My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes
This is the story of a marriage, of a woman regarding her partner with brutal honesty, and of an acknowledgement of genuinely confused feelings. Mollie Panter-Downes’ 1931 novel, now republished in the stylish British Library Woman Writers series, is a moving account of a young writer’s life in London. It speaks movingly of the joys to be found in London life, the evenings of bohemian existence, the streets, the journeys and the people that she meets. Nevis Falconer, the narrator, also writes of the frustrations of daily life, the annoyances of her days ordering meals and dealing with the blocks to writing. She loves her husband Simon Quinn, in many ways, realising that he is essentially different from the other men in their circle, though this is not always a good thing.Nevis is appalled by his family, especially his mother, whose social ambitions and attempts to run the lives of everyone are always apparent. This is a deeply personal narrative in which a flawed character tells her story, highlighting particular points, accepting the arguments and the misunderstandings. It is honest in that it accepts that her writing is not easy, that her first book was good but her second novel was not, and that she may no longer be a “promising” young writer. This is the story of a relationship of imperfect people, of settings beautifully described, of insightful portraits of people around her. I found it an engaging and very different read, a picture of the time but with timeless observations on people. I was very pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.
The book begins with Mollie contemplating whether she should have married Simon so quickly after meeting him. While she knows it has affected her writing and “Freedom and work are the only important things”, she also knows that the setting of a scorching hot weekend in the country was so special that she would fall in love with him. She admits that he is remarkably handsome, different and memorable. Coming from a relatively wealthy background, she is comfortable in most settings, and describes the flat in which they live accurately as being at a changing end of the street. Nevis acknowledges that Simon would like to live in the countryside, but she prefers a London flat, together with tricky servants and other distractions of city life. Simon works all day in an office, she finds that writing in the flat is difficult. In the evening they meet people, and while the parties and the bars may be entertaining, she finds meeting with Simon’s friends uncomfortable. Worse still are the meals with his parents, although she gets on well with her father -in- law, her mother-in-law is demanding and exacting. “Sunday was the day of the week when we were happiest and when I seemed to see Simon with the greatest distinctness”. They visit the country, they ride horses, and acknowledge that when no other people are around they get on so much better. Their somewhat erratic relationship is challenged when an American publisher arrives on the scene, and Nevis is compelled to reevaluate everything. Marcus Chard offers an alternative viewpoint, and Nevis has to focus on what, and who, is important to her.
This is a gentle read in many ways, but represents intense thought on the part of the writer. This edition contains a timeline of the 1930s, and a biography of Panter – Downes which points out her wartime writing for the New Yorker. The Preface points out that in making Nevis a writer, she was including something of an autobiographical element. The Afterword highlights the literary context of this book, and some of the references it contains.This is a very readable book of its time, and I recommend it.