builder/property developer; and unlike Laura, whose husband returned from the war safe and sound, Mrs Jim cannot afford to be choosy, not since young Jim was declared lost at sea.

It is all very well for you, said Mrs. Jim’s eyes coldly. You are one of the safe ones, you have a roof and a child. Your man came back. One must take what one can. One is forced to make do, to pick up the crumbs, to be sensible., And all that, the other part, is gone for ever, sunk and drowned beneath the oily waters. (pp. 93-94)

There are other encounters too, all of which come together to paint a vivid picture of a nation, a country trying to come to terms with new ways of life and the accompanying changes to its social fabric.

Panter-Downes draws an astute contrast between the inner turmoil of Laura’s and Stephen’s thoughts and the peaceful nature of the idyllic landscape which surrounds them. Threaded through the novel are beautiful descriptions of the countryside on a hot summer’s day. The sunny is bright, the flowers and crops are flourishing in the fields. England is at peace, the land has survived in all its glory and is set to endure long into the future.

While this subtle novel is imbued with a strong sense of loss, of what has passed and will never return, the story finishes on an optimistic note. At the end of the afternoon, Laura climbs to the top of the local hill at Barrow Down. Enthused by the glorious views from the summit, she vows to reintroduce into her marriage some of the fun and intimacy that has been lacking lately. Stephen too seems ready to embrace a new beginning as he suddenly realises how preposterous it was to have become so dependent on servants for everything in the days before the war. While the couple’s future is left open to the reader’s imagination, the tone is undoubtedly hopeful; a fitting close for this lovely novel, sketched and coloured in an evocative, impressionistic style.

One Fine Day is published by Virago Press; personal copy.

39 thoughts on “One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes

  1. madamebibilophile

    This sounds wonderful! I’m fascinated by the social fallout of war, and the expectation to return to ‘normality’ when everything has changed. I’m off to get a copy this right now :-)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Now this one is in a different league altogether – a brilliant novel, beautifully written. I am confident you will enjoy this a lot more than the Howard!

      Reply
  2. MarinaSofia

    It sounds brilliantly and acutely observed, will make a note of it (not hopeful it is present in my local library). I especially like the comparison of the wife with an old sofa – there is a classic Japanese poem which compares a wife to an old pair of slippers – comfortable, easy to slip into…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It is indeed very acutely observed. What I like about this novel is the way Panter-Downes starts with the Marshalls, then broadens out to paint a picture of a community trying to adapt to life after the war. Each family has their own set of challenges to face (or opportunities to grasp), and she illustrates these so beautifully as Laura goes about her day.

      I was really surprised by the old sofa/comfy furniture references. Laura is only thirty-eight, and yet she views herself as middle-aged! How times have changed…

      Reply
  3. Brian Joseph

    Great review Jacqui.

    Stories of decline usually fascinate me. The fact that this end on an optimistic note is OK as sometimes a decline is not really a decline.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s actually not that distressing or troubling to read in spite of the post-war setting. There’s a real lightness of touch here, similar to that in some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. I think you’d like it a great deal.

      Reply
  4. heavenali

    Lovely review. I really loved this novel too. The subtlety of the writing is perfect, as is the setting. It tells a story that was probably repeated across the country after the war.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved the writing too. It’s sheer perfection, such a lightness of touch. She makes it seem so effortless when in fact it is anything but.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think there’s every chance it will make my 2017 highlights too. I have a collection of her short stories from Persephone, but apart from that there doesn’t appear to be much in print. As you say, it’s a shame she didn’t write more. On the evidence of this she was a huge talent.

      Reply
  5. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. I loved this book – I thought she caught the atmosphere of an English summer so well. I have her other collections which I really must get, because on the strength of One Fine Day they’ll be well worth reading!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Karen. Did you read this as part of your 1947 Club? I forgot to add a link to Simon’s round-up page as it probably lists some other reviews of the book. In fact, why don’t I add that now. Here we go:

