It is 1946, and the Second World War is over. The effects of it, however, are only now being felt by the village and family at the centre of this short and beautifully written novel. All of the action takes place in one idyllic summer’s day, mainly concerning the Marshall family. Laura and Stephen have lived in their house for years, but before there has been the bustle of servants and a house. This book shows how the family and the people around them are adapting to a whole new way of life in a new world. There are families who are continuing much as they have for generations, in language, expectations, even in the houses they live in have changed very little. Equally, there are those who must move on, change with the times, find a new way of life. In one day we follow Laura in her attempts to bear the entire burden of a challenging house, Stephen in his journey to and from work as he realises the difference between before and after the war, and Victoria, their daughter, as she sees life differently in another house. In addition, the reader is shown some of the other people in this distinctive time, the author gives many people a voice, especially Mrs Pout, the daily ‘help’, with her talk of “kewpongs” for ration coupons and her trenchant views on her fellow villagers in Wealding. Panter – Downes was known for her journalism, her writing for the “New Yorker”, and there is an element of reportage in this novel, but of the most lyrical, humorous and even loving kind.
Stephen was away for the war, not in danger necessarily, but absent. On his return he discovers a daughter grown from baby to girl, sensible but also a dreamer. The house gave shelter to friends displaced by the war, and there were women who could cope with the oven. Now only three people live there, where there is a no longer a cook for timing and organising food, maids to serve it, or a gardener who is “good with roses”. Now there is a daily, who combats the dust and shabbiness of a large house, and an ancient man who workers of an evening with agonising slowness. This is the servant problem in practice; not the preserve of large country houses, though we will learn of a shortage there too, but the absence of those willing to work locally in a middle class home. Laura, dreamy, reminiscent of easier days, must shop for rationed food in a small town, feed her chickens and ducks, pick gooseberries, organise meals as well as try to keep the dust and spiders at bay. Laura was not equipped to deal with practical housework, a fact that her mother points out whenever she visits; she was brought up to order a household.
Stephen wants the male conversation of before the war, when roses cost “a bob”, when he did not have to worry about mowing lawns. Now Laura seems a grey haired shadow of the woman her married, that he still loves, that he never seems to talk to without her worrying about housekeeping. This is Laura’s book, as she considers her life and the lives of those around her. She appreciates the tender beauty of a young man holding his niece, the sadness of a large house being emptied, the almost historic language and lives of a numerous family. She knows that she is struggling to cope, this is a pale life. The struggle to communicate this to Stephen, the problem to even understanding it herself, is the background to this beautiful summer’s day. This is a book of a wistful sadness, yet of a new beginning. Regret for past lives, but also hope for a new beginning. This is a beautiful book, and a lovely experience to read.
My copy of this book is a Virago Modern Classics edition, which is a modern paperback. I actually picked it up in the Persephone shop in London, on their “Books we wish we had published” table. This book is very much of a type with many of Virago’s editions, suggestive of Thirkell and others. Persephone publishes other books by Mollie Panter Downes, including short stories of both war and peace, and a collection of her wartime New Yorker pieces. This is a lovely book in every way, and I found it an excellent read for a sunny afternoon in the garden, in different times. This is a book to read today.