Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes

26 February, 2011

You may or may not recall that I’ve only read two Persephone books so far, one of them being Mollie Panter-Downes’ wartime stories, Good Evening Mrs. Craven, which I enjoyed very much. So looking through my collection of seven unread Persephone titles, I could not help but be drawn to her post-war stories, ten of which are collected in Minnie’s Room. I also chose it because it’s a slim volume and I wanted to make sure I could actually finish one book during Claire and Verity‘s Persephone Reading Weekend!

The stories published between 1947 and 1965 range from a tale of a cherished cook leaving her employers for a room of her own, economic emigration, the realisation of ageing parents, living in a more austere climate to love across the class divide.

I think the striking thing about Panter-Downes’ stories is her tight focus on the everyday, and what some may call the mundane things in life, which take on a greater significance in the years after the war when people’s lives are returning to normal yet with profound changes and adjustments. What also is striking is her wit and sense of humour which is abundant in the stories even though most of them are melancholic and deal with themes of death and adjustment. However, I don’t want to put you off the stories, because Minnie’s Room isn’t depressing. They are full of realisation and hope and you get a real sense of the scale of changes from the simple to the dramatic that affected people’s lives after what, to many, must have been a difficult and traumatic war.

Like in all short story collections, there are a number of stories that stand out more than the others. In this collection, I particularly liked the titular story Minnie’s Room, Intimations of Mortality and Their Walk of Life. Each was different with Minnie’s Room reminding me of Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, although in Minnie’s case it is her promise to herself that ‘if she had not married by the time she was forty-five, she intended to leave private service and take a room of her own somewhere. The family had laughed occasionally about Minnie’s room.‘ Naturally her employers, the Sotherns, are devastated as Minnie is a first-class cook who still produces wonderful meals in increasingly austere times and has been with them for 25 years. They cannot grasp why she would want to leave their comfortable home to go and live south of the river in a small, rented room and each family member tries to convince her otherwise. It’s probably a situation that still plays out in our society today where some people cannot grasp the idea that freedom is much more precious that a comfortable living.

‘A room of her own!’ Mr. Sothern was saying angrily. ‘Hasn’t she a room here, perfectly decent and comfortable? she must have gone out of her mind!’ Yes, wailed Mrs. Sothern from the bed, Minnie was plainly demented. How could she keep herself on her own, for one thing? ‘By daily cooking,’ growled Mr. Sothern, and there was a stricken silence. It was an unfurnished room, he added, in a district too far from Bayswater to make it even possible that Minnie would come to them by the day.

In Intimations of Mortality, a child remember her nurse, Kate, who looked after her for 8 years and recalls a trip into an unfamiliar London to visit Kate’s sick relative.

Her London, I discovered, was not all beautiful. Dickens was still close in those days, it seems to me now, and so were Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty. I knew none of them then, but I was glad of the warm feel of Kate’s hand when we stepped out inot the labyrinth of streets where I had learned, alas, that even a Celestial City has its sad citizens.

We rattled away through the crowded streets, past the shops, the black old churches sitting squarely among their black tombstones like hens over a clutch of sooty chicks, ann the rows and rows of ugly little houses.

And there, in a tiny, grubby house, the child experiences ‘the odours of death and poverty – a part of the sinister air of London – seeped into my lungs for the first time.

And she sees a side of Kate that is a stranger: ‘What was more, she was talking so rapidly and had slipped insto such an easy, rough accent (as a French-woman who has beent alking French with great precision out of kindness to your dull ear suddenly, and with relief, starts rattling away incomprehensibly to a compatriot who has entered the room) that I could not follow much of what she was saying.

Although it is only for a fleeting moment before the child is absorbed back into her comfortable life, we have glimpsed a London that is chaotic, grimey and poor, a London from which Kate has escaped.

Their Walk of Life is a lighter story where a couple struggles to accept their daughter’s choice of husband.

Their hopes had crashed round their ears almost audibly, so resounding was the shock. Naturally, they had expected Rosalie to marry. she was an extremely pretty girl of eighteen, who took after Christine, but in Rosalie everything in the picture was bright and new. … Everything about her glistened delightlyfully, like a leaf on a fresh summer morning. … It had not occurred to him to look for his future son-in-law in a ditch, which was where he remembered last seeing George Tupper; one day not so long ago as he was drivng along the road toward his office.

But it’s a warm tale for when finally meeting the prospective in-laws, who are also unsure of this alliance, they realise the choice is not theirs to make.

Mollie Panter-Downes certainly has an eye for detail, especially her observations of people. All in all, a satisfying read. Now, what Persephone title to read next!

5 Responses to “Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes”

  1. I’m thrilled that you enjoyed this, Sakura, and in time for Persephone Reading Weekend!

    Lovely observations about Mollie Panter Downes’ focus on the minute detail of everyday postwar life. I read One Fine Day recently and it is one longer version of the same.

  2. Bellezza Says:

    I’m particularly interested in war time stories as so much of our world is at unrest (to say the least!); I feel I need to prepare myself, somehow, for the trials that must be endured when one’s country is at war. Also, I like so much to read of characters whom I can admire. I gave this book to Colleen, of Col Reads, and she seems to be enjoying it as much as you. Thanks for the wonderful review!

  3. […] Sakura reviews Minnie’s Room, the much overlooked sister volume to Mollie Panter-Downes’ wartime stories, commenting on “her tight focus on the everyday, and what some may call the mundane things in life, which take on a greater significance” in peace-time. […]

  4. Brilliant review! You make me want to buy this one next!

  5. I like the quotes you’ve chosen from this one. I’ve only read the Wartime stories: clearly I’ve been missing out!

Leave a Reply

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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: