One Fine Day – Mollie Panter-Downes

Back to normal now, folks!  You’d think I’d have taken the opportunity to write lots of reviews, ready to post… but… I didn’t.  Although I hope you were suitably intrigued by the little clues I gave yesterday… the first one up is the brilliant re-read.  So brilliant, in fact, that it’s leaping onto my 50 Books You Must Read But May Not Have Heard About…

39. One Fine Day – Mollie Panter-Downes

I do more re-reading now than I used to, but I tend towards books I already know I’ll love.  So there are some novels I’ll read every two years or so, and some that I don’t remember much about, but knew I loved ten years ago, say.  What I seldom do (understandably, perhaps) is re-read books that I didn’t love – those that I disliked, or thought only quite good.

Thank goodness I decided to re-read Mollie Panter-Downes’ One Fine Day.

I first read it back in 2004, and thanks to never emptying my inbox (currently at 76,992 emails – all read, don’t worry) I can tell you that I reported thus to my online book group: “I did enjoy this, but not as much as I was expecting given Nicola’s love love love of it.  I was expecting E.M. Delafield and it landed more Virginia Woolf than I thought it would??  Memorable, though.”  The Nicola in question is Nicola Beauman, doyenne of Persephone Books, who has often held up One Fine Day as an almost perfect novel.  Indeed, it was she who rediscovered the book for Virago’s Modern Classics series.

Well, turns out Nicola was right, of course.  I had initially thought One Fine Day only fairly good, whereas now I believe it is an absolutely excellent – and, indeed, important – novel.

My early comparison with Virginia Woolf is one that I stick by, although why I would have thought that was a bad thing, I can’t imagine.  But I am aware that a lot of you will be turned off by the mention of Woolf – let me encourage you not to be!  One of the reasons that I think One Fine Day is an important novel is that it is something of a bridge between the middlebrow and the modernist.  It is Panter-Downes’ style which makes the novel so exquisite, and yet it has none of the inaccessibility of which Woolf can be accused.  She has all the fluidity and ingenuity of the great prose/poetry stylist, combined with the keen and sensible observation of the domestic novelist.  Time for me to hand over to Mollie Panter-Downes for a fairly long excerpt:

The bus was full of women, sighing, sweating gently under the arms of their cotton dresses as they held on to their baskets and their slippery, fretful children.  A tiny boy screamed like an angry jay, drumming his fists on the glass.  He wa-anted it, he wa-anted it!  Bless the child, wanted what?  It, it, ow-w-w! he wept with fury at adult stupidity already frustrating his simple world.  A spaniel on the floor at somebody’s feet shifted cautiously, lifting a red-cornered eye towards his owner, hoping and trusting that no one would tread on his paw.  Human uneasiness and irritability seemed to fill the bus with hot cottonwool, choking, getting up the nostrils.  If it did not start in a moment, it might burst with pressure from its prickling cargo.  Only a young man, a hiker, seemed to sit aloof and happy in the heat.  He wore a blue shirt and drill shorts; on his knees was a knapsack.  His neck was a dull red, so was the brow of his cheerful, ordinary face.  Perhaps he had only just come out of the Army or the Air Force, thought Laura, watching him study his map with such happy concentration.  Ow, ow, ow-w-w, wept the tiny boy, unable to escape and go striding off amongst the bracken, still handcuffed to childhood.  I’ll smack you proper if you don’t stop, threatened his mother.  The young man studied his map, reading England with rapture.  The driver, who had descended to cool his legs and have a word with a crony outside the Bull, swung himself up into his seat.  An angry throbbing seized the bus, the hot bodies of the passengers quivered like jelly, the jaws of an old woman by the door seemed to click and chatter.  With a lurch, they started.  The tiny boy’s tears stopped as though within his tow-coloured head someone had turned a tap.  His brimming eyes stared out at the streets as he sat quietly on his mother’s lap, clutching a little wooden horse.

I think that’s brilliant, just beautiful.  Mollie Panter-Downes also has a great way with metaphors and similes, offering unexpected images which somehow don’t jar, and convey much more than a simple statement could.  I’m not going to be able to resist quoting MPD (if you will) quite a bit, by the way, so here’s an example: ‘Now that he was home, he could not abide the thought of other people’s bath water running out, meeting on the stairs with forced joviality, someone else’s life pressed up against one in a too small space like a stranger’s overcoat against one’s mouth in a crowd.’

