The wartime stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes

The war time stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes were written with the East Coast liberal well-travelled and well-educated American reader in mind, and they both did their bit in reminding our allies what the United Kingdom believed it was fighting for in the Second World War. The short stories (appearing about once every three months) and the fortnightly Letters were published in the New Yorker.

And the steady writing of both stories and letters provide a compelling perspective on the war, that of an inhabitant of south-east England, familiar with London and its theatres, and familiar too with the villages and towns around the capital. In her letters, Mollie Panter-Downes considers government policies (managing food, conscription, blackout, petrol rationing, international relations, post-war arrangements etc) and reveals their effects on the lives of citizens. 

Thanks to Persephone Books for publishing these beautiful editions.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories  of Mollie Panter-Downes  

In this beautiful Persephone edition 21 short stories are collected together bookended by two Letters from London from the start and the end of the war. Persephone created the collection for although a prolific writer and journalist Mollie Panter-Downes appears to have had no desire to ensure that posterity would have access to her writing.

Each story is about seven pages long. The writing is lively, full of quickly-drawn characters, details about English middleclass life during the war, and perhaps more patriotic even than Mrs Miniver.

All the stories deal with domestic adjustments more or less successfully made by people in the UK during the war. The main characters are mostly women and they live mostly in the South. The characters have to deal with evacuees and others living in their houses, missing their loved ones, food shortages, doubtful sexual behaviour, adjusting at the outset and anticipating the end of the war and so on. Not all the characters are managing well or bravely or selflessly. The title story, for example, concerns a couple who have been meeting illicitly before the war once a week in the same restaurant, and are assumed to be married by the waiter. When the man has been away and not in touch the woman sees the stupidity of her situation, resolves to change it, and then can’t bring herself to.

I omitted this book when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title.

For a more detailed exploration of the stories visit JacquiWine’s Journal in July 2018.

Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the wartime stories of Mollie Panter-Downes collected and published in one volume in 1999 by Persephone Books. 205pp

London War Notes  by Mollie Panter-Downes (1971)

Mollie Panter-Downes published Letters from London in the New Yorker every two weeks. They form a cumulative account of the Second World War from the perspective of London and the Home Counties. The main purpose was to inform and influence Americans. Influence them to join the war and then to let them know what UK was suffering and how American assistance was essential.

The tension implicit in government control over most aspects of peoples’ lives in order to protect freedom and democracy is highlighted early. In her letter of 20thFebruary 1942 she makes this comment.

Actually, what seemed to emerge from the recent government crisis was a picture of the difficulties encountered by Mr Churchill in trying to be at once a Fuhrer and not a Fuhrer and to turn a democracy into an efficient totalitarian state while retaining the democratic right to free speech and free press. (253-4)

We read about the Blitz, Dunkirk, the fall of France, the setbacks in the Allies’ campaigns, and the experience of rationing and the blackout. Molly Panter-Downes was a theatre-goer, but not a film watcher, and we hear about cultural life in London too. Evacuees, who seem to come and go from London in many delayed reactions to aerial attacks, clearly figured large in her thinking. As did the dangers to our boys. 

Towards the end of 1942 she recorded that at last people began to feel that the tide was turning against Germany. On November 15th1942 she wrote:

At the moment all local concerns and all kinds of conversation are dominated by what is happening in North Africa. The nationwide wave of emotion is not the only thing that makes this moment something like those moments in the summer of 1940. There’s a big difference, however. Those were grim days in 1940. Today, though sensible Britons think there’s certain to be plenty of grimness ahead, for the first time they believe that sober reasons for hope are at last in sight. (305-6)

There were still two and a half years of war to be fought after she wrote this, and the new dangers of V1s (doodlebugs or robots as she calls them) and V2s to contend with. She reports the effects of the attacks by V1s by suggesting that censorship was not necessary. She comments on the question of the effects of the new weapon in July 1944:

The real answer, which should disappoint Dr Goebbels, is that London is having no picnic but that it isn’t in ashes either. The city is uncomfortable and harassed but doggedly getting its first wind. It is also as garrulous as a village suddenly plagued with some peculiar flying pest. (404)

Churchill and FDR are heroes, and she made explicit her support for international cooperation and reports the widespread enthusiasm for the Beveridge Report, which led to the welfare state. Towards 1945 the weariness of the population becomes more evident.

To read the letters is to experience little variation in the collection because she was a regular columnist with a successful format. We get the odd anecdote, which is fun and alleviates the reading. But of her own experiences we read nothing.

London War Notes  by Mollie Panter-Downes, first published as a collection in 1971. Also published by Persephone in 2014. 459pp

Mollie Panter-Downes by Lee Miller

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4 Responses to The wartime stories and letters of Mollie Panter-Downes

  1. I have both of these books. Why have I not read them yet????? 😉

  2. Many thanks for the link to my piece, Caroline – that’s very kind of you. I’m glad you’ve written about MPD as she doesn’t get nearly enough attention, particularly in the wider media. Mrs Miniver is a great reference point for her writing with its journalistic, observational style. I’d like to read the London Letters at some point in the future.

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