And here we find ourselves on the eighth Persephone title as I try and read one a month in the order they have been published, and this month it is a re-read for me. I have to say I am not the biggest fan or re-reading books, I always worry that favourites might fade whilst being equally mindful of the fact that there are sooooo many books I have yet to read I should keep reading the new. In the case of Mollie Panter-Downes collection of wartime stories Good Evening, Mrs Craven I am really pleased I re-read them, as whilst I liked them very much last time, I enjoyed them even more this time around and appreciated them far more too.
Persephone Books, 2008 (originally from 1939-1944), paperback, short stories, 203 pages, bought by my good self
I always find summing up a collection of short stories a tricky business. In the case of Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Night, Mrs Craven the link is in the subtitle The Wartime Stories. Yet unlike many a book you might find yourself reading set in the Second World War, Mollie takes the focus away from the front and looks at the people who were, and still often are, in the main overlooked. In particular she focuses on the women of the time, many of whom are left to watch the war go by – some through choice and some through circumstance and the way society was at the time.
As you read you meet women who are ‘doing their bit’ by housing evacuees, housing relatives they don’t really like, forming groups making things for the troops and also the women who simply want to hide from it all. Not once throughout the stories does Mollie Panter-Downes judge any of them, making martyrs out of those who are doing all they can nor making those who want to run away cowards or villains, she just seems to want to tell you about them and the times in which these women find themselves.
What Mollie Panter-Downes does, in every single story, is make the women you meet (or their situations) really interesting and more often than not gives them a twist. You might have some tales you would expect; women famously falling out and bickering as they make pyjamas for the Greek Army in Battle of the Greeks, or having to endure evacuees who aren’t grateful In Clover, or worse in-laws you don’t like This Flower, Safety. You also get tales that give a different spin on things; women who are pregnant during the war and seen as carrying doomed children of the future As The Fruitful Vine, or simply a woman who never thought she was bothered about food and then becomes obsessed with it The Hunger of Miss Burton.
Ever since food began to get a bit tight, Miss Burton had carried a wolf around with her under the neat waistband of her tweed skirt. Sometimes she felt that it wasn’t one wolf only. It was a whole wolf pack cutting up in the vacuum at the back of her grey herringbone. Before the war, she couldn’t remember thinking much about food, but now she thought about it constantly.
It is tales like the latter where simple everyday things happen with the war there in the background that I found this book so effective. As war breaks out between Japan and America, a woman almost comes to blows (down the phone) with her husband, another woman goes back to see a former love for the nostalgia of it. With twenty one stories in this collection I could go on and on. I should mention though that it isn’t all women who are the focus of the stories. We have some of the men who couldn’t fight the war for various reasons, one who seriously wishes he could and almost mourns the fact he can’t, too.
I think Mollie Panter-Downes writing is astounding. I really remember liking it last time but this time I loved it. There are the wonderful, often rather quirky, characters some of whom, like Mrs Ramsey, Mrs Peters and Mrs Twistle, keep returning in and out of the stories which helps build the consistency of the world Panter-Downes describes as they run from 1939 to 1944, the tone changing slightly as the book goes on. She can bring a character to life in just a mere sentence or two and the brevity of her tales and how much they make your mind create is quite astounding.
One of the Pringle girls had been wedded and widowed and was now Mrs. Carver. Neither of them was likely to see fifty again, but Pringle girls they remained, their girlishness rather ghoulishly preserved, like the dried flowers and pampas grass that rustled in the draught from the drawing-room.
Panter-Downes is unquestionably a master of prose, in a single sentence she can deliver and say so much. These are just a few of my favourites; ‘in a mood of fine old nostalgia, well crusted on the top and five years in the wood’, ‘wearing a dress so flowery that many foiled bees buzzed angrily around her’ or ‘not forgetting to shoot her the tender, killing glance which made her see what a charmer he must have been, even after that pony broke his nose and the Afghan bullet took a nick out of one eyebrow’ and ‘With difficulty escaping from Gerald’s stomach, which seemed to pursue the conversation like some particularly active octopus, they chatted about theatres.’Again with there being so many wonderful stories and so many examples in each one I could go on and on again, but I won’t.
I shall simply say that having re-read Good Evening, Mrs Craven I have reassessed this collection and, over four years (and over 500 books) later, I don’t just think that this is a brilliant short story collection, I would go as far as to say this is a collection of mini-masterpieces – I think it shows that we become all the more discerning and delve deeper the more we read. In this collection there are a wonderful and vivid gamut of views and outlooks throughout WWII, and not with the normal drama involved of the front, but a quieter drama and one that will have you laughing hysterically and then being deeply moved by. If you haven’t read these short stories then I simply insist that you must, they are not to be missed.
I am really, really looking forward to reading Minnie’s Room; The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, when I get to the 34th Persephone book. Before that there are many others to come, next up is Few Eggs and No Oranges: the Diaries of Vere Hodgson (the biggest Persephone published so far) which covers the same time period but I think is going to have a very different feel. We shall see. Have you read Good Evening, Mrs Craven and if so what did you make of it? Which books have you re-read and loved all the more the second time around?