Good Evening, Mrs Craven: the Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes Paperback – 30 Sep 1999
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For fifty years Mollie Panter-Downes' name was associated with "The New Yorker", for which she wrote a regular 'Letter from London', book reviews and over thirty short stories; of the twenty-one in "Good Evening, Mrs Craven", written between 1939 and 1944, only two had ever been reprinted - these very English stories have, until now, been unavailable to English readers.Exploring most aspects of English domestic life during the war, they are about separation, sewing parties, fear, evacuees sent to the country, obsession with food, the social revolutions of wartime. In the "Daily Mail" Angela Huth called "Good Evening, Mrs Craven" 'my especial find' and Ruth Gorb in the "Ham & High" contrasted the humour of some of the stories with the desolation of others: 'The mistress, unlike the wife, has to worry and mourn in secret for her man; a middle-aged spinster finds herself alone again when the camaraderie of the air-raids is over...'
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'For years now they had been going to Porter's, in one of the little side streets off the Strand. They had their own particular table in the far corner of the upstairs room, cosily near the fire in winter, cooled in summer by a window at their backs, through which drifted soot and the remote bumble of traffic. Everything contemporary seemed remote at Porter's. The whole place looked as though it had been soaked in Madeira - the rich brown walls crowded with signed photograpohs of Irving and Bancroft and Forbes-Robertson, the plush seats, the fly-spotted marble Muses forever turning their classic noses hopefully towards the door, as though expecting to see Ellen Terry come in. The waiters were all very old. They carried enormous napkins over their arms and produced the menu with a special flourish from the tails of their old-fashioned coats. The waiter who attended to the corner table looked as though he could have walked on as a senator in a Lyceum production of Julius Caesar. Leaning protectively over them, he would say in a hoarse, fruity voice, into which Madeira semed to have seeped too, "The steak-and-kidney pudding is just as you like it today, Mr Craven."
Every Thursday evening, wet or fine, they would be dining in their corner under the bust of Mrs Siddons, talking quietly, sometimes holding hands under the tablecloth. It was the evening when he was supposed to have a standing engagement to play bridge at his club. Sometimes he called for her at her flat; more often they arrived separately. Out of all their Thursdays she loved the foggy winter evenings best, when the taxi-driver growled, "Wot a night!" as she fumbled in her purse for change, when she ran coughing up the stairs into the plushy warmth and light and their waiter greeted her with a "Good evening, Mrs Craven, Mr Craven's waiting at your table. I'll bring along your sherries right away."
She would go over to their table, sit down, and slide her hand palm upwards along the sofa seat until his hand closed round it.
"Good evening, Mrs Craven," he would say, and they would both laugh.
They always enjoyed the joke that the waiter supposed they were married. It went with the respectability of Poter's that any nice couple who dined together continuously over a long period of time should be thought of as husband and wife. "We're one in the sight of God and Mrs Siddons," he said, but although she laughed, it wasn't a joke with her. She liked being called Mrs Craven. It gave her a warm feeling round the heart, because she could pretend for a moment that things were different and that he had no wife and three fine children who would be broken in bits by a divorce. He had long ago made her see the sense of this, and now she was careful never to make scenes or to sound the demanding note which he hated. Her value for him was to be always there, calm and understanding. "You smooth me out," he said sometimes. "You give me more peace than anyone in the world." She was a wonderful listener. She would sit watching him with a little smile while he told her all the details of his week. He often talked about the children. At her flat, standing in front of her mirror tying his tie, he would tell her proudly how clever eight-year-old Jennifer was, or how well Pete was coming on at school. On these occasions the little smile sometimes grew a trifle rigid on her lips...
When the war came, he got a commission in a mechanised regiment. Their Thursday evenings were interrupted, and when he got home on leave things were often difficult. There was a family dinner party, or the children were back from school. "You know how it is, darling," he would say ruefully on the telephone. But every now and then he sent her a telegram and came dashing up to London for a few hours. Porter's still looked the same except that most of the men were in uniform, and the old waiter always saw to it that they got their usual table. "Good evening, Mrs Craven." he would say shambling forward when he saw her. "You're expecting Mr Craven?...Ah, that's fine. The pigeon casserole is just how he likes it today."
They dined together just before he went to Libya. There were two men drinking port at the next table, one with white hair and beautiful, long hands who looked like a Galsworthy family lawyer, the other round and red.
