Daily Archives: February 22, 2012

‘Good Evening Mrs Craven’ by Mollie Panter-Downes

203 p. 1999

I admit it: I was attracted to this book by its cover ( a topic discussed in Sue’s Whispering Gums blog recently). I picked it up, noted that it was a collection of short stories written during WW2, and conscious that I should really be doing some ‘proper’ reading, put it back on the shelf.  “Damn it! There’s plenty of time for the thesis!” I thought the next day and promptly borrowed it.  There’s not really plenty of time, but I’m glad that I did borrow it after all.

Mollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker. Between 1939 and 1945 she wrote a fortnightly “Letter from London” – 153 of them at 1500 words a week, as well as 18 long articles and twenty-one short stories. She also wrote five novels, all of which she disowned except her final novel One Fine Day, which was republished in 1985.

This is a collection of the wartime short stories published in the New Yorker, and they reflect her journalistic bent: who, what, when and where; with an optional why and how.  To meet the constraints of the magazine short-story, they are of a fairly uniform short length (about 9 or 10 pages), and I often found myself wishing that they were longer.

Think O.Henry meets Midsomer Murders.  Nearly all of these stories are set among the rural upper middle class, and mostly from womens’ perspectives.  Her characters are not evacuees, but the rural host families whose houses and larders are stretched by slum families, stiffly uncomfortable in strange settings, or by fey elderly and wealthy spinsters, who drift from one distant relative to another.  Many of the women are alone. Some are in adulterous relationships, where the pain of separation is just as acute but publicly unacknowledged.  They are the women of the Ladies Sewing Circle; they are often hungry in a most lady-like fashion;  some cling tightly to the past while others are liberated by the social changes that war has brought.

And so we have one story about the painfully slow last days, hours, minutes counting down before deployment; or another story about a mistress distraught that her lover may be killed and that no-one would know about her in order to convey the news.  They are slices of life, quickly and deftly sketched, sharp and affecting.  In a word: I loved them.  Because the milieu remained the same, it was easy to finish one story and turn to the next, and one or two characters appeared in more than one story.  They are arranged chronologically, as the war moves through different phases, and the collection is bookended by her Letter from London that marked the beginning and the end of the war.

Perhaps I’m turning into a short-story reader after all.  I gobbled these up so avidly that I’ve borrowed a collection of her Letters from London as well. After all, there’s plenty of time for the thesis…isn’t there?

My rating: 10/10 (yes!)

Sourced from: La Trobe University Library

Read because:  there’s plenty of time for the thesis (not).