Original date of publication: 1939-1945
My edition: 2008 (Persephone)
Why I decided to read: browsing on the Persephone website
How I acquired my copy: Persephone subscription, June 2010
Good Evening Mrs. Craven is a collection of 21 short stories that Mollie Panter-Downes wrote for The New Yorker during the war years. Although she was English and lived in Surrey for most of her life, her work both as a short story writer and as a journalist has been virtually forgotten in England; and yet she was a prolific writer, writing over 800 pieces for The New Yorker during her career.
Mollie Panter-Downes’s stories are vignettes that focus on short moments in the day of average Britons during the war. None of these people is particularly remarkable, but they live in extraordinary times, and how they cope with that is what’s so fascinating about this collection. From country housewives serving on Red Cross committees and housing evacuees, to young working women surviving the London Blitz, to a spinster who fantasizes about the food she can’t have, to an old Major who looks forward with relish to the fighting (even though he can’t join in), these stories are funny and poignant at the same time.
The characters in these stories are very loosely connected to one another, and only one appears more than once (Mrs. Ramsay, the housewife, whose reflections on her circumstances are brilliantly funny; I wish Panter-Downes had written more stories featuring her). The most moving of these stories is the title story, “Good Evening Mrs. Craven,” in which a mistress (mistakenly called Mrs. Craven by a maitre d’ at a restaurant) has to mourn her lover in secret. These stories have been published here in the order that they were published, and throughout the book you can see the war unfold. Although each story is only a few pages, the characters are very well rounded; in fact, there’s so much material here that the author could have written a full-length novel centering around any one of them. I don’t normally read much in the way of short stories, but this collection is top-notch.
This is Persephone no. 8 Endpaper below.