      http://www.stuckinabook.com/the-1947club-is-here/

      Yes, I love the final section where Laura climbs the hill at Barrow Down, the sense that the land will continue to endure while the social fabric of the country is changing – just wonderful.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Simon. I’m sure it would stand up to a re-read. Each you say, each scene is so beautifully observed – rich in detail and yet handled with such a lightness of touch. I’m not quite sure how she archives that combination, but it’s very impressive.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      There’s an element Brideshead in the opening chapters for sure, those glory days of privilege before the war – but the writers I was most reminded of were Elizabeth Taylor and Virginia Woolf. There are touches of modernism in Panter-Downes’ style as the focus moves seamlessly between Laura’s thoughts and those of the people she comes into contact with during the day. It’s very reminiscent of Mrs Dalloway. I’m certainly not the first to make that comparison by any means, but I think its a valid one. Either way, I think you would really enjoy this. It’s a wonderful book, beautifully executed.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Caroline. It”s certainly a novel I would recommend to you – I think you’d get a lot out of it. At first, Panter-Downes’ canvas appears quite small, but then she stretches it out to paint a broader picture of the community (and maybe even England in general). As Ali says above, it’s story that was probably unfolding across many areas of the country at the time.

      Reply
  6. bookbii

    Gorgeous review Jacqui. The extracts show a very sensitive writer, and it sounds like the story is quite compelling and, in the end, uplifting. I’ve never heard of Panter-Downes before but she certainly seems like a writer worth looking up.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Belinda. Yes, she is so worth looking up! I thought this was superb, very subtle and accomplished, there’s not a word out of place. I don’t think she’s terribly well known, even within certain literary circles. I only heard about her through other readers, mainly people like Ali and Karen who read a lot of Viragos.

      Reply
  7. 1streading

    I’m torn on this one – a lot of praise and, as you say, a fascinating insight into a particular moment in British history. But I’m not sure I can sympathise with a character struggling to cope with the absence of servants. Is there any sense that life improved for most people at that time?

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I know what you mean about the difficulty in sympathising – it crossed my mind at the beginning of the novel too. But then again, Laura doesn’t feel that same sense of resentment over the loss of the servants as Stephen, so it’s easier to sympathise with her. I identified with her character right from the start – at the end of the day, she’s just trying to do her best in a world where everything has changed.

      I think it’s a little early to see the improvements in post-war life. There are new opportunities for sure — more exciting jobs and a sense of freedom for girls like Violet and Ethel, possibly more money and a better social life for men like George Porter — but it’s a little too soon to see how these things play out. If it helps, I think you’d find it an interesting novel from a stylistic perceptive. The way the author moves seamlessly from one character to another is very reminiscent of Virginia Woolf — Mrs Dalloway in particular.

      Reply
  8. Max Cairnduff

    Very nice as ever Jacqui. The quotes on this one are impressive, that first one is tremendous.

    It strikes me that part of the optimism is there in that first quote. It may be a loss for Laura and Stephen, but not for their former maids. At the same time that doesn’t mean we can’t sympathise with those who lose out even if most gain.

    When was this written? 1947? Is Panter-Downes an author you already knew?

    Don’t rate the cover. All too often publishers seem to decide that books by women with female protagonists are only for women, and in consequence they then give them oddly lackluster and insipid covers. It’s kind of insulting and even if for some odd reason they were just for women why should that mean they get dull covers?

    Ahem, sorry, pet annoyance.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Re the first quote, isn’t it wonderful? I loved it too. Yes, you’re right to point out that there are some optimistic elements right from the start. I guess that’s partly what I was trying to convey in my introduction, the sense that the war opened up new opportunities for some — girls like Ethel and Violet, and men like George Porter — but not for everyone.

      Yes, 1947. I came to her through other bloggers/readers’ recommendations of this book. I can’t quite recall who mentioned it first, but whoever it was knew what they were talking about. (There are links to a few other reviews on Simon’s round-up page for the 1947 Club.) I have a collection of her wartime stories too (published by Persephone). Apart from that, there doesn’t appear to be very much in print.

      Ah, the cover – yes, I share your frustration there. Virago are particularly poor on that front – their current covers for Elizabeth Taylor are equally off-putting, if not more so! (I cannot tell you the looks I got when I suggested Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont at my book group – I had to preface the suggestion with some comments about not judging a book by its cover, etc, etc.) Olivia Manning is another author poorly served by these stereotyped covers, although I think she might be Arrow rather than Virago. Anyway, I know exactly what you mean – they are terrible!

      Reply
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