It’s unusual for me to talk about the style of a novel before I address the rudiments of the plot, but I do think it’s MPD’s style which sets her apart from her contemporaries.  In terms of plot, nothing really happens.  One Fine Day, as the title suggests, is all set during one day.  The war is over, and people are beginning to get back to their old lives – only, of course, nothing can ever really be the same.  Laura (the central character, through whose eyes we see most of the novel) goes shopping, visits a family in the village, tries to retrieve her dog from a gipsy encampment, and walks up a beautiful hill.  The events of the day are, in fact, uneventful.  It is this ordinariness, in contrast to the uncertain and unkind days of war, which resonates throughout One Fine Day.  Laura’s observations and reflections are not dramatic or life-changing – but that is their beauty.  What a relief it must have been to read about the pursuit of a gardener, or the view from a hill, rather than menacing newspaper headlines and the constant worry about loved ones.  The novel relaxes into this peacefulness and freedom – but with a continuous backward glance.  The war has changed Laura.  She is

a bit thinner over the cheekbones, perhaps, the hair completely grey in front, though the back was still fair and crisply curling, like rear-line soldiers who do not know that defeat has bleakly overtaken their forward comrades.

There is an undercurrent throughout One Fine Day of changed times – not just the working-class villagers who no longer want jobs in domestic service, or need to pay strict adherence to codes of class civility.  Laura has been separated from her husband Stephen for years; he has not watched their daughter Victoria grow up.  The family is not destroyed by this, nor is it even unhappy – but it is strained, and it is tired, but resilient.  Mollie P-D conveys so perfectly the triumph and relief of this weary, determined little family unit, who do not fully understand one another, but who stand together, grateful for all they have managed to keep.

Alongside Panter-Downes’ beautiful writing, it is the character of Laura which is the novel’s triumph.  Perhaps the two cannot quite be separated, because she is built of this wonderful style – it is not quite stream of consciousness, it never leaves the third person, but it flits through thoughts and noticings and reflections as Laura does.  And she is such a wonderful character.  She reminds me a bit of Mrs. Miniver, but without her slight tweeness.  Laura loves beauty, especially beauty in nature; she is a little absent-minded and uncertain, but she is strong and caring and optimistic.  Laura is observant but not judgemental; intelligent but not an intellectual.  A line of poetry runs through her head, in relation to her everyday activity:

Who wrote that? Laura wondered absently.  She could not remember.  Her mind was a ragbag, in which scraps of forgotten brightness, odd bits of purple and gold, were hopelessly mixed up with laundry lists and recipes for doing something quick and unconvincingly delicious with dried egg.

Laura is a perfect heroine for the wave of feminism which re-evaluated the worth of domestic life.  Perhaps especially because she does not entirely idealise it herself; she describes her class and people as ‘all slaves of the turned-back fresh linen, the polished wood reflecting the civilised candlelight, the hot water running into the shining bath.’  But she is a willing slave – all grumbles and laments are covered in the sheer gratitude Laura feels for life and freedom.  I can’t convey quite what a wonderful character Laura is, nor quite how perfectly Panter-Downes understands and shapes her.  To create a character who is both realistic and lovable must be one of the most difficult authorial tasks.  She is as psychologically well-developed as Mrs. Dalloway or Laura Ramsay, but as delightful as Mrs. Miniver or the Provincial Lady.  It is an astonishing combination.

I wrote blandly, back in 2004, that One Fine Day was ‘memorable, though’, unappreciative wretch that I was!  Truth be told, I had not remembered much of the novel.  And I doubt I will remember which steps Laura took, which neighbours she encountered, nor which views she expressed.  This is the sort of novel which cannot be remembered for its contents; only for the impression it leaves.  And that I certainly shall not forget.  I’m so grateful that I returned to One Fine Day, and was given a second chance to appreciate properly the work of brilliance that it is.  I am only left wondering, of course, quite how many other novels I have underestimated in this manner…??

Others who got Stuck in this Book:

“An ordinary day, an ordinary family, ordinary lives, but an extraordinary novel.” – Margaret, BooksPlease

“The author’s love for this part of England absolutely sings through this little gem of a novel” – Geranium Cat’s Bookshelf

“But there were also fundamental changes in England’s social fabric, which this short novel portrays in exquisite and sometimes painful detail.” – Laura’s Musings

“It is a moving, elegiac novel about love, beauty, and most importantly, freedom” – Rachel, Book Snob

28 thoughts on “One Fine Day – Mollie Panter-Downes

  • March 14, 2012 at 2:26 am

    I struggle with high modernism, but reading this novel that straddles the line between middle-brow and modernism might help me ease into it a bit more. One Fine Day sounds charming, and I've added it to my growing TBR list. :)

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      This could be perfect for you, Diana! I do hope you manage to find a copy… and then you can try Woolf afterwards ;)

  • March 14, 2012 at 2:38 am

    I'd love to read this. Your review is brilliant – it has covered all the intriguing bits specially the style of this author.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:20 pm

      Thank you so much, Mystica! I think style is so important, but so difficult to write about – hence long quotations!

  • March 14, 2012 at 3:23 am

    What a stunning review, Simon. This book does seem to provoke the most enthuiastic responses – I remember placing it on my TBR list primarily because of Rachel's passion for it. I am looking forward to reading this (though I'm maybe just a little scared of not enjoying its distinctive style) and am encouraged to know that if I don't adore it the first time, maybe I'll be won over on a reread!

