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Sunday, May 31, 2009

In praise of Mollie Panter-Downes

Before this week Mollie Panter-Downes was just a name I noticed in the footnotes of books about the Home Front in the war. She was an English writer whose wartime despatches to the New Yorker have proved invaluable source material for historians trying to pin down the mood of daily life in those days. She also wrote short stories. Sometimes very short stories. These are collected in two fondle-worthy editions from Persephone that I've devoured in the last few days.

Apparently she was one of the few writers whose copy that magazine's fastidious style police never had to change. Her style is as easy to read as magazine fiction ought to be but manages to be haunting and picturesque at the same time. Whether or not she knew it, she was describing the lives of her subjects at the same time as they were undergoing permanent change. People were moving out of houses they could no longer afford, finding themselves living cheek by jowl with people they would never normally encounter, enduring the terror of the Blitz (she talks about a bomb on its way down as making "a hole in the air") and later in the war missing the companionship it provided. She's particularly good on the fact that the English class system is sustained as much from below as it is imposed from above and what she calls in one story "the dignity of all human affection". Marvellous stuff.