Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes

A quick rundown… A collection of short stories written during World War II and published in The New Yorker; give a unique insight to life in Britain during this time.

Strengths: Interesting in their minutiae, and convey the feelings of everyday people.

Weaknesses: I would have liked to have read more of Panter-Downes factual ‘Letters from London’ too.

Why I read it: Birthday present

Pages: 203

Published: 1999 (Persephone Books No. 8)

Publisher: Persephone Books

Setting: England

Rating: 8.5 out of 10

Generally, I’m not a big fan of short stories. However, when it comes to Persephone books, I make an exception. (If you are unfamiliar with Persephone books, they print titles usually by women that have fallen by the wayside over time. They are distinguishable by their grey covers and era-appropriate printed end papers, or by the painted covers of the classics, such as this one). I like that Persephone books have been carefully chosen and reviews of the books printed by them generally get good reviews. Plus, they look so lovely on the shelves! To cut a long story short, I received several Persephone books for my birthday from my parents and I’m savouring my way through them.

I chose to read Number 8, Good Evening, Mrs. Craven because I could pick up and put down the short stories without missing too much – or so I thought. These lovely stories, originally published in The New Yorker over the years of World War II, are strangely addictive. I say strangely because they are about the minutiae of daily life with the shadow of war hanging over activities. There’s the gentleman hosting an awkward dinner party that hopes for a bombing raid and the shocking gossip that is told during a get-together to make bandages and socks for the soldiers. The stories also reveal the changes in Britain’s class structure over the war – a well-off older woman takes in a young family from London with embarrassing confrontations while a mistress is left lost when her lover goes to war. I read these stories (usually 10-12 pages long) in chunks – two, three or four stories at a time. Panter-Downes captures the moment perfectly and so succinctly that I loved reading about the rich characters and their predicaments.

The stories are sandwiched between two of Panter-Downes’ ‘Letters from London’ – a letter to tell American readers and expats what was going on in London at the moment, from rationing to bombing and then trying to live a normal life! These were just as fascinating to me, and I’d love to read more (but I can’t find a collection – hint, Persephone?)

A unique collection of life in English homes during the war; this is a gem of a collection. Highly recommended!


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