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Monday, February 8, 2010

Good evening Mrs Craven: the unexpected triumph of the short story



There was a time when I did not like short stories at all. I found them limiting experiences in which the characters and the themes are never properly developed and all of the substantial parts of a good read are notable by their absence. I very much took the view that reading a short story was a bit like eating custard without crumble. So it is with some surprise and a little embarrassment that I admit that I have now changed my mind. When mastered, the short story form can be as compelling and touching as a novel, and nobody does it better than Mollie Panter-Downes.

“Good Evening Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes” is a collection of short stories originally published in the New Yorker during the second world war. They are now drawn together in the form of a Persephone Classic. The stories were written and published during the war and their focus is the home front. The constant motif is the middle class British lady - knitting socks for heroes, sitting by the wireless and sharing her home with strangers. The character’s concerns centre on the themes of survival and adaptation. For some of them survival simply means staying alive. For others it is the desperate urge to make a relationship, a family, a home live through the war. Together with the dream of survival comes the constant anxiety that accompanies each page: will my world still exist when the war is over? Will I still have a place at the table? Adaptation to the demands of war comes easier to some than to others. Panter-Downes captures marvellously a nation in the act of trying to adapt – it is only natural that some should succeed where others do not. Although these are heavy themes, she writes lightly and with knowing humour.

The stories to which my mind constantly returns are “Cut Down the Trees” from 1943 and “The Waste of it All” from 1944. In “Cut Down the Trees” Mrs Walsingham, an elderly society lady and her trusty maid Dossie struggle through the war in the company of 40 Canadian soldiers who have been billeted in the old lady’s grand home. While Mrs Walsingham is an adapter, the conservative Dossie is dismayed and not a little heart broken by the disintegration of her upstairs downstairs world. When Mrs Walsingham decides to eat in the kitchen instead of the dining room Dossie’s thoughts were that:

“It was all part and parcel of the unwarranted bad joke, the conspiracy against Dossie’s way of life, which they called a war and which had taken first the menservants and then the girls one by one, which had stopped the central heating, made a jungle of the borders and a pasture of the lawns, marooned the two old women in a gradually decaying house with forty Canadians, and made Mrs. Walsingham stop dressing for dinner”.

The seismic social shifts caused by the war are also explored in “The Waste of it All” where a lonely middle class government worker whose husband is away fighting takes in an unmarried mother and her adorable child. As in “Cut Down the Trees” the path of social change is seen through the lens of personal loss and frustration. Frances, the lady of the house is tormented with worry for her absent husband and their marriage. Her affection for the husbandless Margaret and her beautiful baby Raymond quickly turns to resentment and confusion. Frances begins to feel displaced in her own home and she cannot understand how a girl could reject social norms – could taunt the respectable hand that feeds her. The truth is that the social changes which were taking place would never be reversed. Panter-Downes captures a world that has been lost.

The stories of Mollie Panter-Downes illustrate that everybody has to go on living even when there is a war on. They are vignettes of a society busying itself and trying not to think the worst. They acknowledge that most people managed remarkably well as much as they illustrate how nobody can keep up an act all of the time. Their form does not limit the stories – in fact their shortness lends to their power. With these tales the reader hears a resounding clatter of teacups on saucers, the click click of knitting needles and the slow and monotonous moan of the air raid siren. There is, in short, a wonderful sense of time and place. The “short story” part means that there is a sense of society as well. Thank you Persephone for another classic.

17 comments:

  1. I could have written the same about short stories but have just got into them this year, and thus finally read this book! I highly commend the Minnie's Room stories too, but on a wartime theme the Elizabeth Berridge book from Persephone is difficult to beat. And if you want more, then the Dorothy WHipple short stories are IMO fab too :)

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  2. Thank you for leaving a comment on my blog, Hannah. South is certainly an amazing story & I felt I needed to read something cold in the middle of a Melbourne summer. I also love Mollie P-D. Mrs Craven was one of the first Persephones I bought almost 10 years ago & I think they're wonderful. I don't read many short stories but I know anything Persephone publishes will be excellent.

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  4. Sorry! Original message did not make sense upon re-reading!

    I also am not a great short story reader - but aim to change that this year! I think that there can be so much potential in short stories for power and emotion - though for some reason I have been neglecting a massive pool of brilliant literature. And the Persephone ones seem a great place to start to correct this! I would definitely like to try the Mollie Panter-Downes soon - its just the period I am interested in at the moment.

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  5. I read Mollie Panter-Downes London War Notes - her reports for the new Yorker, sadly out of print - last year and they were wonderful. I'm sure her skills as a reporter would serve her well when writing short stories. This is on my shelves and I'm very much looking forward to it.

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  6. Thank you all for your comments - and Verity - thank you for your recommendations - I am very into this period at the moment. I forgot to say in the article that one of my favourite things about short stories is that they are great "handbag reading" - you can whip them out and enjoy a story when waiting for bus...

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  7. I've lusted after that Mollie Panter-Downes book for ages. The mug is also perfect for the read!

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  8. Thank you for posting this and sharing your thoughts. I used to lean in the opposite direction, i.e. when at school I used to love the short-story form. Some say that it requires even more thought and careful crafting than constructing a novel, as you have to get all the elements, characters, timing, etc. spot on in a space of a few pages. As a consequence, I had great respect for the form and there were some (like 'Flowers for Algernon' and 'Seal-skin Trousers') that I still recall years later. Such was their impact.

    Sadly, I fell out of the habit of reading short stories but it will slowly be remedied. I won this book last year in the still-talked about Persephone Week and it awaits reading soon... maybe during the next Persephone Week in May? :-)

    P.S. Love your photo with the mug!

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  9. Your opening paragraph is one I could have written last sping, except that I have not read Mollie Panter-Downs (yet). I must place a Persephone order soon! Love the mug, too - was coveting it in Barnes & Noble yesterday.

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  10. I feel the same about short stories. There are only so few I've read in my life that I thought were perfect. I haven't read this one but will definitely put it on my wish list. You must also try Dorothy Whipple's The Closed Door and Other Stories...also from Persephone.

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  11. Thanks for stopping by my blog today; I appreciate it. Your blog looks great - the colors are especially pleasing. Have fun blogging (I'll be back).

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  12. I love short stories and I think they do get a bit of short shrift - they are great 'handbag reading' as you say - perfect for us commuters! What a brilliant review; I'd love to read these. The literature of WWII fascinates me, especially about women and the home front!

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  13. Thank you everyone for your comments - I love to hear them.

    Booksnob - if you like women/home front world war II themes - I wonder have you read "Mr Fox" by Barbara Comyns. It is one of her lesser known novels but I do recommend it. Happy reading, Hannah

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  14. I'm going to give that Mr Fox book a go :) Thanks for the recommendation.

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  15. Hi Hannah, thank you for your comment on my blog. I am enjoyed perusing yours and wondering how you got so lucky to be living in France!

    I have always felt much the same about short stories. It takes a very special set to win me over, which has happened unfrequently. This is one book that I do own and will try. Great review.

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  16. Hi Tara - sorry for my tardiness in responding. I get to be so lucky to be living in France as my husband is doing an MBA just outside Paris... great fun. Thanks for your lovely comment and for visiting my blog.

    Hannah

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  17. Hannah thanks for following my blog. I am following you now. Your blog is so nice I love the photos you put in your post.

    I chosed this post to comment on because of your mug. My local bookstore is selling them and I was almost tempted to buy it because I love it. I actually think I might buy it this week when I go back to the store.

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