One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes
A blindingly obvious fact to any reader of the Ramblings is that there is simply no rhyme nor reason to my reading. I’m like a straw in the wind; easily deflected from my course, subject to all sorts of influences, and my bookish whims are terrible. More often than not, I can’t actually recall what it was that pointed me in the direction of a particular volume; however, with “One Fine Day”, things are a little more clear!
The book was on my wish list as it was published by Virago. However, my copy is a lovely old hardback I picked up in the Bloomsbury Oxfam a while back (thanks to Simon, who pointed it out to me). It’s very appealing, with an embossed signature on the cover and a picture of Mollie inside. But it had sat on my shelves for over a year, till Caroline reviewed it recently and I thought that I really should pick it up.
Mollie Panter-Downes’ name is familiar to all lovers of a certain type of 20th century literature: as a columnist for the New Yorker, she was particularly noted for her column “Letter from London”, which was published during WW2 and later collected in the volume “London War Notes” – a much desired title which has just been reissued by Persephone (hurrah!). She wrote many short stories (also published by Persephone) but only a few novels – including “One Fine Day”.
The time is 1946 and the place a small English village by the coast, with the very archetypal name of Wealding. Our protagonists are Laura and Stephen Marshall, plus their 10-year-old daughter Victoria, and the action ostensibly takes place over the course of one hot summer post-War day. Stephen goes off to his commute by train to London; Victoria catches the bus to school in the local town; and Laura wrestles with the household chores, searches for Stuffy the lost family dog, and contemplates life and the future. Because this book is about so much more than just a day in the life of an English village…
As the day unfolds, we learn from Laura’s musings all about the post-War landscape in England; the losses that have taken place; the rationing which is still going on; and the struggles that the middle classes are going through. Quite brilliantly, and in beautiful prose, the book lays bare the incredible losses which have been caused by WW2, and also the seismic shift in class relations which has taken place. Laura is born of a class which had everything done for them (and her hideous mother still reflects this) – maids and nannies and cooks meant that she had beautiful, aristocratic hands and never had to cope with the complexities of shopping, washing, cooking and cleaning. But now the people who would have been servants in the old days have been freed by the way they had lived in the War, no longer a lower class working for others, but working in factories; and having tasted freedom they have no wish to go back to the old ways.
“Like young horses intoxicated with the feel of their freedom, Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where you knew where you were, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin.”
So Laura and many other formerly upper-middle class families are struggling; big old houses are being sold off to the National Trust; there is very little help for Laura and Stephen in the house and garden; and while the old families symbolically die off, the vital, energetic working class families expand.
Throughout the day, while her thoughts range back and forth, we learn about Laura’s past and her struggles and how she’s got to this point in her life. Although she is almost at the end of her tether, with the strain on her marriage obvious, a chance encounter with a gypsy in the wood, while searching for Stuffy, sends her to the top of Barrow Down; and as she surveys the landscape in front of her, Laura comes to the conclusion that none of the superficial issues she’s dealing with are important. The Romans have come and gone, the Germans have come and gone, and although humans are transient the land will endure. In this aspect, the book is a love-letter to the English countryside and it captures magnificently the still of a hot summer’s day by the coast.
I can’t praise Panter-Downes’ book enough. Caroline drew a comparison with “A Month in the Country”, and I see exactly what she means; in their portraits of the English countryside, and in their elegiac qualities, evoking a lost world, they have similarities. Panter-Downes’ prose is remarkable; delicious and poetic, with a rhythm all of its own, often taking on the dialect of whoever it’s related to, it’s quite entrancing and draws you right into its world.
The end of the book is an uplifting one: Laura clears her mind on the Downs, putting life into perspective and realising that what matters is her family and her future. Meanwhile, Stephen gets a chance to bond a little with the daughter who is something of a stranger (owing to the time away fighting). There is a feeling that the Marshalls will survive along with England, and whatever the post-War structure is, people will adjust.
“One Fine Day” was a wonderful read; I’m not sure what I expected, but I don’t think it was such complexity and such wonderful writing. Now I just have to restrain myself from rushing off to order every book of hers from Persephone…. !