"It's very unsettling," sighed Christina. "One really doesn't know what to do about things just now."
"What sort of things?" inquired Angela.
"Well, the Flower Show, for one thing. And William is so proud of the dahlias, it would be a dreadful blow if anything were to happen—"
"Oh, dahlias!" retorted Angela scornfully. "My dear Christina, what do dahlias amount to? Now if the Tennis Tourmanet at Cairnderry were blotted out, that would be a rotten blow."
Christina Monroe is the sort of joyless, incompetently bossy busybody who should, for the good of all, be parachuted into the desolate expanse of Antarctica in her nightgown. Or, as her mother (!) memorably puts it at one point, "One of these days someone will murder you, and then we shall have a little peace."
Christina, along with her brother Simon, live with their mother at Culsharg, an impractically large, drafty house in the Scottish countryside. Christina manages the house in her own unique way, while widowed Mrs. Monroe has been driven by Christina's stubborn belief in her mental and physical infirmity into sequestering herself in two large rooms upstairs—only occasionally putting in a hand to influence things when Christina's influence grows too disastrous for everyone involved.
Not too surprisingly, the beginning of World War II (frivolously under discussion in the quotation above) is one of the occasions when Mrs. Monroe must step in to fix Christina's mess. Christina decides that, at all costs, Mrs. Monroe must be kept from the inconvenience of evacuees, so she instead invites long-alienated extended family—out of the frying pan, indeed! Already in the house are Christina's long-suffering brother Simon, Mrs. Munroe's granddaughter, Angela, and her husband Michael—both frivolous and irresponsible, eager to get back to the party scene in India, but blocked by the war, Mrs Johnston the cook (a particular friend of Mrs Munroe's), Effie, the maid, and William, the gardener. Under Christina's master plan, new arrivals soon include Elspeth and Andrew Meiklejohn, Mrs Munroe's sister and brother-in-law ("distinctly a blight"), and their daughter Aily, a classic marriage-hungry Lambert joke butt; Judith Savile, another granddaughter invited with her neglected young son, Timothy; and Jill Meredith, a cheerful, practical young woman send by Judith in her place to take care of Timothy and give Judith her freedom from motherhood. Naturally, disruption and discord result, almost everyone behaves badly, and, as the "Phony War" drags on filled with anxiety and anticlimax, Mrs. Monroe (finally) takes charge and, shall we say, cleans house in classic diva style.
I had a blast with this novel and had trouble putting it down. It's very much in funny, "early days of wartime" mode, but it's also got a rather darker, biting edge to it. Mrs Monroe, though giving the ghastly houseguests their due (not unlike Odysseus) and bringing about happy endings where deserved, is a bit of a battle-axe herself, and her attitudes toward her family may make her a bit of a rough heroine to love wholeheartedly (how did her family get so awful, one might wonder, and does she not bear any responsibility for it?), but she's certainly entertaining to watch in action if you don't take it too seriously. It's also difficult to have a lot of sympathy for the family, and when we see Christina self-righteously herding everyone to the cellar at the sound of a siren (which turns out to be a lonely cow making her desires known), it's easy to see why Mrs. Monroe might joke about her getting murdered. (It's also interesting to note that here, as in many other wartime writings, the decision of whether to retreat to the shelter or stay cheerfully in bed is one that reveals depth of character—the terrible people scurry for shelter, the nobler ones laugh it off.)
By the way, the title of the novel comes from Jill's philosophy in dealing with the uncertainties of war, which struck me as rather appropriate to today's uncertainties:
"Well, there's no time at present," she explained, in a halting fashion as if she were trying to settle a problem in her own mind. "The days come and go, but somehow there is no definite to-morrow. You can't say 'To-morrow we'll do—oh, anything,' but if to-morrow comes and is a day that you can do something and enjoy it—why, that's what I call a 'stolen day'. I seize on it and hold on to it—steal it out of the sort of chaos that the weeks have become."
Here's wishing you all lots of stolen days in 2023!