I was very excited to get an abebooks alert about an affordable copy of My Husband Simon (1931) by Mollie Panter-Downes (which is usually either unavailable or extortionately expensive). Her novel One Fine Day is (bold claim) one of the best I’ve ever read, and her war diaries are exceptionally good, and naturally I wanted to read more. After I posted about buying it, I was inundated with (ahem) two requests that I read and review it quickly. So, dear readers, I have.
I’ll start by managing expectations – it’s not as good as One Fine Day, London War Notes, or her volumes of short stories published by Persephone. But I still rather loved reading it. The heroine (with the extraordinary name Nevis – is this a name?) is a young wife and novelist, and the novel does, indeed, largely concern her relationship with ‘my husband Simon’. Nevis is literary, intelligent, cultured, and quite the intellectual snob; Simon is none of these things, but is charismatic and jovial (as well as fond of horse-racing). They are not temperamentally suited, but they do have rather a physical attraction – more than I would have expected to find in a 1931 novel, until I remembered The Sheik – and the novel negotiates Nevis’ attempts to write her third novel and manage her marriage. Oh, and she’s 24.
From what I can gather on her Wikipedia page (which isn’t a lot), My Husband Simon is intensely autobiographical. Both Nevis and Mollie had had runaway bestsellers while still teenagers (Mollie was only 17 when The Shoreless Sea became a huge success); both married at 21; Mollie was 24 when writing My Husband Simon – which was her third novel. As far as I can tell, it was all very much drawn from life – and it is nice to know that her real-life marriage lasted for many decades beyond the three-year-anxieties.
As far as plot goes, it is all fairly simplistic. It’s not really the love triangle that the ‘about this novel’ section promises; it’s more introspective and undecided than that. While Nevis’s problems are fairly self-indulgent, and perhaps look a bit ridiculous to anybody older than 24 (which she obviously considers a couple of steps from the grave), the novel is still engaging and enjoyable.
Mollie P-D’s greatest quality – in her finest work – is that of a stylist, I would argue. Particularly in One Fine Day, where the prose is like the most unassuming poetry. There was a 16 year gap between My Husband Simon and One Fine Day (in terms of novels); her attention was transferred to short stories. And so there is only a hint of what her writing could become. It is certainly never bad, but there are only glimpses of beauty. I did like this moment of looking out from a tram, that has the same observational stance as much of One Fine Day:
We climbed on top of the tram and away it snorted. A queer constraint was on us. We hardly said a word, but in some way all my perceptions were tremendously acute so that I took in everything that was going on in the streets. A shopping crowd surged over the pavements. In the windows were gaping carcases of meat, books, piles of vegetable marrows, terrible straw hats marked 6/11d. I though vaguely: “Who buys all the terrible things in the world? Artificial flowers and nasty little brooches of Sealyhams in bad paste, and clothes-brushes, shaped like Micky the Mouse and scarves worked in raffia?” A lovely, anaemic-looking girl stood on the kerb, anxiously tapping an envelope against her front teeth. Should she? Shouldn’t she? And suddenly, having made her decision, all the interest went out of her face and she was just one of the cow-like millions who were trying to look like Greta Garbo.
So, be comforted to know that the best of Panter-Downes’ work is easily available – but this is a novel that certainly wouldn’t disgrace Persephone covers, if they ever decided to publish more by Mollie, and a really interesting example of how she developed into the writer she eventually became.