Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 4

Before a trip to England last year, I read a book called London Stories, edited by Jerry White, which, unusually, combined both fiction and nonfiction pieces in one volume. One of the stand-out stories from the collection was Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes, about a mistress whose lover goes off to war; with his increasingly infrequent letters, she must cope with her loneliness and anxieties (such as: what if he was injured or died? How would she ever find out?). It’s such a powerful, poignant story that when I finally arrived in England, I made sure to make my first visit to Persephone Books and came away with two volumes of Panter-Downes’ work, including Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes, which I finished this evening.

With a skillful, light hand, Panter-Downes is able to show us in these stories – written between 1939-1944 – what it was actually like to live in the war. Her heroines are mostly upper middle class women trying to adjust to wartime realities, such as sharing their homes with soldiers and evacuees who aren’t particularly grateful. Her women may have actually found peace by living on their own while their soldier husbands are away, or, in the latter days of the war, find themselves lonely, missing the bonhomie among neighbors when the Blitz was going on.

In The Danger, Panter-Downes writes of Frances, who married quickly before the war, but has grown quite used to her loneliness without her husband:

She became used to the light-clip of feminine conversation, to light eating on trays. When a man came to the house, his voice seemed to roar like a giant’s and the floors seemed to shudder under his unaccustomed tread.

You can feel in these stories a society that suspects, but cannot yet know, that it is undergoing breathtaking changes. Servants will not come back to the big houses after WW2; society will stop shaming (eventually) unmarried mothers; women will enjoy greater degrees of independence. Panter-Downes’ observations are all the more valuable because they show us what was happening at the time, and not with history’s 20-20 hindsight.

Panter-Downes wrote over 850 pieces for The New Yorker between 1938-1987, including short stories, poems, reviews, profiles and more. She only wrote five novels, including One Fine Day (1947), which was the only one Panter-Downes championed throughout her long career. I already can’t wait to read it.

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