May 4, 2010

Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes collects twenty-one short stories originally published in The New Yorker between 1939 and 1945. As Gregory LeStage says in the preface, these are mostly stories about “ordinary English women who did not fight in the war, but lived through it as acutely as any soldier.” They’re stories about how the Second World War affected ordinary lives, about its unacknowledged personal costs, and about the many social changes it brought about.

In “Goodbye, My Love”, we’re told about a woman’s efforts to pull herself together and resume a normal life (or as normal as possible) after her husband is sent away, only to… well, I won’t tell you what happens at the end. In “War among Strangers”, the mistress of the house and her housekeeper share a moment of intimacy when they talk about their fear for their children, who have been sent to Singapore and California, after the USA declares war on Japan. In “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”, the protagonist is constantly anxious because she knows she can’t really expect to receive news form the man she loves. The War Office, as she says, is not in the habit of sending telegrams to mistresses. And in “It’s the Reaction”, an unmarried middle-aged woman misses the air-raids because they gave her the opportunity to reach out and get to know her neighbour. Sadly, this newly-acquired intimacy quickly vanishes once the Blitz is over.

These are only a few of my favourites, but all the stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven are extraordinarily good. Mollie Panter-Downes is mostly known for her work as a journalist, and I think this shows in her style. Her stories are brief and careful observations of a particular moment or situation. While rich characterisation and psychological insight are not absent, they’re mostly implied: we feel what the characters are feeling because we can easily imagine ourselves in their shoes. Mollie Panter-Downes takes the “show, don’t tell” rule to heart, and the result is very powerful indeed.

Although there’s a lot about Good Evening, Mrs Craven that is painful and dark, I wouldn’t describe this as a bleak collection. There are moments of comedy among the suffering caused by the war, and very often the stories’ subtle irony helps counterbalance their darkness. These are rich, rewarding and engaging pieces of storytelling, but their sociological relevance is of course equally worthy of note. These stories document social changes we now take for granted just as they were beginning to happen: changes in the roles that were available to women, for example, or the dissolution of class barriers – as well as the unsettling impact these things often had even in those who would benefit from them: in “Cut Down the Trees”, an old housekeeper laments the fact that the gentry will no longer stay in their place. For better or worse, the only world this woman had ever was vanishing, and this had a psychological cost.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven documents the kind of civilian wartime experience that isn’t often acknowledged: the camaraderie that resulted from the war and how it was inevitably missed by some, the constant hunger and food-obsession that resulted from rationings, the relief that some women found in a life that allowed them more freedom than they ever had before. These emotional experiences were often silenced, and were likely the cause of much guilt. But they happened, and so they deserve to be written about. I’d urge anyone interested in books like The Night Watch, Henrietta’s War or Julie Summers’ Stranger in the House, just to name a few, to get their hands on this remarkable collection as soon as possible.

A few favourite passages:
Before the war cut her life so sharply in two, Miss Ewing had washed the china cupids herself, with her sleeves rolled high on her thin arms and her diamond rings in a little pile beside the basin. Now that she had discovered the important truth that her flesh was as brittle as theirs and far more precious, the safety of china cupids had become irrelevant.
(“That Flower, Safety”)

Most of all, thought Ernestine, the talk for which Don seemed so hungry was different. There was no conversation that wasn’t about the war. People talked only of themselves, their jobs, their bombs, their version of Don’s new “we”. She tried to remember what they had talked about before the war. She couldn’t. All those good evenings belonged now to the sociologists, the scholars of the future browsing among the remains of the doomed thirties.
(“Fin de Siècle”)

They had got really close, like old friends in those talks in the stuffy corridor, listening subconscious for the warning scream, the sudden hole in the air, the slow glacier of bricks and mortar slipping into the street below. Now he was only a man who took off his hat politely in the lift and said ‘Evening’ before fumbling for his key, going in, and shutting his front door.
(“It’s the Reaction”)
Other Opinions:
Leaning Towards the Sun
Chasing Bawa

(Have I missed yours?)

33 comments:

  1. I thought these were fascinating stories - her Peacetime stories are also extraordinarily good - a wonderful depiction of Britain, if you come across them

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  2. It's amazing to me how you manage to find so mnay good books that are related to WWII. Another add to the wishlist.

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  3. Verity, I'd certainly like to read her again, so I'll keep that other collection in mind. Have you read her London War Notes? They also sound fascinating.

    Iris: In this case, Claire and Verity found it for me :P I was lucky enough to win this book during the first Persephone week last year.

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  4. I like post war and pre war and during the war stories and this fits the bill. Thank you for highlighting.

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  5. I started to read this collection at the tail-end of last Persephone Reading Week but it wasn't the right time/ I didn't have the required level of concentration (I remember being exhausted at the end of the last event!)

    Is the first story “Fin de Siècle” about a woman who meets and old, male friend in a restaurant? All I have retained is a tight dress and something to do with plastic...

    I will pick these up again.

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  6. I've read literally dozens of books relating to WWII, but I don't think I've ever read about the women back home. I love to get all different perspectives. Once again, you have introduced another gem to us that I have never heard of! Nice review!

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  7. This sounds neat! So many stories like these get lost in old newspapers that it's nice to know some get preserved :)

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  8. This is a great review. I'm enjoying reading the collection. I find myself thinking about these small stories at the oddest times.

