The more I think about it, the more I really didn’t enjoy “March Violets”. I ended up feeling very unpleasant after reading it, so I decided that “Mrs. Miniver” by Jan Struther might be a good book to act as a contrast (and thanks to Kerry, a kind LibraryThing member who sent it!). As I just got “Good Evening, Mrs. Craven” by Molly Panter-Downes out of our local library, this seemed a good title to follow up with and a good bit of nostalgia was in order (not that I can remember the war!)

“Mrs. Miniver” is of course well-known as a film starring Greer Garson and this is where I knew it from, having never come across the novel before. I haven’t seen the movie (and I don’t think I will, because it sounds like it was Hollywooded up in a big way) but the book was not what I expected at all. It takes the form of a series of short pieces which were originally published in The Times, and these follow episodes from Mrs. Miniver’s life in the late 1930s as Britain moves ever closer to the Second World War. As the book progresses, War comes and the stories chart the changes that took place in people’s lives and how the conflict affected them.

The stories are beautifully written and although each piece is no more than a few pages long, the characters of Caroline Miniver, her husband Charles, plus children Vin, Judy and Toby are thoroughly alive and believable. Struther manages to capture their changing emotions as the seasons come and go, the rhythms of their life continue and even as War comes, how they try to continue on as normally as possible.

There’s no saccharine here at all – in fact, Mrs. Miniver is quite spiky at times and critical of her own class and their somewhat blinkered reaction to what is happening around them. There are many poignant moments and a recurrent realisation that things will never be the same. There’s plenty of humour as well, and Mrs. Miniver is a very likeable human being.

“Good Evening, Mrs. Craven” by Mollie Panter-Downes in some way covers similar territory, although the short stories in this volume stand alone, with only one character (Mrs. Ramsey, who may be the author’s alter ego) appearing in four tales. The book presents each story in chronological order with date (they were originally published in the New Yorker magazine, where all Panter-Downes’ work first appeared) and as the War progresses, the attitudes and responses of the characters change likewise. There is more variety in these stories in that they look at different elements of human behaviour – the misery and pain of a mistress who will not know if her lover is killed in action; the cultural clash of evacuees from the East End and genteel country folk; the way that a friendship between two sets of couples can only be sustained if they only meet occasionally and falls apart when they are under one roof.

A criticism which could be levelled at both authors is that they are resolutely middle/upper class and are writing for that market, but I don’t buy that at all. Both authors criticise and mock, in their different ways, the intransigence of the upper class and their stupidity at refusing to accept the dramatic social changes that the War brings about. Panter-Downes in particular is very sharp in her depiction of foolish upper-class ladies who think that once all this troublesome fighting is over, the maids and servants will come back and all will be as it was before.

Both of these books were enjoyable and interesting reads – “Mrs. Miniver” was perhaps more thoughtful and “Good Evening, Mrs. Craven” a little sharper, and the difference may reflect the fact that the authors were writing for publications on opposite sides of the Atlantic. I’m just thankful that Virago and Persephone are keeping these books in print so that we can enjoy the writing and the storytelling, and also not forget what it was like to live through a World War – remember, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it”….

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