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:21 pm

      Thanks so much, Claire!
      I read a few really enthusiastic reviews over the years, and wondered why my own response (whilst positive) had not been at those levels. And now I am happy to rectify that!
      You do have that reread in the bank, just in case ;)

  • March 14, 2012 at 7:06 am

    Oh how lovely to read your review on the way to work, on what will hopefully be another beautiful English spring day. I so enjoyed One Fine Day & your review has brought it all back. Thank you.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:22 pm

      Thanks for your lovely comment!
      I didn't write much about it in this review, but my love of the countryside and love of spring definitely helped in my love of this novel.

  • March 14, 2012 at 7:41 am

    How does it fit with works like Nella Last? And may I borrow it please?

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      Hmm… good question. I think Nella Last's Peace and this would make great companion reads – this novel is perhaps more reflective and philosophical, while Nella still had a lot to get on with (she didn't have the luxury of wandering up a hill in the middle of the afternoon!)

      You may indeed borrow it! In fact, I was reading a borrowed copy – my copy is under P on my shelves – go and grab it!

  • March 14, 2012 at 7:58 am

    This is how memorable One Fine Day was for me (I read it last year): when I read the title of your post I thought, "I really must read it at long last" and then read your post and realised I had. Perhaps it will make more of an impression, like it did with you, if I reread it. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf, I recall; OFD is similar to Between the Acts, I thought.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:23 pm

      Hilarious! Maybe it needs a reread :)
      And I definitely agree with your Woolf choice – BTA is the closest; that elegiac tone.

  • March 14, 2012 at 1:38 pm

    Wonderful review of a wonderful book! I read this last year and loved it. I remember reading bits of it out to John (DH) all the way through. Now I think I'll treat myself to another wee read of it! I've enjoyed MPD's other works, too. A perceptive writer and I'm so glad she's being published again.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm

      Thanks, Penny!
      I've read some of her short stories, but none of her other novels – I do have a copy of The Shoreless Sea, but it's so old and battered that I'm afraid to try to read it, lest it completely falls apart.

  • March 14, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    I love the vicarious pleasure of reading about favourite books on other people's blogs, and you really do it justice. You make me want to read it again…now, where on all those double-stacked shelves is my copy, I wonder?

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:25 pm

      That's exactly the effect I wanted to have, Jodie! I hope you track down your copy…

  • March 14, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    Such a good review of a very fine book. I too have re-read this book and enjoyed and admired it even more the second time.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:26 pm

      Thanks so much, Carole! I really wanted to do this wonderful novel justice – and although I daresay I haven't, I hope I wasn't too far away!

  • March 14, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Are you going to tell me you've got that gorgeous VMC you've posted above? Further, are you going to tell me that you got it @ NHCBE *again*?!!!

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      I can't actually remember which copy I have! The one I read was borrowed… I think the copy I have is actually an earlier edition than the VMC one, so THERE!

  • March 14, 2012 at 3:46 pm

    I bought this book after Nicole praised it at a Persephone book chat. It wasn't quite all that I had hoped for but my understanding and appreciation for literature from this era grows every day. A re-read is in order I think.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:27 pm

      I am surprised, Darlene! I thought you'd love and adore this one… maybe, like me, you need that re-read ;)

  • March 14, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    This book was also Cornflower's answer to No. 4 in My Life In Books – Series One (which I just re-reviewed yesterday thanks to your posting the links!). Yet another reason to bump it up on the TBR.

    • March 14, 2012 at 11:28 pm

      Indeed it was! The lady has very good taste ;) That alone should have prompted me to re-read One Fine Day a year ago…

  • March 14, 2012 at 11:28 pm

    Oh dear, where has your comment gone? It was so lovely, too!

  • March 14, 2012 at 11:54 pm

    Well I'm glad you found the light on your second reading Simon, otherwise I'd be having serious words.

    Fantastic review. It reminded me of how gorgeous I found this when I read it. The prose is perfect – so delicately, evocatively beautiful. The sense of relief coupled with grief is so profound – there is so much sadness but also so much joy – it's so emotionally loaded and you really *get* how it must have felt to emerge from years of living under the shadow of war and suddenly be free again. It made me sob and sob. I love it. It's one of the best books of the 20th century if you ask me.

    I've come over all evangelical about it. But everything I say is TRUE!

    • March 16, 2012 at 9:47 am

      And so say all of us!

      Good job I've never really admitted my slightly lukewarm feelings before, otherwise you might have had to take me down. ;)

      Thanks for your kind words about my review – obviously I went back and re-read yours when writing this one, and just hoped I could write something half as wonderful!

  • March 17, 2012 at 1:24 pm

    I think ones mood at the time of reading has a lot to do with how you respond to a novel!

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