My Persephone Reading Weekend began with a whimper, I’m afraid – I finally got some time to read, got the house all quiet, cuddled up, read the Preface to Good Evening, Mrs. Craven, and promptly fell asleep. Gregory LeStage’s Preface was fascinating, though, as it prepared me for what’s to come: he notes that Panter-Downes’ stories focus on the psychological aspects of relationships, in a style akin to journalism – not surprising, considering her long relationship with The New Yorker, in which all the short stories in this collection were originally published.
An early bedtime meant I was up before the sun, however, and I enjoyed the beginning of the book with a cup of coffee before the rest of the house was awake. The Persephone edition of the book actually begins with the “Letter from London” that Panter-Downes wrote the week the United Kingdom declared war on Germany in 1939. It was especially interesting reading that piece having recently enjoyed The King’s Speech, which brought that time to life so vividly.
So far my favorite story is “Mrs. Ramsay’s War,” published in the winter of 1940, when it was unclear if this would be a prolonged conflict. It’s the second story featuring Mrs. Ramsay, a woman whose outer placidity doesn’t match her inner turmoil. This story focuses on the onerous nature of houseguests during the War. A friend’s family (along with their annoying Pekinese dogs) descends on Mrs. Ramsay at her country home during the first winter months of the evacuation of London. Like the patriotic woman she is, Mrs. Ramsay keeps a stiff upper lip in the face of shared hardship – but her inner dialog is anything but serene:
All autumn Mrs. Parmenter had run out between the showers and picked the asters, saying brightly that an old woman must be allowed to do something around the house. Opposition would hardly have been hysterical if she had offered to make the beds, but her tastes appeared to be floral. Now it was January, and the snowdrops, and before you knew where you were, Mrs. Ramsay thought morbidly, it would be May and the tulips. Somehow she had never expected to spend the war having a Battle of Flowers with Mrs. Parmenter.
Even this far in I see LeStage’s point: there’s very little plot in these stories. They’re all about what’s going on beneath the surface. I love the humor in her writing. It’s so subtle and understated and, well, British. Bellezza certainly nailed this gift – it’s absolutely my style. I have to admit, I’m surprised that I had never encountered Panter-Downes until now, but I’m thrilled to be reading her work now.
I hope everyone else has enjoyed a wonderful day of reading. Thanks again to Claire at Paperback Reader and Verity at CardiganGirlVerity for hosting!
Looking forward to the rest of this Gray Weekend,