Good Evening, Mrs Craven

How do I love thee, Persephone Books? Let me count the ways… Actually there are far too many, but main ones include: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, having the prettiest little jewel of a shop on Lamb’s Conduit Street (bluestocking mecca) and most recently, introducing me to Good Evening Mrs Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes. Mollie P-D was the author of the New York Times’ Letter From London from 1939 to 1984. A natural reporter, her weekly column probably did more to inform Americans about the reality of war in Europe than any official dispatch.

This collection of short stories was set and written during WW2 and offers glimpses into everyday life in England during the wartime years. Love, loss and longing, all sketched out with just a few spare, elegant lines evoking the deepest feelings of ordinary people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t express themselves (stiff upper lip, mustn’t grumble and all that.) The  brittle bravery of the heroine who lends the collection her name, Mrs Craven (a bittersweet title as she is actually a mistress) reminded me of the scene in the tea room in Atonement, where the lovers discreetly convey the depth of their passion over stewed tea and stale buns, or the repressed emotion in Brief Encounter, so terribly British, so utterly heartbreaking. Even those ‘Keep Calm’ posters which have becomed irritatingly omnipresent allude to an earlier age where over-sharing really wasn’t the done thing and self-sacrifice wasn’t noble, it was normal. Black humour intermingles with tragedy; the daily irritations that can feel more overwhelming than the really big stuff; this was Mollie’s speciality and her skill lay in infusing those little worries with as much dignity as matters of life and death.

Reading reviews of this book, I was relieved to see that others also struggled to explain exactly why they love it, and worry that they’re not doing it justice. It’s always harder to write well about something you love, but I think this particular book is even more of a challenge because it is such a subtle piece of work. Nothing much happens, the characters often blend into one another from one short story to the next, and it’s all so understated and lelegantly concise I can’t explain exactly what makes it so incredible. Just, y’know, trust me on this one.

There’s a very special group of writers who specialise in painting the lives of women of a certain age in a certain time with sublime skill and they appeal to me deeply. They include: Elizabeth Taylor, E.M. Delafield, Barbara Pym, Muriel Spark, Winifred Watson and now Mollie Panter-Downes. Their writing is observant, wry, dry, funny, poignant and essentially female. Their sphere is almost exclusively the domestic and perhaps this is why they’ve never managed to push their way into the canon – keeping the home fires burning is never going to be as impressive as reporting from the front line. But their writing is so absolutely essential to our understanding of the way women’s lives have changed during the twentieth century in Britain and that is why we owe publishers like Persephone and Virago a huge debt of gratitude for refusing to let them vanish into obscurity and for shouting loud on their behalf.

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phoebe

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.
About phoebe:

Co-founder and co-editor of Pamflet. Bookworm, bluestocking, Brown Owl. Loves Garconnes style, reading, writing, ranting and raving. Gin snob.

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