Monday, January 16, 2012
Good Evening, Mrs Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes: Review
Mollie was the wartime correspondent for The New Yorker. Her "Letters from London" let Americans (and the rest of the world) know how the people were coping with the stresses of war. She also wrote fiction for the periodical during the same time period. These short stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes give one the sense that they are as informative to the reader to what was happening in the country as the letters were.
Where the letters give facts and a general sense of things, the stories get more personal. Each of the 21 stories are quite brief. She rations her words the way she might ration butter. The characters' worries and fears, hopes and wishes permeate every sentence. I had the feeling when I read the stories that I was peeking in the windows of these people's homes. The stories are in chronological order which gives the reader a sense of the psychological and emotional impact the war is having. At first, the characters are nearly excited in their preparations for the war. There is a sense of urgency as they get down to business. Later as the war progresses into it's fourth year, excitement gives way to a tiredness, a wanting to get the war over with so life can carry on. Not life as they knew it, they know that it's too late for that but something other than fear and hunger.
As expected of Brits at the time, there are few emotional outbursts from the characters. Tears at the most. They really did "Keep Calm and Carry On." Told mostly from an upper-middle class point of view, the class separation is evident. In the story "In Clover," a woman lets evacuees from London stay in one of the buildings on her property. Right away she comments on their shabbiness, the behaviour of the children, the appearance of the mother. After some time the family must get the feeling they are not wanted, they return to London before the Blitz. On the other hand, the lower classes can be just as snobbish. In "Cut Down the Trees," a landed lady enjoys the camaraderie of the Canadian soldiers staying on her property while her housekeeper is scandalized by her behaviour. She doesn't realize, as another character in another story says, "that they were bang in the middle of a social revolution."
It isn't all grit and hardship. Mrs Ramsey and her sewing circle appear in two separate stories. The ladies take on politics and local matters make for cringe-worthy yet hilarious results. There is a sly wit in Panter-Downes's stories. In "Combined Operations," a couple take in friends only to find that circumstances make their situation too close for comfort. Invasion of personal space seems to be a theme in her stories.
While stories of war tend to be about men and the battlefield, Good Evening, Mrs Craven shows that battles are won on the home front too. Women worry about their men and children and do the best they can not only to get through these times but do their part. It's an interesting piece of history. I just wish there had been more. A full length novel from some of these stories would have been lovely.