Sunday, 31 January 2010

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes


One Fine Day was a re-read. I first met it some years ago in the library and ever since it has been on the list of books to acquire if I happened across it - with something of a hiatus when I realised that I had forgotten what it was called. Later, I recognised it from, I think, a review by Margaret at BooksPlease, so it was with a sense of real pleasure and anticipation that I opened a parcel to find a copy, a hand-me-down from one aunt to her elder sister and thence to me.

Like quite a few others I can think of, my reading over the last couple of years has circled around the pre- and post- war period, as we discover what a wealth of good storytelling we’d been neglecting. Thanks originally to Virago, and now to publishers like Persephone and Bloomsbury and GreyLadies, we are becoming reacquainted with some wonderful writing, fluent, witty and graceful, and this book is a perfect example.

At first, nonetheless I was taken by surprise – for the first few pages I found myself impatient at the scatty and inept Laura, despairing at her inability to find domestic help for house and garden. Goodness, I thought, couldn’t she get out there and weed the roses herself? After all, I know sh’es going to spend the day climbing a hill and sitting at the top, musing. Because this is a book where nothing happens - Laura has breakfast, goes shopping, picks a few gooseberries, and reclaims her errant dog, daydreaming all the while. But soon I found myself beguiled again by the writing, and by Laura’s charm and self deprecation, and then I remembered - and was reminded by Laura’s musings – just how hard the war had been. Not necessarily especially frightening for those living in the country, away from the Blitz, but there was the mind-numbing undercurrent of worry for partners who were fighting, the endless deprivation and making do. In 1946, when One Fine Day takes place, much of that deprivation is still in evidence: rationing still in place, there’s not much money to spare, and the world has changed for ever. Not so much perhaps for Laura’s mother grumbling gently away in Cornwall though still able to find a ‘domestic’, but for the British in general a way of life was disappearing for ever.

Through Laura’s musings and her desultory conversations with people she meets, we learn about life in this quiet English village and the impact of the war. Young women have realised that there is life outside domestic service, young men that there’s a wide world in which to earn a living. Laura, brought up to run a house by giving instructions to the cook, is now realising that she is unlikely ever to find a replacement for the long gone Mrs Abbey who had such a way with an apple charlotte; indeed, she is lucky to have Mrs Prout, her charlady who refuses to call anyone Madam. The class boundaries have anyway been eroded by the wartime sewing parties up at the big house (when all the village women got together to sew for the services), although not so much that anyone knows the name of the gypsy from whom Laura must reclaim her dog.

Mollie Panter-Downes paints a vivid and affectionate picture of the village of Wealding and its inhabitants. Laura and Stephen trying to maintain house and garden and both struggling - Laura with the milk which will boil over when her mind wanders, Stephen with the recalcitrant garden; their daughter, Victoria, with her craving for the farmhouse food her friend Mouse takes for granted; Mrs Heriott, certain that Stephen isn’t good enough for her daughter; there are the flighty and fecund Porters; Mrs Cranmer moving into a flat now big houses are being taken on by the ‘National Trussed’; Mr Stanley Rudge, Builder, firmly on the up, obsequious schadenfreude at its most slimy; even the supercilious cat and the wayward dog, Stuffy, notable only during much of the novel for her absence. The author’s love for this part of England absolutely sings through this little gem of a novel, a celebration of a countryside much diminished since the 1940s but, when you can find it, still lovely:
The flower borders still, with dogged herbaceous loyalty, pushed up spires of rose and yellow, patches of blue and velvet maroon with dark eyes from which, as jauntily pretty as they, the wild convolvulus hung its white trumpet and the thistle thrust a purple rosette four steely feet into the air. The bees bumbled about in it contentedly, and the cat scratched delicately and unreproved beneath the branching lupins.

10 comments:

  1. How interesting:I've never come across this book but as I'm just coming to the end of my annual Angela Thirkell feast, that period is very much in my mind. I'll look out for it!

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  2. You leave me inclined to rush to my Virago bookcase and pull this one out. I'm hesitating though, because it's the authors only novel I have, and I fear the sense of loss when I have nothing new to turn to.

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  3. I have an old hardback copy of this book and I love it. The all-in-one-day action works well and as you say, it's beautifully written. It's interesting in the way that Mrs Miniver is; we know what will happen but the author doesn't. After this one, I was disappointed in Good Evening, Mrs Craven by the same author, possibly because I don't get on well with short stories.

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  4. I loved this book. I think it captures the essence of the English countryside perfectly. The nostalgia and tragic sense of what has been lost are so poignant. It was over 2 years ago that I read about this book and it still stands out in my mind - a memorable book. One to re-read!

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  5. Thank you for this review. I've read so many positive postings about the book, and I tried to read it; I really did. I'm not sure how far along I got, but I so disliked the character(s). It felt somehow mean-spirited to me. Maybe I will try it again sometime with your words in mind. Funny, because I adore Mrs. Miniver and the Provincial Lady, but this woman I didn't like at all. Do you know who painted the picture on the cover? It is such a wonderful scene.

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  6. Nicola, it's ideal post-Thirkell reading, isn't it!

    Fleur, I know what you mean - I put off reading books for years rather then "use them up".

    CMM, I haven't read the short stories, but maybe I won't expect too much from them now I've been warned.

    Margaret, yes - and thank you for reminding me what it was!

    Nan, isn't that funny - I do think that it comes over how desperately tired they are, and that makes them slightly unlovable, maybe? The artist is Charles Ginner, and you can see some of hhis work on the Tate Britain site

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  7. I seem to have been reading about this book for at least two years, in and around blogland. It's high time I made the effort to get hold of it and read it as I really think I would enjoy it.

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  8. Thank you for all your recommendations, GC. I now feel compelled to put in a book order.

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  9. Cath, I do think you would like it.

    Susie, we aim to please!

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  10. I have just enjoyed, no loved, reading One Fine Day courtesy of a gift from the Cornflower Bookgroup. Thank you for this insightful review which really distils the essence of this beautiful and subtle book. Like you Geranium Cat I have read quite a bit about the pre- and postwar period and this slots in perfectly. I am envious though that Callmemadam has an old hardback copy and would love to know what the dustjacket artwork lookslike.

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