My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

A few years ago, I read and loved One Fine Day (1947), a beautifully-written novel about class, social change and the need to find new ways to live in the years following WW2. The novel was by Mollie Panter-Downes, an English writer who also acted as The New Yorker’s England correspondent/columnist for the duration of the war. Much of her early work has been out of print for several years; but in March, just as the lockdown was kicking in, The British Library reissued one of the early novels, My Husband Simon (1931), as part of their new Women Writers series. It’s an excellent book, one that brilliantly captures the tension arising from a writer’s desire to pursue her craft during the early years of marriage. 

The novel’s narrator is Nevis Falconer, a promising young author with a successful debut novel to her name. One weekend, while visiting friends in Burnham Beeches, Nevis meets Simon Quinn, an attractive, forceful young man who works in the city. Their attraction to one another is powerful, immediate and largely emotional. Right from the very start, Nevis knows that this will be more than just a casual meeting at a party. Simon has the potential to disrupt her life, forcing her to compromise on the one she has mapped out for herself – that of a writer with a promising career to look forward to. Nevertheless, the passion she feels for him proves hard to resist…

I wanted to get away from this cool stranger who was threatening the neat little plan of my life. That was quite clear from the beginning. I knew that if I married Simon I should have to fight hard for my work and my individuality. His personality was so strong that it might swamp me. Already I knew that he was obstinate and ruthless; that he liked very few of the things that I liked, and was ignorant as a savage about everything that I had been taught to respect. The thought of our life together appalled and fascinated me. (p. 11)

The couple’s courtship is equally swift and passionate. Having stopped off at a pub on the drive back to London, Simon and Nevis spend the night together, vowing to get married in spite of their obvious differences.

Fast-forward three years, and we find Nevis – a brittle twenty-four-year-old by this point – rather frustrated by the constraints of marriage. In truth, Simon detests pretty much everything that Nevis enjoys. He shows no interest in books, or in Nevis’s career as a writer for that matter, preferring instead to spend his time with business contacts and vacuous friends – people whom Nevis cuttingly refers to as ‘Good Chaps’. While Simon adores the countryside, Nevis craves the buzz of life in the city, causing the couple to compromise on their desired living arrangements.

Simon’s family is another source of antagonism for Nevis. In short, she views the Quinns as being somewhat beneath her, both socially and intellectually, their name representing an entire class of society in Nevis’s mind.

London was full of Quinns, eating saddle of mutton at handsome mahogany tables; going up the steps of good clubs and stepping out of quiet, expensive cars; thinking that “art” meant the Royal Academy, and “beauty” was the sort of wishy-washy, rubber-stamp, damageable prettiness that you see on the lid of a chocolate-box. (p. 29)

Simon’s mother-in-law would like nothing more than for Nevis to put aside any silly notions of writing in favour of having a baby – just like her daughter-in-law, Gwen, the gentle, domesticated wife of Simon’s brother, Adrian. Nevis, however, would rather die than live the life of Gwen with its quiet deference and lack of mental stimulation. 

As a consequence, Nevis and Simon’s marriage is a tempestuous one, with the couple oscillating between furious quarrels and passionate reconciliations on a daily basis.

It occurred to me that when we had first met we had circled round each other warily like prize-fighters looking for a weakness in the other’s guard. From the beginning there had been a faint sense of antagonism between us; the antagonism of two intensely egotistical people, neither of whom enjoyed the sensation of giving in. We both had black, unforgiving tempers. When we were not being wildly, ecstatically happy we were quarrelling; there were no tame half-measures with us. (p. 31)

Panter-Downes brilliantly captures the impassioned nature of this young couple’s relationship in a way that feels reminiscent of early Evelyn Waugh. I couldn’t help but be reminded of novels like Vile Bodies and A Handful of Dust as I was reading certain passages of the book.  

As the narrative unfolds, we gain an insight into the frustration Nevis feels at not being able to concentrate sufficiently on her craft. Writing is much more than an occupation for Nevis; in many respects, it is a way of life, one that has been clipped by her marriage to Simon. By now, she has published a second novel, but neither she nor her American publishers feel entirely happy with it. While technically speaking, it is a good book, the promise of her spirited debut is somewhat lacking. Moreover, when acquaintances ask how her next one is going, Nevis responds in characteristically sardonic style, refusing to suffer fools gladly for the sake of social graces.

“When are you going to give us another book, Mrs Quinn?”

I thought drearily, “Oh, hell!” If one happens to be a professional writer, there are always people who make a point of enquiring about one’s new book as though it were a child just recovering from scarlet fever. “How is the new book going?” Anxiety, polite interests, two pounds of the best black grapes. “Very nicely, thank you. We expect it to live now.” “Oh, I’m so glad! That’s splendid!” And, the unpleasant duty over, away the enquirer trips, so relieved, so thankful that the dear little sufferer is out of danger and soon going to appear in a nice new seven-and-sixpenny jacket. (pp. 175–176)

All this is thrown into sharp relief by the arrival of Nevis’s American publisher, Marcus Chard. At forty or thereabouts, Marcus is much older than Nevis, more experienced in publishing circles and the like. He sees that marriage is stifling Nevis’s creativity, smothering the promise shown in her first novel, a situation he urges her to address. As a consequence, Nevis comes to realise that she may have to choose between her marriage and her career, two competing passions that have proved challenging for her to reconcile. There is a sense too that Marcus’s interest in Nevis goes beyond the purely professional; he is attracted to her sharp mind and cutting wit, qualities that prove very stimulating to this American visitor.  

