Review 1781: Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A woman feels as if some evacuees have taken over her home. The Red Cross sewing party is enlivened by arguments between the good-natured Mrs. Peters and the bloodthirsty Mrs. Twistle. A woman bravely faces her husband’s deployment and then is devastated to find he hasn’t left yet and she has to face it all over again. A couple finally gets rid of their evacuees only to have an acquaintance ask for room in their house. A man who has been working in a ministry feels guilty about not joining up.

These are a few of the stories about ordinary people during World War II that Mollie Panter-Downes published in the New Yorker. They are slice-of-life stories, although most of them have an upper-class perspective, of changing social conditions, of changes in everyday life, of people keeping a stiff upper lip.

I was surprised to learn from the Afterword that Panter-Downes, a prolific British journalist, short story writer, and novelist, was much better known in the United States than in Britain because she published almost everything in the New Yorker. So, even though she wrote hundreds of short stories, her legacy was almost lost in her native country.

Ordered by when they were written, this collection provides an insightful look, beautifully written, at the lives of ordinary people during the war.

One Fine Day

My Husband Simon

To Bed with Grand Music

Review 1757: To Bed with Grand Music

To Bed with Grand Music opens with Deborah Robertson in bed with her husband Graham swearing perfect fidelity before his deployment to Cairo during World War II. Graham more honestly doesn’t promise that but says he won’t sleep with anyone that matters. At first, Deborah contents herself at home, but when, in her boredom, she begins snapping at her little son, Timmy, her mother suggests she get a job.

Her mother is thinking about a job nearby in Winchester, but Deborah makes arrangements to visit a friend in London, Madeleine, and see about a job there. Intending to go home on the evening train, she ends up getting drunk and spending the night with a man.

Shocked at herself, Deborah is determined to stay home, but she has a talent for convincing herself that what she wants to do is right, so it’s not too long before she turns down a job in Winchester only to take a lower-paying one in London. From there, she begins a career of connecting with men of increasingly higher rank.

Deborah is definitely an antihero. She starts out selfish and nervous and becomes deceitful, amoral, and avaricious as she goes on. Her faint motherly instincts become almost nonexistent. This is an insightful, sardonic character study of a particular type of woman.

The Victorian Chaise-Longue

A Fugue in Time

Vanity Fair

Review 1734: Effi Briest

Effi Briest is sort of a German version of Madame Bovary. It seems that the last half of the 19th century was a big time for novels about unfaithful wives. However, whereas Anna Karenina was a call for improvement in women’s rights on this issue, Effi Briest seems to accept the unfairness of the laws and societal mores. Nevertheless, I liked this novel more than Madame Bovary, which is more of a character study of a stupid woman.

Effi is only sixteen when the Baron von Instetten, an old suitor of her mother, comes calling. Within an hour, he proposes marriage and is accepted. The Baron is a civil servant, and after their marriage, he takes her home to a seaside village in upper Pomerania. The house is dark and depressing and reputedly haunted. Society is limited, and Effi, who is a gay person who likes to enjoy herself, finds only one congenial inhabitant, the local chemist. The women she has to socialize with are commonplace or spiteful. Effi feels neglected and unhappy.

After the birth of her daughter, the Crampases arrive. Major Crampas is an old schoolfriend of the Baron and a known womanizer. (I wonder if his name’s resemblance to Krampus is a coincidence, considering the Germanic origins of that character.) Although she tries to avoid it, Effi is drawn into an affair with him. When her husband gets a posting to Berlin, though, she is happy to leave and put it behind her. But it is not behind her at all.

I liked the character of Effi very much, but she is the only one in this novel who is fully drawn. The others just seem like placeholders for their actions, except for Rollo the dog. Also, the harsh reactions of everyone when they find out about the affair, even though it is long over with, seem even more extreme than Karenin’s in Anna Karenina.

Even though this novel is 20 years more recent than Anna Karenina, having been published in 1895, it has a much more rigid and judgmental message despite Effi being a sympathetic character. As a person, I liked Effi better than silly Emma Bovary or naïve Anna Karenina, but I found the novel a bit punitive. Fontane was reacting in it to a story he heard of a similar event in which he was struck by the lack of surprise or dismay expressed by society at the harsh treatment of the woman involved, so he is combining an approach to our sympathy with Realism in this novel.

