How very right it felt to start 2013 with One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes. Not only is it a beautifully and intelligently written book (I would expect nothing less from Panter-Downes) but it is also a story about making peace with the past and being thankful for what one has, lessons that seem especially appropriate at the start of a new year.
The book focuses on the Marshall family during one hot day in the summer of 1946. They are a typical English middle-class family but, in the uncertainty of the post-world war, Laura and Stephen Marshall are still struggling to define what a typical middle-class existence now looks like. Their beautiful pre-war garden has turned into a jungle in the absence of a dedicated gardener and Laura is overwhelmed by the cooking and cleaning that had once been the domain of servants; they both are realising that, though peace now reigns in Europe, things are never going to go back to the way they were before the war and their pre-war standard of living needs to be adjusted for the post-war labour market. Over the course of one very normal day, we follow Laura through her daily tasks, glimpsing her thoughts as she contemplates her life, her family, and the brave new world she now finds herself in.
There is nothing exceptional about Laura, which is, of course, the point. Nothing extraordinary has ever happened in her life, nor does she expect it to. She accepts her situation resignedly but not unhappily: “I am a perfectly happy married woman, simply getting a little greyer, duller, more tired than I should be getting, because my easier sort of life has come to an end.” She is a little bewildered by her role as homemaker, having relied on servants all her life for the running of the house, and is largely disinterested in it. She loves her husband and her daughter Victoria but is beginning to realise that not every part of their old life needs to – or can – be replicated in the post-war environment. But that realisation is not an easy one. Her mother, a formidable woman who, having spent years in the outposts of the empire fighting to maintain an English way of life in alien environments, sees no reason for her or her daughter’s households to alter now that the war is over:
Her mother, she thought, had not adapted to things. The war had flowed past her like a dark, strong river, never pulling her into its currents, simply washing to her feet the minor debris of evacuees who broke the statue’s fingers and spoiled a mattress, of food shortages, or worry over Laura who was close to bombs and worked too hard, and had tragically lost her fresh looks. Now, said Mrs Herriot, think God it was over, and everything could get back to normal again.
Mrs Herriot, one realises, will get her way but her daughter, infinitely more sensitive to the changing world around her, will have to adapt. But it is not easy to find your feet in a world so foreign, in many ways, to the one you grew up in. Laura fumbles her way through housekeeping and when it comes to raising her daughter, she realises that Victoria might need very different skills than the ones Laura was taught:
…was she, Laura, ridiculous to have Victoria given all the little graces of the Herriot world, the light foot, the agile finger, the easy manner, when it seemed perfectly clear that she would have to work seriously for her living…?
Throughout the day, Laura ponders these questions and observes, as she makes her way through the village, the ways other people’s lives have also changed. By the end of the day, both she and Stephen have come to realise what truly matters to them and that, despite the stresses and uncertainties inherent in post-war Britain, it is within their power to be truly happy.
I know a number of other readers feel very strongly about Laura, finding her incredibly sympathetic with her distaste for housework, absentmindedness in the kitchen, and ability to take pleasure in small things. I did not dislike her but I cannot say that I ever became particularly fond of her. Laura is a mild everywoman who I am sure many people can relate to but, for that reason, she is scarcely memorable as an individual. Panter-Downes’ strength was not characterization but description and is it those descriptive powers that make this book so impressive. There are plenty of stories about men and women who struggled to adjust to the post-war world but there are not many that are written this beautifully, with such rich descriptions and striking imagery. The introduction of Wealding, the village where the Marshalls live, is a wonderful example of Panter-Downes’ skill:
Its perfect peace was, after all, a sham. Coils of barbed wire still rustling among the sorrel were a reminder. Sandbags pouring out sodden guts from the old strong-point among the bracken, the frizzy lily spikes pushing up in the deserted garden of the bombed cottage, spoke of days when the nearness of the sea had been no watch ticking comfortably in the pocket, but a loud brazen question striking constantly in the brain, When? When? The danger had passed. Wealding, however, had been invaded. Uneasiness made the charming, insanitary cottages seem unsubstantial as rose-painted canvas in an operetta; uncertainty floated on the air with the voice of the wireless, which had brought the worm of the world into the tight bud of Wealding. It did not know, it could not tell what to think.
I think Panter-Downes was a better stylist than she was novelist and most of my pleasure in reading this came from the beautifully-composed sentences, intriguing overall structure, and, as mentioned above, vivid imagery. As a glimpse of the struggling middle class in post-WWII Britain, this is fine, though I must admit a preference for domestic novels from the period that deal with these questions in greater detail (including, yes, my beloved Angela Thirkell – you had to have seen that coming). But as a glimpse of Panter-Downes as a writer, as a keen observer of the world around her and masterful stylist, it is extraordinary. This is my least favourite of the three Mollie Panter-Downes books I have now read (this, Good Evening, Mrs Craven, and London War Notes, 1939-1945) but that tells you more about the high standard of her writing than about the flaws of this novel.