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.