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

5 May, 2010

I know, I know, so many of you lovely participants of the Persephone Reading Week hosted by Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at The B Files must have already read this book, but I always seem to lag behind in the trend stakes. But it’s my first Persephone (although I did purchase it in September last year) and I’m excited! Emerging from a seriously crap week as we said farewell to our beautiful and funny dog Puccini who passed away after 11 wonderful years leaving us all heartbroken, I had all these reading plans for the Bank Holiday which went down the drain. But I’d promised myself I’d read at least one Persephone this week and I chose Good Evening, Mrs. Craven purely because it was a collection of short stories (and I am a lover of all stories short) and it was a slimmish book.

I started reading it yesterday and you know what? Slowly, the pain unknotted itself and by the time I was halfway through I was feeling warm again. I didn’t really expect this reaction because I knew the stories chronicled the lives of women left behind during WWII. But Mollie Panter-Downes‘ stories were warm, funny and bittersweet; showcasing feelings we’ve all had albeit in situations we’ve only heard about through stories and TV. Some stories touched me more than others, but I liked that they varied in length and were snapshots of everyday scenes and people, some familiar and some not so.

The stories that touched me the most were Fin de Siècle, Good Evening, Mrs.Craven, Goodbye, My Love, Combined Operation and It’s The Reaction. I admire Panter-Downes for the way she can flesh out a character with only a few words. They weren’t cardboard cutouts, but real, breathing, quiet and enduring, just like people we know. And some of the stories reminded me strongly of Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch (I will one day stop going on about this book, promise.) The everyday niggles, the irritating habits people have which magnify uncontrollably in close quarters made me laugh out loud. And the cameraderie people experienced during the Blitz, neighbours talking to one another and getting glimpses into lives which otherwise they could only imagine, which slowly died away once it was over felt so much sadder and reminded me that the human condition is the same everywhere and in whichever era you live.

This was a beautiful book, and the Persephone edition is so lovely to handle, I’m definitely going to check out Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. This was a definite hit for me. And it surprised me to learn that Panter-Downes (who was British) worked for the The New Yorker for over fifty years but was relatively unknown in the UK.

And talking about Persephone’s, I only realised when I looked at the title page that this book was first published in 1999! I didn’t even realise Persephone Books had been around for so long, especially since I used to hang around that area as a student. Mind you, I used to live just down the road from Charles Dickens’ house and only managed to visit it last year (after which I dragged my parents to the Persephone Bookshop which left them very impressed.) My mother has made it her habit to swipe all my Persephone bookmarks when she’s in town. Can’t blame her when they’re so beautiful.

So now, the question is, what should I read next: Someone at a Distrance by Dorothy Whipple, Family Roundabout by Richmal Crompton or A Very Great Profession by Nicola Beauman? I find myself leaning a little towards the third title.

19 Responses to “Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes”

  1. Nymeth Says:

    I’m so so sorry to hear about your dog 😦 I lost one of mine back in February and the pain is still quite raw 😦 Big hugs.

    I read this last weekend and our list of favourite stories very much overlaps. And like you, I was reminded of The Night Watch – a book I very much blame for my interest in domestic wartime stories.

  2. amymckie Says:

    I am loving the posts about the Persephone books. They all sound great. This is the second review I’ve seen for this book and you have definitely added to the desire to read it. The collection sounds very intriguing.

  3. chasing bawa Says:

    Nymeth: I remember. It’s hard, isn’t it? But thank you.

    I actually finished reading this in a day (really rare for me now as I seem to be easily distracted) which made me happy too. It seems we have similar tastes!

    amymckie: It’s a wonderful collection. I’m enjoying reading all the reviews too, although it’s very unhealthy for my wishlist! You find titles that you would never have considered before.

  4. Firstly, Sakura, I am so sorry to hear about Puccini 😦 The loss of a beloved pet tears one apart.

    Secondly, thank you for participating in Persephone Reading Week! Great review.

    Persephone celebrated their tenth anniversary last year. I hope to see you in the shop on Saturday before the meet-up!

    Definitely go with the third choice although be warned: it will add to your wishlist exponentially.

    P.S. One Fine Day is a novel by Mollie Panter-Downes that you may like published (and still in print) by Virago.

