One fine day is the experience of one day in 1946 of Laura Marshall (and to a lesser extent her husband Stephen and daughter Vicky). It's a hot, perfect summer day and Laura's thoughts range over the past and present, particularly the recent past. The war is over and she finds herself "remembering" this fact again and again as she realises that peace has finally come, and the threats of invasion and death have gone. As a middle-class woman whose life has been completely changed by the war, Laura can't help remembering how things used to be - servants at every turn, the garden perfect, her hair not grey, meals appearing on the table without her ineffectual efforts. As Stephen says "All his life he had expected to find doors opened if he rang, to wake up to the soft rattle of curtain rings being drawn back, to find the fires bright and the coffee smoking hot every morning as though household spirits had been working while he slept. And now the strings had been dropped, they all lay helpless as abandoned marionettes with nobody to twitch them." The novel is an elegy for a time before the war, and a recognition of the changes wrought by war, and thankgiving that the family has come through unscathed. It is a beautifully-written evocation of England, a vanished middle-class England long gone to us now, but in 1946, some people (including Laura's mother) hadn't come to terms with the change.
on 27 August 2009
'I am a perfectly happy married woman, simply getting a little greyer, duller, more tired than I should be getting, because my easier sort of life has come to an end.' In fact, Laura is only 38 - how young that seems to us now - but in 1946 the nation was weary. For the no longer wealthy upper-middle class, the penny is beginning to drop that their parlourmaids, cooks and gardeners are lost to them forever. Laura's life is now an incompetent struggle with housework, trying to maintain standards of a leisured world that has been lost forever. Her husband - though he helps with the washingup - still grieves for the old ways, the polished silver and candles, the immaculate gardens. Her mother cannot grasp that it has gone forever.
On one perfect summer's day, this is an elegy for all that is lost and a hymn of thanks for peace, that England and Laura's family have survived. Mollie Panter-Downes's writing is beautiful, you can feel the heat, smell the roses.
As other reviewers have noted, the book ends on a hopeful note that all will be well. I couldn't help wondering, though, what Laura would have made of the ugliness of so much of our modern life; the bare legs of women who couldn't buy stockings were shocking then, but what would she think of today's tattooed ladies? I felt a surge of nostalgia for all that we have thrown away.
Virago, sadly, have thrown away the lovely Charles Ginner book cover from my 1985 edition; sad that they thought fit to replace it with a bland, meaningless modern cover - but probably that says it all. Any chance of starting a campaign for real Viragos? Their covers used to be one of life's small joys.
on 9 April 2009
This is an astonishing novel, far better than Mrs Dalloway, which it imitates but leaves behind in its eye for detail, its brilliant evocation of domestic life after the Second World War, its feeling for the nuances, the pleasures, the tragedies of life after the storm.
on 6 May 2013
A slim book of less than 200 pages describing the ordinary uneventful day of a middle-class village housewife. Her dog goes missing, but she gets it back with no difficulty. She goes into the nearest town on a bus, shops for groceries, and comes home. She lingers for a while on a hill and falls asleep, then wakes up and runs home to cook dinner for her ten-year-old daughter and her husband home from his commute to London. That's the sum total of the plot – and one or two of the characters are stereotypes. And you know that every day of the rest of her life will be much the same. But the book is absolute magic, it lifts the heart, and I shall re-read it once a year every year until i die. The beauty is in the details, the observation.
In much the same way that Virginia Woolf shows the changes to everyday British life in the aftermath of World War I, author Mollie Panter-Downes shows the equally dramatic changes which have occurred in Wealding, near Portsmouth in the south of England, in the aftermath of World War II. Panter-Downes uses her own experience in a similar small village to create sensitive, often unique, images about everyday life during this period, creating a vibrant portrait of ordinary people coping, or not coping, with a whole new reality. In lush, often musical prose, she appeals to the reader's senses, as well as the heart, as the Marshall family-wife Laura, husband Stephen, and daughter Victoria-go about their business in a world which is utterly changed.
Laura Marshall, a relaxed woman who lives every moment, has been left during the war with a large house and virtually no one to help her run it. The young women from the village, who went to the cities to work in factories during the war, prefer their lives there. Mrs. Abbey, the former cook, was killed in the Blitz, and the current housekeeper, the inimitable Mrs. Prouty, "circulates the dust around," but is "scornful of the floundering efforts of the gentry to remain gentry still when there wasn't nobody even to answer the doorbells." Stephen Marshall, a neat, conscientious (and uptight) man, who had prized his roses and the carefully manicured grounds, has been away at war for seven years and has just returned to a place he hardly recognizes, a house which is "slowly giving up" and a garden so overgrown "it seems almost to bear a grudge."
After Stephen leaves for work in London and daughter Victoria goes to school, Laura begins her day, visiting people she knows, including the Cranmers, the family which owns the biggest manse and largest estate in the village. They have decided to abandon their house, moving into a new apartment in the stable of their former house while the house is used for a holiday hotel and an agricultural training school for boys. She remembers the sewing circles at the Cranmers' house; visits people who have lost sons, wives, and husbands during the war; and contemplates a visit from her own impossibly demanding and aristocratic mother. Eventually she climbs Barrow Downs on this beautiful day so she can survey the village from a height, coming to new conclusions about her own life, her family, and the new direction she will take when she returns. Ironically, Stephen, on his way home, is also contemplating changes in his own life.
If the novel sounds as if nothing happens, that is correct as far as a "plot" is concerned, but Panter-Downes renders the little, "unimportant" events in the lives of Laura and her family so sensitively and reveals the feelings of real people dealing with real changes so vibrantly, that the images and characters leap off the page and stick permanently in the reader's memory. Capturing the small details through which all people remember the past and, one hopes, prepare for a future, the author involves the reader completely in one ordinary day in 1946, the success of her novel a testament to the universality of her themes and the ability of human beings to adapt to changes over which they have little control. The profound honesty and psychological realism of her characters make them "modern," even though they "lived" over sixty years ago, and the author's own awareness of the "world writ small" makes this novel with its unique images and descriptions one to savor. Mary Whipple