Still on track so far… today I read the second collection of Mollie Panter-Downes’ short stories published by Persephone Books – Minnie’s Room: The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. It’s infernally difficult to write about a collection of short stories, for so many themes are explored, so many characters introduced, that summaries would rival the collection itself for length. Instead you must try and find some sort of cohesion, in vision or style… which is equally difficult. I’ll set the tone for my thoughts on Minnie’s Room, though – Panter-Downes is very, very good.
I was equally blessed and cursed that the first short stories I read were by Katherine Mansfield. Starting with the best does mean that all subsequent short story perusals have felt slightly sub-standard. Mansfield makes the art look so effortless – and every other short story writer doesn’t quite make the grade. Panter-Downes is no different, but she comes perhaps closer than anyone else yet.
The stories in Minnie’s Room appeared in the New Yorker and publication ranges from 1947 to 1965. I haven’t read her wartime stories, published by Persephone in Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, so I can’t comment on whether peacetime changed Panter-Downes’ tone, but it is fairly consistent across these two decades. Like the best short story writers, she is concerned with the minutiae of life, examining ostensibly insignificant events and the interplay of human relationships. With these she is never heavy-handed; there is a much-needed lightness of touch in the revelations falling upon her characters. My favourite story of the collection is ‘What are the Wild Waves Saying?’ which is framed through a woman’s recollections of a childhood holiday, seeing a young married couple being nothing like she expected. The denouement, in other hands, wouldn’t have worked – but Panter-Downes’ pen is gentle enough to make it memorable rather than mawkish.
Another story, ‘The Willoughbys’, relates well to yesterday’s Persephone, Princes in the Land: here the situation is reversed, with upper-class girl falling in love with lower-class man (and not remotely like Lady Chatterley, of course). Only a writer of Panter-Downes’ subtlety could reveal how little both families appreciate the union, and the complicated feelings of indignant surprise and confliction which the four parents have on discussing the match.
Nicola Beauman has often held Mollie Panter-Downes up as an example of great writing, both in her Persephone volumes and in the classic post-war novel One Fine Day (which is published by Virago). It is easy to see why Panter-Downes is held in such esteem. I especially liked her use of observant details or revealing similes:
Norah, who had determined to keep the house going at any cost, visited employment agencies and explained the Sotherns’ need to unimpressed women presiding over dog-eared ledgers that had a disconcerting look of being theatrical props, full of false names.
London seemed wrapped from end to end in fog. The city was as mottled and dun-coloured as the board covers of some dirty old volume that opened here and there to disclose a thrilling illustration
In terms of themes, the publishers’ introduction notes that many of the stories have middle-class characters striving to live their pre-war life. Another strand I noticed was the idea of faces revealing truth: The woman murmured something, and her head rolled over on the pillow so that her eyes stared into mine, and deep in the sockets I saw a flicker of something resembling a smile, like the dim light of a house one had thought was empty. I was too awed to smile back.
Time and time again faces and eyes suddenly disclose traits or truths previously hidden – and that is, perhaps, as apt a metaphor as any for what Panter-Downes does with the short story. In amongst narratives of ordinary people, often conducting ordinary lives, we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with a character and, cleverly, subtly, Panter-Downes unveils a previously unsuspected angle to the story – and, often, to the world.