Lyrical threnody to a pre-war age

Mollie Panter-Downes speaks of a by-gone era in her elegiac, 1947 novel ONE FINE DAY. Writing it close on the heels of World War II, she captures the sense of loss felt by many a middle-class family, suddenly bereft of their servants or, more tragically, their husbands, their sons, and left to manage their houses and their lifestyles in an entirely new way.

Laura Marshall, the absent-minded, dreamy protagonist, longs for the old way, when she had a cook, two maids, gardeners – bustling, efficient helpers to keep her house in order, her large garden tended and hot meals on the table at the appointed hours. Now, with all her servants gone and the difficulty in procuring new ones tantamount, Laura reflects:

They were awkwardly saddled with a house which, all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed.

Yet despite this lament to a former, happily ordered time, this is not, ultimately, a sad or mournful book. Laura is, at heart, a hopeful, cheerfully philosophic woman who constantly looks for inspiration in her surroundings. Her ebullient nature helps her to appreciate the quietly stunning, spiritually uplifting pastoral landscape in which she lives and to see how she can adapt to and triumph over this new way of life.

Panter-Downes’ poetic impulses shine through in this wonderfully lyrical, beautifully told story. The poetic style does take a certain frame of mind to properly get into. I had tried to read it several years ago, but kept losing the thread. On maternity leave, as I now wait like a sitting duck for the little one to arrive, I have the time and space to devote to it. And I am so glad I did.

There was much in Laura’s family life to which I could relate: the deeply tender and loving, yet refreshingly tempestuous relationship she has with her husband Stephen; the lively, loving approach she takes with her 10-year old daughter Victoria; and her easy, mindful caring for their errant dog Stuffy. I loved the interplay between the family members, between Laura and the others in the village.

It was a joy to read, especially coming after Chekhov’s rather grim THE LADY WITH THE LITTLE DOG (& OTHER STORIES). I’d never read Chekhov before and it was a good introduction, despite the depressing subjects. He goes straight to the heart of deep human issues – poverty, spiritual desolation, desperation, fleeting love – and pulls no punches.

At a recent dinner party, the topic of marital infidelity came up, specifically the point was made that men err more than women. I took issue with that, citing Chekhov’s stories as an example of as many women as men having affairs – and this can’t be only in Russia. Whether men can rationalise it better and feel less guilt and thus move on to other liasons more easily, is, of course, another matter entirely.

With my new ‘maternity leave’ state upon me, as I wait with mounting anticipation for mini-babe, I am determined to devote more time to this blog and to reading and writing in general. When the baby arrives – who knows?! – but, for now, I shall try to keep to more regular posts.

Comments always welcome! Chao for now.

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2 Responses to “Lyrical threnody to a pre-war age”

  1. Frances Bean Says:

    Em.. Thanks for that review of One Fine Day.. from your description of the main female protagonist, I’m reminded of the zeal that I’ve begun to admire in George Eliot’s Middlemarch protagonist, Dorthea Brooks, which I’ve begun recently. Keep these coming!! What fun. Love to you always, Fran

  2. Anna Sanctuary Says:

    Doesn’t the Mollie Panter-Downes (what a fantastic name!) take on a rather sinister edge, or am I thinking of something else? And isn’t there a terrible mother-in-law lurking somewhere in the background…? I’m sure I read this book but it was a long time ago. I have a memory of a sunny garden and a big house. I think I came across M.P-D through Persephone.

    I’ve just read a recent Esther Freud – rather light reading, summery, although it has a rather nasty end which leaves you feeling a bit haunted.

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