Mollie Panter-Downes is probably best known for her long-running “Letter from London” column in The New Yorker. But her writing also included novels, poetry, and short stories, with most of her short works also being published in The New Yorker. This Persephone collection includes 21 of her stories, all published during World War II.
In the introduction to the collection, Gregory LeStage notes that Panter-Downes saw herself first and foremost as a journalist, and this attitude comes through in her stories. These are observational stories, focused on the characters’ actions and sometimes their thoughts, but with little interpretation. They are straightforward in style, but readers must often read between the lines to understand the situation. So, for example, in the story “In Clover,” we note this observation about Mrs. Fletcher, a woman who hosted a family of London evacuees, the Clarks:
There didn’t seem to be a disinfectant invented that could drown the Clark smell of grinding, abject poverty, very different from the decent, cottage variety with a red geranium on the window sill, which had been the worst Mrs. Fletcher had encountered up to now.
We aren’t told that Mrs. Fletcher is classist or biased against the urban poor, but an entire story filled with complaints about the Clarks, along with the word “decent” in the quote above, gives a strong idea of what sort of woman Mrs. Fletcher is.
Many of the stories concern themselves with the clash between urban and rural or between families in close quarters during the evacuation. Couples who got along well find it impossible to live together, women who enjoy peace and quiet cannot handle the disruption of a family with small children, and people with different ideas of what’s appropriate all must find a way to manage under one roof. This common home-front struggle gets more attention than battle casualties or Blitz deaths, perhaps because these were precisely the stories that Panter-Downes knew her American audience was not finding in the news.
This is very much a home-front book, focused on day-to-day issues that come with the massive upheaval of war. Panter-Downes takes these struggles seriously, but she doesn’t miss the opportunities for humor. The stories are arranged in chronological order, and they get more series as the war goes on. The early stories often are about adjusting to new conditions and the latter about the weariness of years of coping with these no-longer-new conditions.
These are excellent, finely crafted stories that give an interesting glimpse into ordinary lives during an extraordinary time. However, my own taste in short stories tends toward the more unconventional and experimental (Jon McGregor and George Saunders). And so these will not stand as favorites for me, although I can see their value, appreciate Panter-Downes’s talent, and am glad to have read them.