I've realized, with some surprise, that I still haven't written here about one of my favorite sub-genres of writing by British women writers: fiction, stories, and diaries about life during World War II. It dominated my life for at least a couple of years, and I still return to it regularly.
So I thought I'd rectify that with some thoughts on one of my favorites, even if it will be one of the less obscure titles I discuss (thanks to Persephone).
I’ve never been very interested in most men’s writing about the war, which tends to focus on the heroics and horrors, the physical and emotional traumas of battle, the nobility and patriotism, while the ordinary experience of life fades to black. Since ordinary life is exactly what I find most interesting to read about, it's not surprising that war stories aren't my cup of tea. And perhaps that’s actually the key—in war stories there are far too few cups of tea (and too little of the chat that accompanies a nice cuppa)!
But I remember reading Philip Ziegler’s hugely entertaining history, London at War (1995), which relied on the archives of Mass Observation (that organization that literally had eavesdroppers in public places making notes about the morale of Brits throughout the war) to provide a “you are there” glimpse of the ordinary experience of London life during World War II—the Blitz, the gas masks, the air raids, the food shortages, the blackouts, and all the rest. A short while after that, I came across Persephone’s reprint of Vere Hodgson’s riveting wartime diary, Few Eggs and No Oranges, and I was hooked.
I’m still a bit surprised by the plethora of works by women published during the war, many of them dealing with life on the home front (though there was also a vogue for historical novels for those who wanted to escape from the present). Several years later, I’ve barely passed beyond the tip of the iceberg of researching and reading them. Indeed, many of them have been practically (and some perhaps totally) lost to the sands of time, since limited wartime print runs and low quality paper have taken their toll. But it seems that there must have been novels by women writers published every week during the war.
In fact, that plethora is rather interesting in itself in what it says about the realities of publishing and reading during wartime. People have always tended to read more during wars (at least until the domination of television and films), in order to escape from or to process the traumatic world around them. But readership of literature during the world wars—at least in Europe—tended to consist more of women than men, since mobilization was unprecedented. “Women’s literature” must have became particularly crucial in providing strength and inspiration—or outlets for anger and frustration—for the women who were “keeping the home fires burning.”
Somehow, I think World War II writing also provides strength and inspiration to me, which is part of the appeal. It's hard to feel like your boring morning commute on a crowded train, or a stressful day at work, or a long line at the grocery store, are truly tragic when you're reading about people dodging bombs, getting buried alive, losing homes and loved ones, and still making it to work the following day…
Mollie Panter-Downes had, perhaps, an “easier” war than many, since she had the comparative luxury of a steady, well-paying job with The New Yorker throughout and beyond the war. Her husband was in the Gunners, which was understandably a source of anxiety, but Panter-Downes herself resided outside the main areas of bombing, in the Surrey countryside near the town of Haslemere—though she did make frequent trips to London to find material for her weekly New Yorker “Letter From London.” She had an exclusive contract with the magazine, with the result that the twenty-one stories collected in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven all originally appeared there during the years 1939-1944.
The stories are light, quick reads—Austen-esque tales of (mostly) women without men, dealing with problem servants, sewing clubs, and irritating refugee house guests, relocating to avoid bombs, trying to find enough food, or yearning for the return of normality. The earlier stories, from the beginning of the war, are often hilarious. From “In Clover”:
It was overpoweringly evident that Mrs. Clark was again—expectant, Miss Vereker delicately phrased it to herself, without noticing that the word didn’t fit in very well with Mrs. Clark’s air of dully awaiting a blow over the head with a blunt instrument.
In “The Battle of the Greeks,” a women’s sewing club is making clothes for soldiers and listening to Mrs. Peters gossip about her husband’s cold extremities in bed at night (“one might as well put one’s feet up against a frog”). When a member suggests they send a batch of clothes to the Greeks, who have just joined the war, Mrs. Peters “held up the pair of trousers she was making and regarded them with a frown, as though meditating what it would be like to put one’s feet up against a Greek.”
Later stories have a more somber edge, permeated with a tired endurance. In “Goodbye My Love,” a wife endures the first hours of her husband’s departure for war: “The next two days were bad. Ruth felt that the major operation had come off but that she still had not come round from the anesthetic.”
But what makes the stories so richly worthwhile is Panter-Downes’ sharp concision, her ability—perhaps learned from the journalistic need to keep a word count always hovering in the back of her mind—to sketch out her characters and their sometimes petty conflicts in a way that not only makes the characters leap off the page but shows even their pettiness in a striking light, suggesting the deeper anxieties and stresses that lie beneath.
In “As the Fruitful Vine,” two newlyweds spend only a few days on honeymoon before the husband goes back to war, after which the wife discovers she is already pregnant (“It seemed less like a marital than a botanical incident, the result of a chance brush between a bee and a flower”). Lucy meditates with dark humor on pregnancy in wartime:
In her mother’s day a pregnant woman spent a good deal of time on a sofa, thinking beautiful thoughts and resolutely avoiding unpleasant ones; people took care not to speak of anything shocking or violent in front of her. Nowadays shocking things turned up on the doorstep with the morning paper; violence was likely to crash out of a summer sky on a woman who could move only slowly and who was not as spry as usual at throwing herself on her face in the gutter.
It’s also striking how savvy Panter-Downes was in observing the permanent changes the war would bring to British society and the upper classes. In “Cut Down the Trees,” the narrator observes with irony that Mrs. Walsingham’s elderly maid Dossie “sincerely believed that the big house, quietly chipping and mouldering above its meadows, would be instantly repopulated [after the war], as though by a genie’s wand, with faceless figures in housemaid’s print dresses, in dark-blue livery and gardener’s baize aprons.”
As Gregory Lestage notes in his introduction, more British civilians were killed in World War II than British soldiers. Mollie Panter-Downes, among many other chroniclers of Life During Wartime, makes a strong argument that the domestic front has just as much to teach us (and just as much to entertain us with) as any military front.
Panter-Downes was also the author of a novel set in the immediate postwar period. One Fine Day (1947) is still in print from Virago and is much loved by many readers, though I have to confess I’ve tried twice and never managed to finish it. My notes on my last attempt begin with, “Life is just too short.” But it bothers me when others love a book that should be so right up my alley (it’s a sort of tribute to Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, one of my favorite novels, in addition to its insight into postwar—and, in flashbacks, wartime—conditions), so I will probably have to give it another whirl one of these days.
I’d also like to check out one or more of Panter-Downes’s four earlier novels, The Shoreless Sea (1923), The Chase (1925), Storm Bird (1929), and My Husband Simon (1931). Panter-Downes herself was such a perfectionist that she disowned all of them, but they were successful in their time—indeed, The Shoreless Sea, published when she was only seventeen years old, was a highly-publicized bestseller—and would be interesting as predecessors of Panter-Downes’s best work, if nothing else.