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Review 1706: Milton Place

Milton Place is sort of an update of King Lear—set in the 1950’s. It is partially drawn from de Waal’s experience and is one of two novels published posthumously.

Mr. Barlow, the elderly owner of Milton Place, receives a letter one morning from Anita Seiler. She is the daughter of a girl he fell in love with long ago in Austria, but unfortunately he was already engaged. Anita tells him that she no longer has ties in Austria and would like to come to England, asking him to recommend her to someone for work. He writes back inviting her to stay.

His daughter Emily is a busybody who thinks it’s time he sold Milton Place and moved somewhere smaller where he can be more comfortable. It’s true that the place is cold and shabby, but Mr. Barlow is comfortable in the few rooms he uses and loves his garden. However, Emily is already setting out on a plan to have the county request the house for a home for unwed mothers. When Emily hears about the new house guest, she is certain that Anita is after her father’s money.

Anita and Mr. Barlow get along beautifully, and he wants her to stay. She feels uncomfortable staying as a visitor, so she begins cleaning all the vacant rooms and making the house more cheerful.

Things change, though, with the arrival of Tony, Mr. Barlow’s beloved grandson, on break from university.

One plot line of this novel bothered me a bit. I want to be a little mysterious about it, but my difficulty hinges on how adult an 18-year-old boy is. I admit there is probably a difference of opinion on this, that clearly in the novel there is, and that this idea changes over time. That is, an 18-year-old of either sex is now considered less of an adult than they would have been then, and then less than 50 years before.

This caused a problem for me, but I found the novel beautifully written and affecting.

A Thousand Acres

King Lear

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance

Review 1702: The Two Mrs. Abbotts

The Two Mrs. Abbotts is the third Miss Buncle book. Barbara Buncle is, of course, one of the Mrs. Abbotts, and the other one is Jerry, the wife of Barbara’s husband’s nephew. It is 1942, and Sam, Jerry’s husband, is serving in Egypt. Jerry has allowed an army unit bivouacked on her property to use her kitchen.

The novel begins with a pleasant coincidence, for the dreaded Red Cross lecturer that Barbara is supposed to host turns out to be Sarah, an old friend. Sarah accompanies Barbara to a charity bazaar where the famous author Janetta Walters is appearing. Barbara’s husband is Walters’ publisher, but he doesn’t much like her books.

This novel has a rather meandering plot that checks in with old friends and introduces new ones. There are some funny scenes with Barbara’s children, Simon and Fay, and the novel spends some time with Markie, Jerry’s old governess turned housekeeper. However, much of the novel deals with what happens after a young man pressed into attending tea with Janetta Walters tells her he doesn’t like her books, but he’s sure she could write good ones.

The Buncle books are good fun, with appealing characters, humor, and a lot of fluff.

Miss Buncle’s Book

Miss Buncle Married

Mrs. Tim Gets a Job

Review 1669: Young Anne

Young Anne is Dorothy Whipple’s first novel but unfortunately is the last one I’ll be reviewing, because I’ve read and reviewed them all. Like many first novels, it is at least somewhat autobiographical.

We meet Anne at age five and see her again at eleven and eighteen before the bulk of the novel when she is an adult, but these ages are enough to get to know her. At five, she is prone to misunderstand her parents. Her father is severely critical of her while he spoils his oldest son. He is a martinet, and Anne becomes defiant of him as she grows older. Her mother doesn’t care about anything happening in the household.

As Anne gets older, she becomes quite naughty, but she is sent away to school because she laughs at her father while he is singing. This is shortly after she destroys her father’s copy of Boswell and knocks all the berries off a holly bush while getting carried away playing schoolteacher.

As a young woman, Anne loses her father, and the household is broken up. She is sent to live with her Aunt Orchard, who constantly complains about her ingratitude. Her only comfort is the maid, Emily, who has always been her staunch supporter and follows her to work in Aunt Orchard’s house. That and her friendships with Mildred and Mildred’s cousin George.

I found the character of Anne very appealing as she, in her straightforward way, has trouble navigating in society. Some of the scenes, especially with Mildred’s kind but social-climbing mother or the one where Aunt Orchard reveals her true self to the rector, are quite funny. This novel seemed true to life and was sometimes very touching. I liked it a lot.

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Review 1623: Miss Buncle Married

How delighted I was to find out there are actually three Miss Buncle books, since I so enjoyed the first one. This second book continues in the first one’s gently comic, frothy tradition.

