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

Mollie Panter-Downes was The New Yorker’s England correspondent for the duration of the Second World War and well beyond. During the war years, she produced a significant output for the journal, comprising a series of fortnightly ‘Letters from London’ and twenty-one short stories (roughly one every three months). Luckily for us, these insightful stories have been collected together in this beautiful edition from Persephone Books, initially issued in 1999.

In essence, these are stories of ordinary British people – mostly women – trying to cope with the day-to-day realities of life on the Home Front. While the war alters the lives of all the characters we encounter here, the battleground itself is elsewhere – off-camera so to speak. Instead, we see women trying to accommodate evacuees from the city, making pyjamas for soldiers overseas, or doing their best to maintain some degree of normality around the home in the face of constrained resources.

Panter-Downes’ style – understated, perceptive and minutely observed – makes for a subtly powerful effect. She is particularly adept at capturing the range of emotions experienced by her characters, from loneliness and longing to fear and self-pity.

In This Flower, Safety (1940), Miss Ewing, a wealthy lady from London, tries to escape the horrors of war by fleeing to a seaside town only to discover that even the most sedate of places can feel somewhat exposed. In her heart of hearts, Miss Ewing knows that her life will never be the same again.

Two or three of the stories touch upon one of the major consequences of war for those left behind – the need for families to accommodate distant relations, friends or evacuees in an effort to do their bit. Somewhat unsurprisingly, this often leads to tensions as individuals from different classes or social spheres try to get on with one another while living under the same roof. In other instances, it is merely a clash of personalities and personal habits.

In one of my favourite stories from the collection, Mrs. Ramsay’s War (1940), the titular character is finding her house guests – the ebullient Mrs Parmenter and her two Pekingese dogs – rather difficult to bear.

‘But how we shall revel in the spring when it comes!’ cried Mrs. Parmenter. ‘There! Don’t their brave little faces give you fresh hope?’ Mrs. Ramsay felt that it would take more than a few snowdrops to give her fresh hope. It would take something really big, like the back end of a Daimler loaded with Parmenter luggage going rapidly towards London. (p. 17)

It’s a beautifully observed story, one that also demonstrates the author’s talent for dry humour and wit. Combined Operations (1942) explores a similar theme as a young couple, whose London flat has been destroyed in a raid, outstay their welcome when they ‘visit’ friends in the country.

Other stories of evacuees, most notably, In Clover (1940), expose the snobbery and prejudices of the upper-middle classes. In this piece, the refined Mrs Fletcher is repulsed by the physical appearance of the Clark family, the dishevelled evacuees she is to accommodate in her pristine home.

She had known that her guests were coming from one of the poorest parts of London and it was natural they should look dingy, but she had imagined a medium dinginess that would wear off with one or two good scrubbings and a generous handout of gingham pinafores. The dinginess of the Clarks, which seemed to have soaked in far deeper than just their skins, was a setback, but Mrs. Fletcher met it with her most charming smile. She even drew one of the children towards her as she talked, and stood with an arm round his bony shoulders, trying not to shudder, thinking that she must take a good hot bath before she went anywhere near the nursery. (pp. 22-23)

Right from the start, it is patently obvious that Mrs Fletcher and Mrs Clark have very little in common. Unfortunately for Mrs Fletcher, her belief that money can solve almost every difficulty one encounters in life proves to be somewhat misguided.

There is a strong sense of loneliness running through many of these stories, augmented by feelings of isolation, inadequacy and loss. Panter-Downes is perhaps at her best when she mines this territory by delving more deeply into her characters’ emotions.

In Goodbye, My Love (1941), one of the best stories in the collection, a young woman must face the agonising countdown to her husband’s departure for war, the clock in the flat a constant reminder of their rapidly diminishing time together. This excellent story comes with a sting in its tail. Just as the woman is coming to terms with the absence of her husband, something unexpected happens – and what should be a happy occasion is instead tinged with anxiety.

It’s the Reaction (1943) is in a similar vein to the previous piece. In this, my favourite story in the collection, a lonely young woman is buoyed by the camaraderie of war when she finally gets to know her neighbours as they take shelter together during the Blitz. However, once the sequence of air raids is over, life in Miss Birch’s apartment block reverts to normal – and when she tries to rekindle the new friendships, Miss Birch soon discovers the fickle nature of relationships, even in times of war.

Mrs Chalmers, if she and Miss Birch met in the lift, said, ‘Do you know, I’ve been meaning and meaning to ring you,’ and at the back of her worried baby eyes and plucked eyebrows, Miss Birch could see the thought forming that one of these days they must really ask the old girl over, fill her up with gin, do something about it. After a while, even that thought disappeared. Mrs Chalmers simply said ‘Hello’ and smiled vaguely, as though Miss Birch were someone she had once met at a party. (pp. 139-140)

Other stories touch on the sense of absence or loss that can characterise a country at war. I loved this line from Fin de Siècle (1943) in which a young couple reflect on their friends’ house – now standing empty and forsaken following the occupants’ departure.

They had gone, and the integrity, the personality of the house had splintered like matchwood. (p.73)

The advent of social change which accompanied the war is another prominent theme, particularly in the later pieces. In Cut Down the Trees (1943), Mrs Walsingham, a member of the English gentry, opens her home to accommodate forty Canadian soldiers in support of the war effort. Interestingly though, it is not Mrs Walsingham who struggles to get to grips with a different way of life, but her elderly maid, Dossie – a woman who remains very fearful of change. In essence, Dossie bemoans the loss of the old guard, the disappearance of the caps and aprons who served the house and maintained order. This new practice of her mistress taking dinner in the kitchen will come to no good; the passing of old traditions and customs is something to regret rather than embrace.

