I bought this book last year, and somehow have only just got around to reading it. Too many books as always. Despite being about life during the Second World War I knew that it would not be a heavy read – and so I took it with me on holiday to Mallorca.
The introduction and afterword provide plenty of information about Mollie Panter-Downes and the context in which these stories came about: they were all published in The New Yorker during the course of the War. Panter-Downes was their ‘writer in London’ and these stories were her way of communicating what ordinary English life was like between 1939 and 1944. Also included in the book are two of her ‘Letter from London’ articles that were also published in The New Yorker – one from 1939 and one from 1944. They bookend the stories and remind us that while these are fictional tales they are based on the realities of civilian life in this period and place.
Mollie Panter-Downes was a journalist as well as writer of fiction and this is demonstrated in the matter-of-fact nature of her storytelling. Her characters live ordinary lives, fully realised, that become extraordinary in one way or another – whether it a sewing group arguing over whether to make pyjamas for Greek troops, or a husband leaving his wife to go and fight. Domestic drama becomes a microcosm of the conflict and change that every country involved experienced during the War. The silent pain of a housewife represents the pain of all those who have lost something.
The fact is that Mollie Panter-Downes was a beautiful writer. One of the reasons I enjoyed this book so much was the pure loveliness of her language, the nuances and the perfectly captured moments. There is great emotional depth in her stories, but it is buttoned up by the characters and their will to ‘keep calm and carry on’. They are so very English in their desire for life to continue and to prevent their world from falling apart.
The story that the book takes its name from,’Good Evening, Mrs Craven’, is one of the most heartbreaking. The woman in question is called ‘Mrs Craven’ by a restaurant owner who doesn’t know she is in fact Mr Craven’s mistress. When he is called to fight she has no way of knowing if he is still alive, and resorts to calling the real Mrs Craven and pretending to be an old friend of her husband, asking if she has had any news. Their conversation is so well composed that it seems real, and you can feel the pain of both women.
Most of the stories focus on the women left behind, but there are men too – those too old or unwell to fight. We see their frustration at not being able to go, and their sadness that another war has come. No one escapes the pain of being caught in this impossible situation, but while these stories are sometimes sad they are ultimately uplifting as a whole. There are moments of humour scattered throughout and the overriding impression is that although life has changed irrevocably, it does in fact go on. The English spirit perseveres and Mollie Panter-Downes reminds us that there is always something to fight for.
The stories in Good Evening, Mrs Craven were originally published in The New Yorker, 1938-1944, and published as this collected by Persephone Books in 1999 and 2008.