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.

#ProustAlong

Author (and friend extraordinaire) Neil Griffiths is considering doing a #ProustAlong this year. Let him tell you about it here. If you’re interested, let me know below or tell him on Twitter or YouTube.

Proust is just one glaring omission in my reading history, so I’ve committed to reading the first book. But I’d like to spend the year trying some other significant omissions, like Dostoevsky,  or Middlemarch and The Bell Jar.

Who are the authors you want to finally try in 2016?

Mrs. Dalloway’s Party

I’ve been curious about participating in the #WoolfAlong on Twitter, but hesitant about joining in Jan/Feb because I’ve already read Mrs. Dalloway five times and To the Lighthouse three times. While I could read and enjoy them both every year, I don’t want to dull their impact. I value the ability to come to them in fresh delight and wonder over parsing them in a deeper, more academic understanding.

I decided instead to read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party, a series of seven stories written around the same period as Mrs. Dalloway. The stories begin before the party starts, with Mrs. Dalloway buying gloves in Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street (indeed, Woolf originally intended this to be the first chapter in Mrs. Dalloway) and Richard Dalloway inviting an old friend he bumps into in Deans Yard to the party that night (The Man who Loved His Kind).

These two stories are fine, but it’s in the next five stories, which take place at Clarissa’s famous party, that Woolf’s genius most shines through. Each story pins and dissects the psyche of a different guests, laying bare their vulnerabilities and desires.

  • In The Introduction, Lily Everit, proud of the high marks on her essay on Jonathan Swift, watches her achievement dissipate when faced with the arrogance of the insolent Bob Brinsley.
  • In Ancestors, Mrs. Vallance compares the partygoers to her beloved family and comes away enraged by their superficiality.
  • In Together and Apart, a Mr. Serle and Miss Anning momentarily connect when they realize they share a similar warmth and nostalgia for Canterbury:

Their eyes met; collided rather, for each felt that behind the eyes the secluded being, who sits in darkness while his shallow agile companion does all the tumbling and beckoning, and keeps the show going, suddenly stood erect; flung off his cloak; confronted the other. It was alarming; it was terrific.

  • In The New Dress, Mabel arrives at the party only to realize the dress that she’d had specially made is wrong, all wrong, and can’t overcome her humiliation. “She felt like a dressmaker’s dummy standing there, for young people to stick pins into,” Woolf writes. But Mabel isn’t all self-pity,  as when she thinks of  her dressmaker, Miss Milan:

… Miss Milan pulling the cover over the canary’s cage, or letting him pick a hemp-seed from between her lips, and the thought of it, of this side of human nature and its patience and its endurance and its being content with such miserable, scanty, sordid little pleasures filled her eyes with tears.

  • Sasha Latham of A Summing Up, the final story in the collection, is a different kind of guest:

She walked rather like a stag, with a little give of the ankles, fanning herself, majestic, silent, with all her senses roused, her ears pricked, snuffing the air, as if she had been some wild, but perfectly controlled creature taking its pleasure by night.

  But even Sasha is a traditional Woolfian character, subject to insecurities and the wax and wane of her moods, as we watch her heart overflow with love and humanity one minute, then her vision crash to despair the next.

I’d read Mrs. Dalloway’s Party as a substitute for Mrs. Dalloway or To the Lighthouse, but these stories just reminded me of the brilliance of the novels themselves. Perhaps it’s time to revisit To the Lighthouse, after all.

Ophelia’s parry

I’m reading Hamlet for the first time in over 20 years. Shakespeare’s women never impress me – least of all Ophelia – but in all the productions I’ve seen, I’ve never quite noticed her perfect reply to Laertes’ advice to stay chaste – and steer clear away from Hamlet. Would that there were more lines like this!

Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles, like a puffed and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

– Hamlet (1.3.48-52)

An interesting aside: I’m also reading Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. Shortly after I posted the above lines, I read his chapter on Ophelia, which begins:

“We first encounter Ophelia in a familial context, with her departing brother Laertes and her father Polonius alike warning her not to yield her person to Hamlet. ‘I shall obey, my lord,’ she gently says to her father, and so her strategy is already in place.”

The Swan

I’ve started The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, the first book of Rilke’s I’ve ever read. I’m amazed at how similar it is to ee cummings. But the poem below, about gracefully accepting the possibility of death, stopped me in my tracks.

I often say that I like, but don’t love, poetry (Eliot excepted). If The Swan is any indication, this may change soon.

(An aside: the translation (by Stephen Mitchell) in the sixth line (“Like anxious letting himself fall”) seems awkward. Robert Bly’s version makes more sense (“when he nervously lets himself down”), but the rest of his translation seems clumsy, inelegant.)

The Swan

This laboring through what is still undone,
as though, legs bound, we hobbled along the way,
is like the awkward walking of the swan.

And dying –  to let go, no longer feel
the solid ground we stand on every day –
is like anxious letting himself fall 

into waters, which receive him gently
and which, as though with reverence and joy,
draw back past him in streams on either side;
while, infinitely silent and aware,
in his full majesty and ever more
indifferent, he condescends to glide.

To start a new year

Things to Think

by Robert Bly

Think in ways you’ve never thought before.
If the phone rings, think of it as carrying a message
Larger than anything you’ve ever heard,
Vaster than a hundred lines of Yeats.

Think that someone may bring a bear to your door,
Maybe wounded and deranged; or think that a moose
Has risen out of the lake, and he’s carrying on his antlers
A child of your own whom you’ve never seen.

When someone knocks on the door, think that he’s about
To give you something large: tell you you’re forgiven,
Or that it’s not necessary to work all the time, or that it’s
Been decided that if you lie down no one will die.