Mollie Panter-Downes was the London correspondent for the New Yorker and this collection from Persephone Books brings together a number of her contributions to the magazine which were written during World War II. The book opens with her Letter from London dated 3 September 1939 and ends with another dated 11 June 1944. Between the two letters are twenty-one short stories, each of which offers an insight into the hopes and fears of British people trying to deal with the changes the war has brought to their lives.
These stories are not particularly dramatic or sensational in any way. They are realistic stories that focus not so much on the war itself, but on the effects of the war on the women (and a few of the men) who were left behind at home. We read about women attending sewing parties, worrying about loved ones who are away fighting, preparing for their husbands to go to war, coping with being pregnant during the war and experiencing almost any other wartime situation you can think of.
After finishing the book, there are a few stories that stand out in my memory more than the others. In Clover, for example, is a story about a rich woman called Mrs Fletcher who takes in a family of evacuees from a poor part of London. This was an interesting study into how the war pushed together people of different social backgrounds who wouldn’t usually have mixed with each other. This Flower, Safety follows Miss Mildred Ewing as she moves from one hotel to another in an attempt to escape from danger, beginning to despair of ever finding somewhere safe to live. Then there’s the story of Miss Burton, who is so hungry she can think about nothing else. The title story is also one of the best; it’s about a woman who has been having an affair with a married man. On the evening before he leaves to go to Libya, she wonders how she’ll be able to find out whether he’s dead or alive:
“Don’t think I’m being stupid and morbid,” she said, “but supposing anything happens. I’ve been worrying about that. You might be wounded or ill and I wouldn’t know.” She tried to laugh. “The War Office doesn’t have a service for sending telegrams to mistresses, does it?”
The stories are published in chronological order, as they appeared in New Yorker between 1939 and 1944, showing how life in Britain changed as the war progressed. Despite the subject matter, these stories are not all bleak and depressing – there’s also a lot of humour in Panter-Downes’ writing, in the form of gentle wit and irony.
As with most of the short story collections that I’ve read, there were some that didn’t interest me very much, but others that I loved and wished were longer. However, I think reading them all at once was a mistake as it was a bit too much for me. I think I would have enjoyed this collection even more if I had dipped in and out and taken the time to appreciate each story individually.