Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of
Writing a review that doesn’t bore the pants off of one’s readers sometimes feels as insurmountably arduous and impossible as writing the book itself. I got over my recent reading slump but I think I may have traded it for a reviewing slump. So let’s just see if I can do Mrs. Craven justice.
Mollie Panter-Downes was a correspondent for The New Yorker, writing over 852 pieces between 1938 and 1987. Some of that output included these 21 short stories about life in England during World War II. Panter-Downes manages to write social history in the guise of fiction but does so in a way that one never feels like one is learning a lesson. The factual details Panter-Downes includes about wartime life certainly do provide the framework for each of these stories but they are ultimately there in service of exploring more universal truths. And although the stories retain an upper-middle class gentility, Panter Downes doesn’t shy away from exploring the baser side of human nature and behavior. These are not tales of heroic actions and selfless dedication to the war effort.
The eponymous story is one of the most poignant in the collection. It focuses on the emotional state of a mistress who begins to realize the tenuous nature of her personal life while her married lover is deployed in the war zone. In “It’s the Reaction” Miss Birch is a government worker whose inability to connect with her comrades at work and at home leaves her isolated and lonely. Out of the several stories that deal with displaced persons “Combined Operations” brings a bit of humor to the collection as one couple tries to deal with the once dear friends who have been staying with them for four years after being bombed out of their London flat.
Present throughout many of the stories is a sense, sometimes implied and sometimes explicit, that things won’t be the same after the war. That the social revolution begun in World War I has gone both wider and deeper as all manner of folks try to deal with altered circumstances. In “Cut Down the Trees” Dossie, an old servant is having a hard time dealing with Mrs. Walsingham’s decision not to dress for dinner and even worse, her decision to take meals in the warmer, cozier kitchen rather than the dining room. When Mrs. Walsingham’s son comes home on leave he recognizes how traumatized Dossie is by the changed circumstances.
The old woman’s eyes seemed to implore him to play their game for a little while longer, to pretend that things were just as they used to be, that their world, which had come to an end, could still be saved.
I liked this volume quite a bit. Although some of the subject matter is similar, I think it is better than the rather shallow House-Bound by Winifred Peck or the more humorous Henrietta’s War by Joyce Dennis.