"Don't think I'm being stupid and morbid," she said, "but supposing anything happens. I've been worrying about that. You might be wounded or ill and I wouldn't know." She tried to laugh. "The War Office doesn't have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses, does it?"
He frowned, because this sounded hysterical, and glanced sharply at the old men at the next table, who went right on drinking port and talking in their tired old voices.
"Darling," he said, "don't start getting ideas like that into your head. If anything did happen - but it won't - I'd get someone to let you know right away."
She had a wild impulse to ask him how this would be possible when he would be lying broken and bloody, alone in the sand. With an effort, she remembered that he loved her because she was calm, because she was not the kind of woman to make scenes or let the tears run down her face in public.
"I know you would," she said. "Don't worry about me. Remember, dearest, you don't have to worry about me one little bit."
"Good night, Mrs Craven. Good night, Mr Craven," said the old waiter, hurrying after them as they went out...
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Top Customer Reviews
The 21 stories between provide a fascinating insight into the way ordinary people carried on their lives during the war years. Setting takes second place to character in these stories, and the author has a wonderful knack of summing up a person in a few brief words so that you have a real sense of knowing them and of understanding how they feel about what is happening around them.
These are not stories of the front line or the fighting. They're stories of those left behind to carry on as best they can, adjusting to new lifestyles, and not knowing what is happening to their loved ones, all the time wondering whether things will ever be the same again. In many ways they never will. Friends and lovers will be lost, homes will be bombed, and the spirit of camaraderie that helped keep people going will dissipate, never to be regained. But these stories are far from depressing. Mollie Panter-Downes writes with wry humour and irony that makes you smile. The style might seem old-fashioned to younger readers who may never have encountered the sorts of characters portrayed in these pages, but don't let that put you off. The stories are as fresh today as they were when they were written and can be enjoyed by everybody. Thoroughly recommended!
She steers away from actual conflict, though. There is little sign of the Axis powers, of bombs, bullets or Messerschmitts. It is much more about life (mostly rural and suburban, but some urban life is included) and the inconveniences that the war has caused to the everyday happenings. There are shadows of war and the odd gas mask about, but this speaks to some of the British values of the mid 20th century that were being fought for: community spirit, a good cup of tea, some peace & quiet or a nice view.
The odd thing about this is that so very few of the stories were particularly memorable. That may sound like damning with faint praise, so please allow me to explain. When reading, the details varied from story to story, but what one gets consistently, though evolving as time goes on, is a feeling, a sense of what is going on in wartime Britain. The characters are almost too well done; they are fairly boring, down-the-street people who have no outstanding qualities, are not afforded the opportunity to show their depth of character and to whom the strangeness of life, as caused by the war, is not an overwhelming burden against which they must battle. Rather, they just get on with things as best they can, while there are some disruptions to the kind of life they have been used to living.
It would do well, though, to look a little closer at the story which lends his title to this particular collection. Mrs. Craven is an assumed title; it is not her real name. It is assumed, for who else would Mr.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
A collection of fantastically written short stories, by an author that is not as well known as she deserves.Published 11 months ago by Anna A. Dreysse
Lovely , sometimes gentle, sometimes cutting. Wish the author had written more. Have passed it to friends to read and they have all enjoyed it.Published 21 months ago by david paice
Some beautifully written stories, very evocative of the war time period. I've already bought an extra copy for a friend as a birthday present, and if you're interested in 20th... Read morePublished on 4 July 2014 by Valentine
As a lover of short stories, I really enjoyed this excellent collection of reminiscences of war time. A very entertaining writer!Published on 8 Jun. 2014 by anonofderbyshire
These stories really evoke the social atmosphere of wartime England, though they tend to focus on the upper middle classes - people who still expect to have servants and send their... Read morePublished on 12 Mar. 2014 by Dr. P. M. Stoneman
Wonderful stories, beautifully written. It's easy to see why Mollie Panter-Downes was the New Yorker's London correspondent for so many years.Published on 7 July 2013 by Ann S. Holmes
thoroughly enjoyed all the stories.
i have a feeling i have already reviewed this book but anyway it is so funny in parts and always entertaining. Read more
This was ok. It was a selection for our book group but it was not my cup of tea. I don't usually read short stories for all the reasons I didn't enjoy this i.e. Read morePublished on 8 Jun. 2013 by Verity Ladds