My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes

Author Mollie Panter-Downes is probably best known nowadays for her remarkable novel “One Fine Day“, as well as her short stories and newspaper colums reporting from WW2 London, both of which have been collected in lovely Persephone volumes. However, long before publication of these she had become a popular success as a novelist, after the release of her first book “The Shoreless Sea” in 1923, written when she was just 16. Panter-Downes went on to publish three more novels, culminating in “My Husband Simon” in 1931, followed by a gap until OFD in 1947. She went on to disown her first four works, so it was a particuar treat to see her her last early novel republished as part of the first wave in the new series of British Library Women Writers.

There’s been a lot of buzz about this in bookish circles, and rightly so. The British Library’s publishing arm is doing sterling work with the Crime Classics and Science Fiction Classics, and so a range devoted to neglected women authors of the 20th century is going to appeal to lots of us. Excitingly, too, Simon Thomas from Stuck in a Book (my club co-host!) is consultant on the series, providing afterwords and commentary, and I can’t think of a better choice for the role! The fact that the books are very beautiful editions with French flaps is also a bonus!

Anyway, on to the book! As I mentioned, “My Husband Simon” was Panter-Downes’ fourth book and its focus is on the relationship between the young and sophisticated Nevis Falconer, a successful novelist, and her husband. As the book opens, Nevis is recalling a time four years ago when her life collided with that of Simon Quinn, who she meets at a weekend away visiting friends. Their attraction is instantaneous and physical, and before the weekend is over they’ve slept together and decided to marry. However, the pair have little in common; Nevis is an out-and-out intellectual, whereas Simon (who does something in the City about which Nevis is suitably vague) claims never to read and to be practically illiterate. Nevertheless, despite their obvious differences, the physical attraction is too strong to ignore and they marry.

I lay on my back and stared up at the copper beech tree. It rose in such a miraculous pyre of weaving branches and smooth bronze leaves, high, high, until it lost itself in darkness. Right at the core was a lozenge of blue sky. What was the use of trying to write? I could expend years of energy, gallons of ink, without conveying to anyone else exactly how this tree glowed with secret dark fire in the sunlight, how the trunk stretched out snaky limbs, strong and delicate and exact, just support the piled magnificence of the leaves. Piled magnificence – words, words! What was the good of them?

And this is where Nevis’s problems begin; because once married to Simon, she finds it harder and harder to write as her focus is all on her marriage and her husband. She loses interest and faith in her writing, and certainly Simon has no interest in it, treating it patronisingly as if it’s just a hobby; so the conflict between heart and art starts. Complications arises when Nevis’s American publisher Marcus Chard appears on the scene; unlike her husband, Marcus believes in Nevis’s writing and supports it, leading her to a situation where she may have to make a decision between her writing and her marriage – thus it ever was for women, I suppose!

“My Husband Simon” was an entertaining and enjoyable read; but also an intriguing snapshot of attitudes at the time. In some ways, it’s a little melodramatic, what with the intensity of the physical attraction between Nevis and Simon; and yet it explores a real issue and one which is still sadly with us. Why *is* it that women’s work and women’s writing is regarded so much less seriously than men’s??? Interestingly, Simon Thomas’s afterword picks up on another element in the book, which is the class difference between Nevis and Simon Quinn; and in Britain of the time, that could be a nebulous and hard to define thing. Nevis is obviously from a certain milieu and her viewpoint can be harsh and judgmental at times:

Slough is the station for Burnham Beeches. Even in a good temper I dislike Slough. That morning it seemed to me a town without a single excuse for itself; a foul industrial block spreading slowly over those pleasant fields towards Windsor. I wondered what kind of people could possibly wish to live in Slough, and pictured men with faces on which avarice and pettiness of soul were stamped like mean handwriting on cheap paper; women who made fumbling, ineffectual gestures and said “Pardon!” when they committed a social error. I wondered how many people in Slough had ever heard a Beethoven symphony or seen a Leonardo.

The couple’s differences are perhaps shown best in their attitudes towards the intellectual; Nevis is firmly bound to the cultural world, interested in everyting from Lady Chatterly to books by Vita Sackville-West. Her husband’s inability to relate to that gives them an intellectual gulf that the physical and the domestic cannot bridge for Nevis and we have to guess that there is very little future in her marriage to Simon Quinn.

Mollie Panter-Downes in the front of my old copy of “One Fine Day”

So the British Library Women Writers imprint has got off to a cracking start with this book; there are four titles already available, and many more planned to come. In some ways it seems as if the publisher is picking up the baton where Virago have left off, as these books are titles which would very probably have come under the purview of Virago Modern Classics in the past (and would also be possible Persephones). Although the book never scales the heights of “One Fine Day” (that would be hard to do), “My Husband Simon” is beautifully written, a fascinating read and an interesting exploration of the conflicts facing women to this day – highly recommended!

Review copy kindly provided by the publisher, for which many thanks!