By penning My Husband Simon, Panter-Downes has given us a perceptive exploration of the challenges facing women writers in balancing their desire for creativity against the constraints of marriage. It is also a fascinating examination of the subtle differences in class that dictated the rules of society in the 1920s. The depictions of London life are glorious too.

I have to admit to being a little nervous of reading this one, fearing that it might not be up to the admittedly very high standards of MPD’s later work. However, I needn’t have worried at all. This is a terrific book, one that reminds me a little of Elizabeth Taylor’s debut novel, At Mrs Lippincote’s, which I wrote about here.

32 thoughts on “My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

  1. heavenali

    Really glad you enjoyed this so much. I thought it was a brilliant explanation of a Woman’s desire to write and how marriage could be incompatible with that. It’s surprising that this novel was previously out of print so long.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      It more than lived up to my expectations, I have to admit! Do you know how autobiographical it is? I can’t help but wonder if Nevis contains elements of Mollie Panter-Downes herself. The early success with a novel, the desire for self-expression etc… I don’t know enough about her life to comment with any certainty, but it’s an interesting possibility to ponder.

      Reply
  2. Brian Joseph

    As you describe it, the book is an interesting story with interesting themes. I wonder how many women writers of that era were actually constrained by marriage or other relationships of that era.

    There is also the theme of novels about writers. That one always seems to fascinate.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Quite a few, I suspect. Virginia Woolf certainly comes to mind, particularly with her A Room of Ones’s Own, which I’ve yet to read.

      Reply
  3. A Life in Books

    I’ve yet to see anything but praise for this one. Someone at the British Library publishing arm has a very sharp editorial eye: first the crime list now Women Writers which has got off to a brilliant start.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I suspect the involvement of Simon Thomas (from Stick in a Book) was quite influential here, especially given his knowledge of women writers from this era. It really is a very good book!

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. There’s a definite sense of the creative wings being clipped here. Nevis is such a strong, forthright character, and yet even she finds it difficult to pursue her career in spite of a clear independent streak. I think you’d like this one, Simon – it’s even got your name in the title!

      Reply
  4. kaggsysbookishramblings

    So glad you enjoyed it, Jacqui! It’s a wonderful exploration of how a marriage struggles if there’s no intellectual meeting of minds. And as you say, the class element is a problem too. I wondered if there was any autobiography in there, too….

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, I don’t know enough about her life to be able to say, but the prospect of there being an autobiographical element to this is a tantalising one. Maybe that’s a question for Simon T, given his involvement in the series.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks. I loved it! Any thoughts on how autobiographical the novel might be? (See some of the comments above, particularly from Karen and Ali).

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Very welcome! This was actually MPD’s fourth novel, published 16 years before One Fine Day was released. All the early ones have been out of print for years, so it’s lovely to see this being reissued by the British Library. I think you’ll like it.

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      They are! What’s so interesting about this one is the fact that Nevis is such a strong, independently-minded character with a career of her own. Quite unusual for the time, I suspect, when wives were expected to play a more domestic role than Nevis does here.

      Reply
  5. 1streading

    I’m almost tempted to read this as it seems so against what I’d normally read! I’m not sure I see the class difference here. Is Nevis a different class to Simon? Also not quite clear how Nevis is being stifled – isn’t her husband at work all day? She actually sounds like a bit of a snob…

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Nevis is a snob, particularly when it comes to intellectual capacity. It’s very much something she’s aware of and makes no apologies for! The class differences between her and Simon are quite subtle, I think. They both fall within the broad category of ‘middle class’, but Nevis is upper-middle with the Quinns falling somewhere below. It’s partly related to their differences in intellectual capacity, I think. Nevis feels very stifled by the society’s expectations of married women at the time – i.e. the idea that she should be settling down to a nice quite life of domesticity, managing the household, having babies etc. Not this silly business of writing novels, as far as the Quinns see it…

      I have a feeling you would find this one quite maddening!

      Reply
  6. buriedinprint

    Hahaha, that comment about the scarlet-fever ridden manuscript. I don’t remember feeling that her humour was on display in her short stories to such an extent. Sharp as that is! Of course you would have had me with the concluding comparison to that particular Taylor novel. But I was also keen much earlier in your review. The writer-with-clipped-wings reminds me of an Alice Munro story too. (And one by Audrey Thomas as well, but she’s probably even less well-known overseas than Munro.)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Indeed! There’s an archness here that I hadn’t noticed before in MPD’s other work. Maybe it’s a reflection of the times (late ’20s/early ’30) or MPD’s personality itself? My Husband was written quite a bit before the Wartime Stories/Notes and One Fine day, so that might account for the differences in tone. Either way, I’d be interested in your views should you decide to read it! (Oh, and Audrey Thomas is a new name to me, so you’re probably right about her profile overseas.)

      Reply
  7. Max Cairnduff

    It does sound very good. I haven’t read One Fine Day yet though so I can’t sensibly buy another.

    Out of interest, what do you make of the new cover design? I saw John Smith talking about it online – I think he thought it cramped and a bit ugly but I’ve not seen it in the flesh and others may disagree of course.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      One Fine Day is brilliant – so yes, read that first and see how you get on.

      I think I saw a bit of that conversation on Twitter and would agree with John’s view about it looking a bit cramped. Mostly a problem with the font, I think. It looks too big for the space in the head/bust, which detracts somewhat from the rest of the design. That said, the book itself is lovely to hold and read. High-quality paper, French flaps etc. It’s just a shame about the somewhat crowded nature of the cover design…

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

Leave a comment or reply - I'd love to hear your thoughts

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.