Saturday, 31 January 2009

Review – Mollie PANTER-DOWNES – “Good Evening, Mrs Craven”

Publ: 1999 Persephone Books
Pensby Library
ISBN: 978 1 906462 01 7
Genre: World War II
Pages: c200p
Found by Serendipity
Rating: ***** *****

What led you to pick up this book?
The cover and the blurb. It promised a set of short stories with ‘wit, perception and incisiveness’. It delivered.

Describe the plot without giving anything away.
Mollie Panter-Downes was much better known in the USA than in her native Britain because most of her work was published in the New Yorker. These are just a few of her many short stories relating the life of folk in wartime Britain throughout World War II. Tales of sewing parties, obsession with food, separation and hosting evacuees they bring the war to life in a way in which even diaries rarely manage to do.

What did you think of the characters?
With a few words Mollie Panter-Downes manages to draw instantly recognisable characters who spring to life off the page. All of them are British to a T.

What did you think about the style?
Sharp, witty, down-to-earth and so realistic that one could well have been reading memoirs. Katherine Mansfield eat your heart out!

What did you like most about the book?

Each story was just the right length to keep the interest at a high and without any dazzling punch lines the author managed to round each one off perfectly.

Was there anything you didn't like about the book?

Thoughts on the book jacket / cover.
The cover painting – “The Queue at the Fish Shop” by Evelyn Dunbar 1944 - was just perfect for this book and the inside of the cover – fabric design ‘Coupons’ - equally appropriate.

Would I recommend it?
Yes, unreservedly. For anyone who has lived through wartime Britain or heard their parents’ stories of it this book is a must.

Totally irrelevant side note:
This is one of those few cases where the cover blurb’s description of the author as “One of our very best twentieth century writers” turned out to be accurate. Mollie Panter-Downes deserves to be far better known.


Before the war had cut her life so sharply in two, she had cherished her possessions jealously.
(I just loved the way in which the author described those times which define one’s life as cutting them in two. Don’t we all think of things as happening before or after some major event in our lives?)

The one clock in the flat went on sucking time, like an endless string of macaroni, into its bright, vacant face. Every clock in London seemed to crash out the quarters outside their drawn curtains.

MOLLIE PANTER-DOWNES was born in 1906 and died in 1997. For fifty years her name was associated with "The New Yorker", for which she wrote a regular "Letter from London", book reviews and over thirty short stories.

She was brought up by her mother in Sussex after her father, a Major in the Royal Irish Regiment, was killed at Mons in August 1914. She published her first novel, The Shoreless Sea, when she was seventeen - it was a bestseller. She wrote three more popular novels as well as articles and short stories and in 1929 married Clare Robinson, travelled round the world, and moved to the sixteenth-century house near Chiddingfold in Surrey where she and her family lived for over sixty years. Each day Mollie took a basket with her lunch to a writing hut in the woods where, between 1938 and 1984, she wrote 852 pieces for The New Yorker: Letters from London, book reviews, Reporter at Large and short stories, as well as non-fiction books such as Ooty Preserved (1967). In 1947 she published One Fine Day, one of the century's most enduring novels. Her peacetime short stories have been reprinted as Minnie's Room.


  1. I know Danielle over at A Work In Progress loves Painter-Downes, and now your review adds an extra boost to my desire to read her. Those Persephone books are really gorgeous, too.

  2. One of the books I want to own is the collection of her war letters.

  3. I've never heard of Mollie Panter-Downes, but in addition to your review, this makes me want to read her: "Each day Mollie took a basket with her lunch to a writing hut in the woods where, between 1938 and 1984, she wrote 852 pieces for The New Yorker."

    I like someone with such a healthy attitude to writing. And someone whose writing habits evoke memories of reading Enid Blyton books.

  4. Yes, Estelle, the sentence you quoted conjours up some lively images, doesn't it. I'm still waiting for the library to get hold of her peacetime stories for me; I'm really looking forward to reading them.


Hello folks - your comments are always welcome.