Tuesday, May 01, 2007

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

This was published by Persephone Books, but unlike some Persephone titles, which are reprints of books published long ago, this is a new collection of previously uncollected short stories. Mollie Panter-Downes wrote for the New Yorker for many years and is better known in US literary circles than she is in Britain (though I was not familiar with her work). All these stories were originally published in the New Yorker magazine, and most have never been reprinted since their original publication during WWII.

The stories are tiny gems. Each is no more than a few pages long, and all of them are funny, sharp, and entertaining. The stories progress chronologically through the war years, providing trenchant observations about domestic life, relationships and the increasing hardships faced by those on the home front. Panter-Downes was first and foremost a journalist; in addition to these stories she wrote (among other things) a series of Letters from London, reporting on the war, which were also published in the New Yorker and which I believe were collected into a volume published in the early 1970's, edited by William Shawn. The stories in Good Evening Mrs. Craven are just as legitimate a form of reportage as any non-fiction article and indeed they illuminate delicate issues that are harder to report upon in a non-fiction format, such as the subtle class conflicts that occur when a middle class matron must provide housing for working class evacuees. Panter-Downes is brilliant at satire, and can say so much in so few words. These stories would make wonderful examples for new writers about how to use language and description with economy and elegance.

Persephone has also collected Panter-Downes' peacetime stories which deal with the social changes that occurred in the postwar years. That collection is entitled Minnie's Room.

Persephone customers receive a free subscription to the Persephone Quarterly. I just received my first issue of this and it made wonderful bedtime reading. I'm longing to attend the upcoming Tea at Great Maytham Hall, near Rolvenden, Cranbrook, Kent to celebrate Persephone's release of The Shuttle, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Great Maytham Hall is the setting for The Shuttle, but it also is the home of the walled garden that features in The Secret Garden, one of Burnett's most famous books (and one of my favorites). This event will take place on June 20, alas, without me.

(Book 17, 2007)


Anonymous said...

Happy Birthday Becky!!!

Anonymous said...

Very interesting review, thanks. Although short stories aren't my preferred genre, I'd like to read these as I'm interested in 20th C women's writing generally. There's quite a well established Persephone thread on the Chicklit website, with some interesting comments. Here's the link, it's under Book Bundle. http://www.chicklitforums.com/ubbthreads.php

Anonymous said...

Becky, are these Persephone Books only available in England? I've been dying to get hold of F.H. Burnet's "Making of a Marchioness" ever since elaine raved about it on Random Jottings.

Becky Holmes said...

Susan, you can buy the books directly from Persephone's web site using your credit card. They cost 10 pounds each, and the shipping is 4.50 pounds. This comes out to about $25 for one book, maybe a bit less. It's a bit expensive for a paperback, but they are really beautiful books, and the titles are not available anywhere else. Shipping is fast, too. I got my book a little more than a week after I ordered it.

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