Good Evening, Mrs. Craven by Mollie Panter-Downes


51b9vrxglql-_sx353_bo1204203200_Fiction — print. Persephone Books, 2008. 200 pgs. Library copy.

Panter-Downes served as the London correspondent for The New Yorker during the Second World War writing the “Letter from London” column, book reviews, and over thirty short stories about English domestic life. This collection – the first for Panter-Downes – contains twenty-one of her short stories and spans the years 1938 to 1944.

The titular story follows a young woman engaged in an affair with a Mr. Craven – the martial status of “Mrs. Craven” conferred upon her by the waiters at the only restaurant they frequent as a couple – and how the war highlights their further separation. After all, the Army will only inform the real Mrs. Craven about the death or injury of Mr. Craven and his mistress will learn nothing consigned to worrying and mourning in secret for her man. This is the most risqué of the twenty-one stories; the rest following the men and women on the homefront as they attend sewing parties, host evacuees sent to the countryside, and worry about food and rationing.

Some stories are more intriguing than others, but all paint a picture largely forgotten during wartime of the starkness and worry that painted life on the homefront. One woman is put down her family for becoming pregnant so soon after her wedding because they worry stress of living in London during constant air raids will harm her unborn child, and her community often reacts negatively to the image of her walking around town carrying her gas mask in a cardboard box. Another resents the intrusion of a woman and her children from the city into her home because they fail to clean up to her standards and denies a young woman and her child a home after the first family leaves because she cannot stand to have guests any long.

This is not the comradery and idolization of women and children presented in propaganda posters reprinted in history textbooks or in museums and, from that standpoint, Panter-Downes’ collection of short stories provide an interesting read. There is nothing particularly captivating about these vignettes of life on the homefront, though, so I doubt these sweet stories will leave an impression upon me past the rainy afternoon I spent reading them.

Note: The endpaper (above) is a 1941 cotton called ‘Coupons’ and shows women’s clothes against a repeat of 66 — the number of clothes coupons allowed a year during the war — with the number needed per item. I read the novel as issued by Persephone Classics (right) so the endpaper in my copy was grey-scaled.


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