  5. Iris Says:

    I added this book to my wishlist after reading Ana’s review of it, but you certainly added to my desire to read it!

    I am sorry to hear about your dog.

  6. chasing bawa Says:

    Thanks guys, it’s getting easier.

    Claire: It’s a pleasure! I was gutted I couldn’t participate last year so was determined to read a couple of books this year. I’ve already started A Very Great Profession and it’s so interesting. I love reading about women writers. I will see you at the bookshop on Saturday, can’t wait! And I’ve put One Fine Day on my wishlist.

    Iris: It’s dangerous reading all the reviews, isn’t it? I’m going to want to read so many books after this week is done.

  7. Verity Says:

    I’m sorry about your dog 😦

    But I’m glad you enjoyed this book and that it’s inspired you to seek out Minnie’s Room – I loved both of those and I’m not a short story person at all. And like Claire I would also warmly recommend One Fine Day.

    I hope (health permitting) to be at the shop too on sat.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      It will be nice to finally meet you on Saturday. Looking forward to it. Thanks Verity.

      I think that the stories differing in length was also a great way to keep readers interested. You could dip in and out depending on your mood. Of course I read it in two sittings, but that’s just me.

  8. JoAnn Says:

    Between this and Ana’s review earlier this week, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven is very close to the top of my Persephone wish list. I’m planning to order a couple of books at the end of the week (one will be by Dorothy Whipple) and I think I’ve just settled on the second.
    So sorry about your dog – I know how hard it is to lose a beloved pet.

    • chasing bawa Says:

      Thank you JoAnn. Persephone Reading Week is going to be bad for my wallet! I’m already excited about what I’m going to choose when I next visit the shop. This was my first Persephone and I can’t believe that I didn’t try it earlier. But it was worth the wait. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

  9. Aarti Says:

    I love all these Persephone posts! I have been trying to find the books in bookstores by me, but no luck. I wonder if the library has them…

    I clearly need to read The Night Watch. It’s on my shelf!

    • chasing bawa Says:

      You must! But don’t have too high expectations because that might have a detrimental effect on your reading (you know, reverse psychology and all) but it’s brilliant (not helping, am I?) I hope you find some Persephones in your library.

  10. I love how reading all these reviews is making me more interested in all of the Persephones, even the ones I didn’t think I’d be interested in at first. My favourite WW2 domestic life novel is The Lost Garden by Helen Humphreys, it’s set in the British countryside, about some girls who are in the Women’s Land Army and are supposed to be growing potatoes for the war effort. It’s got some lovely poetic writing. She’s also written one called Coventry, also about WW2, but I haven’t read that one yet.

  11. Mystica Says:

    I am so sorry about your dog. An old dog is part of a family and I can imagine how you feel.

    I am following the different blogs re Persephone Week. My knowledge of the books being read was zero so at least I am learning something new. The list of books and the mini reviews on the books read has been very good (and enlightening)

  12. chasing bawa Says:

    afewofmyfavouritebooks: Me too. Thanks for letting me know about Helen Humphreys. I haven’t heard of her but I will definitely check out her work.

    Mystica: Thanks, Mystica. Everyone has such a passion for the Persephone books that reading the posts is both enjoyable and enlightening. It’s amazing when you find a whole range of books you knew nothing about.

  13. I’m sorry, Sakura, that’s such sad news.

    I’d second the mention of Helen Humpreys: The Lost Garden was beautifully written. Here’s a quote from it: “Every story is a story about death. But perhaps, if we are lucky, our story about death is also a story about love.”

    • chasing bawa Says:

      That’s an incredibly poignant quote. Am adding it to my wishlist. Thank you!

    • Hooray, another Helen Humphreys fan! I didn’t think she was that well known. For a while, The Lost Garden was my absolute favourite book, it expressed what I was feeling at that time so clearly. I pulled my copy off the shelf, thinking of writing about it, and saw some of the pages were starting to come loose! 😦

  14. […] Opinions: She Reads Novels, Things Mean A Lot, The Book Trunk, Hannah Stoneham’s Book Blog,  Chasing Bawa, BooksPlease, My Porch,  A Book A Week, Savidge Reads, Buried in Print, The Bosten Bibliophile. […]

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