The ‘long nightmare’ is over but everything is changed. This wonderful novel captures one glorious summer’s day in 1946 around the village of Wealding near the south coast of England. We follow Laura Marshall as she contemplates her life now that the Second World War has been over for a year. She ends her day on Barrow Down, where she has gone to retrieve her dog and sits down to look at the view.
She had had to lose a dog and climb a hill, a year later, to realize what it would have meant if England had lost. We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening. (143)
One Fine Day
The structure of this book is very simple. We follow Laura on this day, and through her concerns, activities and from her interactions with other people we are shown a view of the country as wide as her view from Barrow Down.
Laura, 38, is married to Stephen, who, since his return from the war after years of separation, has caught the 8.47 train up to his job in the City of London every weekday morning. Their daughter, Victoria, is ten years old and something of an alien species to Stephen as he last knew her as a toddler. His dismay at his daughter is summed up in his reaction to finding her dental brace in the bathroom. His time at home is dominated by the garden as Chandler, their pre-war gardener, was killed in Holland and the replacement, Voller, is a very old man with limited capacity. Some of Laura’s day will be spent trying to find a better gardener.
When Stephen has gone for the train (taking the car) and daughter to school (taking the bus) Laura settles down to a morning of housework with her ‘help’ Mrs Prout, and for some shopping in the nearby town (also taking the bus). Mrs Prout does well in these post-war years. She is not slow to make comments about the neighbours, or Laura’s single child. She is the subject of the first cameo, a deftly, sparingly drawn portrait, which tells us so much.
Mrs Prout obliged several ladies in Wealding, conscious of her own value, enjoying glimpses of this household and that, sly, sardonic, given to nose-tapping and enormous winks, kind, a one for whist tables and a quiet glass at the local, scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn’t nobody even to answer their doorbells, poor souls. (18)
Returning to Wealding after her shopping trip, Laura visits the Porter family to see whether George, recently returned from India, can take on their garden. The scene at the Porter’s door draws in many of the threads of the novel. George sees no future in Wealding, so is off to the city to find a job, girls, cinemas and dancing. Laura is chastened to find that to him she is akin to an old sofa. She is aware that she is losing her youth. Mavis Porter, formerly of the WAAF, has added to the Porter brood as a result of a liaison with a Polish airman. She too will soon be gone.
As the day progresses Laura has interactions with the Vicar, ‘a saint who had the misfortune to sound like a bore’ (54); her mother who lives in Cornwall and was almost untouched by the war and its consequences; and the Cranmers. This is the family whose house has dominated the village, not just because of its size, but also in economic terms. Mrs Cranmer is the local landowner and many of the local farmers are her tenants. The big house had provided employment for the villagers, and during the war accommodation for Canadian soldiers. But Mrs Cranmer and her silent sister are to move to the stables and the house is sold to become some kind of institution. They invite Laura in for tea.
She continues on her way to fetch Stuffy the dog, climbing up the lower slopes of Barrow Down where a gypsy lives in an old railway carriage. She is intrigued by this man who lives apart from the village and is known to have a special way with animals. She is particularly struck by the fact that he doesn’t own a radio. In many ways his quiet, peaceable life appeals to her. She feels again the overwhelming demands of her nice house.
She climbs the rest of the way up the barrow and sees the wonderful landscape bathed in evening light. She contemplates her options, unable to live lightly as the gypsy does. But she thinks of the fun she and Stephen had before the war, and begins to see the possibility that her life with him and Victoria can be more than drudgery. And Stephen returning home from the city is also reminded of what he still has, despite everything. And that he and Laura can still find happiness with each other.
There have been frequent examples of references to the world beyond Wealding and Bridbury: Cornwall, London, Poland, Canada, India and even the view from Barrow Down brings a wider perspective. It is one of Mollie Panter-Downes’s skills to show so much from that moment, those people, in that place.
Mollie Panter-Downes was born in London in 1906. Her father was killed in the First World War and she grew up with her widowed mother in a village in the south of England. She began her writing career at 17 with a successful novel The Shoreless Sea. During the war she published Letters from London in the New Yorker every two weeks and many short stories (see Good Evening, Mrs Craven). They form a cumulative account of the Second World War for Americans, from the perspective of London and the Home Counties. By the time she came to write One Fine Day after the war she had honed her journalist skills of observation and of drawing meaning from everyday incidents.
One of the charms of this novel is the way she shows us people is so few words, from passengers on the bus to the people in the big house. Her observation of dog behaviour is so familiar that it must have been drawn from life. Her love of and familiarity with the countryside and the natural world is also a feature. Her descriptions of the demanding garden, other people’s gardens and the hedgerows are enchanting. Here she summons up a wonderful view and Laura’s reaction as she looks out.
She did not stir. The golden eye blinked again, far out in the warm haze. Yes, it was a car, for it was moving. She watched it half-sleepily, listening to the hum floating up from the great bowl. It was the summer voice of England, seeming to say in the rattle of hay carts, the swish of the blades laying the sorrel and clover in swathes, the murmur and buzz of the uncut fields, the men’s deep voices calling peacefully across the dead quiet. We are at peace. An aeroplane flew south, trundling along, flashing a silver blink to the gold blink below, and Laura watched it go as idly as she had watched the car crawl and dip along the unknown road. Planes were no longer something to glance up at warily. The long nightmare was over, the land sang its peaceful song. (142-3)
In following Laura’s day we have observed the changes brought by war, especially to the middle classes. For Laura, the loss of servants could chain her, as so many women, to the domestic duties required by their houses as the servants will not return. Some people have been lost in the war, killed, moved away for better opportunities or new partners. The war has widened the perspective of the villagers.
Stephen and Laura will have to deal with the separation forced by the war which took Victoria from toddler to near-adolescent, and now lands them back together without the social structure upon which they relied. Laura is perpetually tired (she falls asleep on the barrow) and going grey at 38. Stephen wonders whether he fought the war in order to continue his daily commute. Both Laura and Stephen come to see what they liked and still like about each other, and about the countryside in which they live. The three of them will find their way we are sure and the novel finishes as they all return home.
And I am left wondering what we, in 2021, will see when our long Covid-19 nightmare is over. Will we rejoice in what we have and adjust to what we have lost?
One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published in 1947, reissued as a Virago Modern Classic in 1985. 179pp
Good Evening Mrs Craven and London War Notes by Mollie Panter-Downes (war-time stories from the New Yorker)
Wave me Goodbye (short stories from the Second World War)