She disliked the innovation intensely. It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner. (pp. 149-150)

In Year of Decision (1944), an upper-middle-class couple try hard to preserve their old rituals however pointless they seem to be. The wife in particular struggles to keep on top of the house, a situation that leaves her feeling both frazzled and exhausted. The husband, on the other hand, longs for the action and excitement of war – instead, he finds himself confined to a Government office on account of his specialist knowledge, a valuable commodity in a time of crisis. In a sense, some aspects of this story feel like a bit of a rehearsal for One Fine Day, Panter-Downes’ wonderful novel about a couple adjusting to a new way of life following the end of the Second World War.

Oher stories in this fine collection feature a young woman facing up to pregnancy and the prospect of motherhood in the absence of her husband, a mistress who realises that she may never discover if her married lover is injured or killed in action, and the various members of a sewing circle as they gossip and bicker about all manner of subjects.

All in all, these are beautifully observed vignettes, shot through with humour, understanding, insight and humanity. Recommended for readers interested in the British way of life in the 1940s.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven is published by Persephone Books, personal copy.

38 thoughts on “Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It’s a very good collection. There’s nothing very showy here, but everything is so very well observed – as one might expect from a writer with an interest in journalism!

        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Ah, I see. Well, this would definitely be a good one for you. While we’re on that subject, have you read Nigel Balchin’s Darkness Falls from the Air? It has one the most atmospheric evocations of the Blitz I’ve read. It’s also an excellent book – a little like Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, but without the overwhelming weight of all that Catholic guilt.

          1. Lisa Hill

            LOL I don’t mind Catholic guilt:) I think that maybe the world might be a better place if people felt guilty about the awful things they do. These days there’s always an excuse and very little contrition.

            I’ll look out for Darkness Falls From the Air, thanks.

  1. A Life in Books

    Lovely review, Jacqui. I’ve not read anything by Painter-Davies but the quotes you’ve pulled out are so good I think I should rectify that. I particularly liked ‘she had imagined a medium dinginess that would wear off with one or two good scrubbings and a generous handout of gingham pinafores’. Perfect!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      She’s a very good writer, criminally underappreciated given her legacy with The New Yorker. (I think she was their London correspondent for somewhere in the region of 50 years.) Either this collection or One Fine Day would be a good place to start. In fact, there isn’t a lot available, so it’s relatively easy to choose!

      I’m glad you liked the line about the Clark children. It’s an interesting little story, one that exposes some of the less than desirable attitudes that were prevalent among certain classes at the time. You really get a sense of how difficult it must have been for various families during those years of upheaval and uncertainty.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’ll like these stories, Karen. While they don’t quite have the stylistic flourish of One Fine Day, they are beautifully observed. Something to look forward to for sure.

  2. Grier

    What a wonderful review! I’ve read and loved One Fine Day as well as her short stories and Letter from England, a compilation of her New Yorker pieces. Thank you for spreading the word about this fine writer.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, you’re very welcome. I’m glad you enjoyed my review – that’s good to hear. I particularly wanted to write about Mollie P-D because I don’t think she gets the level of attention she truly deserves, especially compared to other English writers from the same era. Her profile doesn’t seem to be as high as say Elizabeth Taylor’s or Olivia Manning’s, and yet she was operating in a similar space. I’d like to read her London War Notes at some point…we’ll see.

  3. madamebibilophile

    This sounds wonderful! I have this in the TBR, and for some reason short story collections always seem to get shoved to the bottom of the pile. You’ve inspired me to move this to the top :-)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I have to push myself to read short stories too as my natural preference would be to pick up a novel instead – and yet I almost always enjoy them once I get going. While I was counting the books in my TBR the other night, I discovered that I had 14 collections of stories in the mix, which is probably too many! Anyway, this Mrs Craven collection is great, so there’s no need to be concerned about picking it from your pile. I’d really like to hear what you think of it. :)

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I loved One Fine Day as well. A beautiful combination of style and substance. The way M P-D used Laura’s community to build up a broader picture of a nation adjusting to change was so skilfully done. Like you I was keen to read more of her work after One Fine Day – hence the purchase of this one.

  4. heavenali

    This is such a lovely collection, MPD portrays ordinary people at this time to perfection. I loved both this collection and the peace time stories. I read One Fine Day too which is exquisite. I still have the London War Diaries to read.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I agree. I think she captures these largely domestic canvases so well. Her writing demonstrates a clear understanding of the tensions that can arise between individuals who find themselves thrown together at a time of great change and uncertainty. I couldn’t help but think of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s work as I was reading these stories. There are some similarities between the two, I think.

  5. Caroline

    Wonderful review, Jacqui. I love One Fine Day as well and am pretty certain I like thus as well. The quotes you shared are great. I particularly liked the one about the Parmenter. The sense of humor is wonderful.

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think you’d love these stories, Caroline. They feel so brilliantly observed and true to life; it’s almost as though you’re a fly on the wall just watching everything unfold. There’s a real sense of poignancy and absence in some of the pieces, and yet the dry humour also comes through to add a lighter touch from time to time. That story featuring Mr Parmenter is very amusing!

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, she’s good on that. It’s also done in such a way that the reader can come to their own conclusions about the situation. I don’t think she takes sides if you know what I mean.

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