Regular readers of this curious and ever-changing little blog may recall a little while ago that I went on a tour of the bookshops of London. One of those I visited was Perspephone Books, an outlet of a single publishing label whose aim it is to republish wrongfully-forgotten works, predominantly by female writers of the 20th century. It’s a wonderful aim and rather charming too. This was the book that I picked up while I was there.
Mollie Panter-Downes wrote regular correspndences for the New Yorker magazine in the 1930s and 40s. This is a compilation of short stories that is bookended by a pair of letters. Through fiction, Panter-Downes gives us a portrait of life in Britain during the war.
She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.
The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.
It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr. Craven be meeting for dinner on a regular basis but his wife? It could be seen as a kind of Brief Encounter type affair. The twist is though that Mr. Craven gets called up for service, so his mistress has no means of knowing how he is doing while she also has added anxiety knowing that his life is in danger. The only way she can find out is if she phones his wife…