Fiction – print. Persephone Books, 2002. 125 pgs. Purchased.
Subtitled “The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes”, this collection of ten short stories presents the realities and dreams of the British people following the end of the World War II. Each story was originally published for the American publication The New Yorker between the years 1947 and 1965, a follow-up of sorts to her short stories from 1938 to 1944. Those wartime stories were published by Persephone Books in 1999 as Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, which I read in 2014.
In the title story, a young maid Minnie informs her employers that she plans to leave service in order to move into her own room. The family cannot imagine why Minnie would want to leave them, unable to face the reality that the societal and economic order has changed.
The concept of home is also featured in “I’ll Blow Your House Down” (1950) when the economic circumstances of a young widow named Mrs. Baynes is required her to sell the home she and her husband loved. Her distress over the sell comes more acute when she meets the couple and overhears their plans to renovate the house, including tearing down a bellowed chestnut tree.
My three favorite stories in the collection, though, focused on the post-war experiences of the elderly. In “The Exiles” (1947), a retired couple makes plans to immigrate to South Africa due to “the dragon out to gobble their modest, honourable incomes”. The dragon is the post-war taxation regime put in place to fund the rebuilding of Great Britain, and it is both ironic and sad that this rebuilding shifted the couple’s optimism about their future from their home country to South Africa.
In “Beside the Still Waters” (1948), four siblings gathered together at a seaside, convalescent home to discuss the next steps in their mother’s care after the staff informs the family that they can no longer care for the elderly woman. The siblings revert back into their childhood roles, relying on an authority figure and then the eldest among them to make a decision.
Moments of humor mingle with frustration in “The Old People” (1950) when a family holiday to the seaside is interrupted by the antics of his elderly parents. One experiences symptoms of dementia; the other is set in their ways and unable to adjust well to the changing pace of the world around them. Yet, the story ends with a poignant moment that I will hold back from sharing in order to avoid spoiling it.
While fictional, these stories offer a window into the post-war lives of the British people, encompassing the conflicting feelings of being set adrift following great turmoil while still trying to maintain some hope for the future. The collection captures the “stiff upper lip” characterization the Brits are (in)famous for with nearly every story featuring a character examining the hand they’ve been dealt and figuring out a way to muddle through without too much complaining.
Note: The endpaper (above) is a fabric bought at John Lewis in the late 1950s. The Persephone website describes it as both traditional and modernist, “while the sombre colours suit the mood of the stories”.