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  9. A wonderful review, and a book already on my wishlist... how will I ever choose what to order at the end of the week?

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  10. This is on my bedside table and I am looking forward to it all the more now. Thank you!

    I do recommend the London War Notes. So vivid, so compelling, I really cannot understand why they are out of print.

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  11. I love stories like these. I know those who actually do the fighting in a war suffer the most, but those left behind suffer too, and it's nice to see that acknowledged.

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  12. What an awesome collection! I really need to start finding a way to read short story collections. Like maybe reading one story a day until the book is done. I have so many collections on my shelf.

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  13. The New Yorker is pretty reliable with their short story selection, so no surprise that this is a good collection. Thanks for the introduction!

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  14. I was lucky enough to win a copy of this last year during Persephone Reading Week. I decided to put it aside for this year's event, so I'm glad to hear it was such a rewarding read!

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  15. Sounds like a really great collection. This reminds me of the book you reviewed a bit ago, Singled Out, in that it explores the effects and emotions of the women. Very neat!

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  16. I am fascinated by stories of this kind, and had no idea that this book was even out there! It sounds like a great collection and one that I would really like to read. Gosh Nymeth, every time I stop over here there is a review of another book I just have to have! By the way, I just ordered a copy of the book on Victorian London that you featured last week. I am really looking forward to it!!

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  17. This sounds great, particularly "It's the Reaction". I haven't seen a lot of stories that deal with that particular phenomenon, the loss of disaster-time closeness between people, but it's an interesting thing to write about.

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  18. Okay, I've just bought this one. I shall move it up to the top of the pile.

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  19. I've really enjoyed your reviews of books on the home front during WWII. This sounds like another great one. I REALLY need to get cracking on Persephone books!

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  20. That sounds amazing, I should just add the complete Persephone Classics to my list! :)
    It is so interesting to read about how the war(s) affected the people left at home, especially the women´s stories. I think this is an important part of what made me enjoy The Nightwatch so much (which is much much easier to get my hands on than the Persephones! :) ).

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  21. One book I already have waiting for me. I can't wait. I remember also reading a review of this one by Danielle and really sounds like a great read.

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  22. I really must start reading some short stories! Seems like I've been missing out on some great ones.

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  23. You've definitely piqued my curiosity on this book, Ana! Especially when Singapore is being mentioned in one of the stories! :P

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  24. I’m so glad you reviewed this book- I LOVE reading (and occasionally writing) short stories! Definitely adding this one to the list :)

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  25. I admit, when I heard there were a number of Persephone "war stories" I discounted them as something I was not interested. It sounds like I was wrong. This sounds lovely. If only I could get Persephone books via my library!

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  26. Mystica: As do I :)

    Claire: I can imagine how exhausting it all must have been for you and Verity! That story is Date with Romance, the first one in the collection and probably the one that impressed me the least (though I did like it).

    Sandy: It's only very recently that I've started to read these books too. It seems that they've been getting more attention in recent years, which makes me happy.

    Ladytink: Yes, it's wonderful that these were reprinted.

    Amanda, I'm very much looking forward to your review!

    JoAnn: I completely understand your dilemma!

    Fleurfish: Oh, what a pity they're out of print! I hope I can find a used copy.

    Kathy: Yes, exactly.

    Amanda: Normally short story collections work better for me of I read them slowly, but these, perhaps because they're thematically collected, read almost like a novel. I finished the whole thing in only two days and it didn't feel tiresome at all.

    Elisabeth: Yes, I agree - it's hard to go wrong with The New Yorker.

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  27. Steph: That's how I got the book as well! I look forward to hearing what you think of it.

    Amy: This was a perfect follow-up to Singled Out, and also Stranger in the House. I can't get enough of these books!

    Zibilee: I so hope you enjoy Victorian London! And also this, if and when you get to it :)

    Jenny: Isn't it? I would love to see a whole novel about those situations. I bet they happened a lot.

    Shonna, I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

    Aarti: Yes you do! And thank you - I enjoyed reading them too :)

    Bina: lol, I suspect that I should as well. And you know, I can trace by interest in domestic wartime stories directly to The Night Watch.

    Iliana: I think you're going to enjoy it a lot :)

    Emidy: I don't read them nearly as often as I should myself.

    Melody: It's only a brief mention, but it did make me think of you :)

    Lua: I really do too, but for some reason I've been really neglecting them of late. Perhaps I'll stop now :P

    Rebecca: They're definitely not the usual kind of war story!

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  28. I've read nothing from the civilian perspective during WWII. This sounds like a good one.

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  29. I was surprised at how warm and funny most of the stories were, even though some of the situations were rather bleak. And her observational skills were truly extraordinary. There didn't seem to be a wasted word. Great review, as usual, Nymeth!

    As you can probably tell, I'm just catching up on all your posts.

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  30. Oh, this sounds delightful! I like a mix of warm and dark stories, and the sociological aspect of war greatly interests me. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention. I've linked to your review on the Book Reviews: WWII page on War Through the Generations.

    --Anna
    Diary of an Eccentric

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  31. Loved it, too- as you know! :) Great review!

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  32. I'm very interested in all the books that you've recommended in this post. I'm going to put them into my list and will get them soon. Thanks again! This book does sound like the type I'd definitely read!

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  33. Show, not tell is definitely for me! I've been very interested in this, but so much more that you loved it. Her other collection sounds wonderful as well.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.