Barbara Buncle, now Mrs. Abbott, and her husband Arthur discover that neither of them has been enjoying their active social life. There seems to be no way to get out of it, however, because they’re such a popular couple. So, they decide to move.

It takes Barbara quite a long time to find a house she likes. When she visits a solicitor’s office in Wandlebury to view a house, Mr. Tupper, mistaking her for another client, has her read a will in which Lady Chevis Cobbe leaves her estate to her niece, Jeronina Cobbe, on the condition that she isn’t married before Lady Chevis Cobbe’s death. When Mr. Tupper discovers his mistake, he is horrified and asks Barbara to tell no one.

Of course, Barbara discovers the perfect house in Wandlebury, and after extensive renovations, it makes a comfortable home. Shortly after moving there, Barbara meets Jeronina Cobbe, who goes by Jerry. She is an industrious young woman who has been running her own stables to keep afloat financially and is worried about her brother Archie. Archie has been living beyond his means because he thinks he is Lady Chevis Cobbe’s heir.

Barbara and Arthur have been enjoying their new home immensely when Barbara discovers that Arthur’s nephew Sam has fallen in love with Jerry. So, without telling anyone about the will, Barbara feels she must keep the two apart until ailing Lady Chevis Cobbe dies, so as not to deprive Jerry of her inheritance.

If anything, I enjoyed this novel more than I did Miss Buncle’s Book. It’s a lot of fun.

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Review 1573: One Woman’s Year

I was delighted to receive One Woman’s Year from Persephone Press as a review copy. I hadn’t heard of Stella Martin Currey before, but I shall be looking out for her books.

One Woman’s Year is a journal but with a very specific structure. Each chapter is for one month and begins with a quote from a 1677 book called British Merlin, which seems to be a sort of almanac. Then there is an article on some subject, often related to the month. Following this are the following sections: ‘Most Liked Job,” “Most Disliked Job,” “Recipe,” “Excursion,” and “Anthology.” The short pieces often contain amusing anecdotes. “Excursion” is always a suggestion of an interesting outing to make with children, and “Anthology” is quotes from books and poetry. All this is nicely illustrated with woodcuts at the beginning of each chapter and elsewhere.

Although Currey is a lot more domesticated than I am, I found this book light and easy to read. I skipped over most of the recipes but may try others. All in all, I found this book charming, quick to read and entertaining. She sounds like a good mom.

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My Latest Haul

Last month I was busy writing to publishers to request review copies of their newest books. Just this week, I reaped the rewards of a few emails with shipments from some of my favorite British publishers! I can’t wait to dip into these. In fact, I already have, reading Dangerous Ages right away.

The books I received are as follows:

From the new British Library Women Writers series, I received My Husband Simon by Molly Panter-Downes and Dangerous Ages by Rose Macaulay.

The Furroughed Middlebrow series of Dean Street Press sent me Somewhere in England by Carola Oman and Beneath the Village Moon by Romilly Cavan.

From Persephone Press, I received One Woman’s Year by Stella Martin Currey.

Review 1461: Expiation

Milly Bott, a plump little woman like a dove, is suddenly a widow after her husband Ernest’s accident. The respectable Botts gather around her to commiserate, but she appears to be stunned. Then comes the fateful news. Her husband has left her only £1000 of his huge fortune, giving the rest to a home for fallen women and ending his will with “she will know why.”

Of course, the family assumes that Milly has had an affair. They decide that the only way to avoid scandal is to rally around her. But Milly has other ideas. She decides to run off to London to get her legacy and then travel to Switzerland to stay with her sister, Agatha. For, the only other scandal in the Bott family was created when Agatha eloped with a Swiss. Milly decides she will confess her sins to Agatha and go on to live a life of expiation, for she has indeed had an affair.

But naïve and sweet-natured Milly is in for many disillusions, beginning with her first meeting with her sister in 25 years, for Ernest forbade the association. Milly has been writing to her sister secretly and encounters her in London.

Expiation is a social satire that is sometimes hilarious and sometimes touching. As the virtuous characters jump from one conclusion to another and behave with less Christian forgiveness the more religious they are, poor silly but penitent and unfailingly kind Milly unwittingly turns their lives topsy-turvy.

I received this book from the publishers in exchange for a free and fair review.

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