Another nifty revival from those folks at Persephone Books in London. Mollie Panter-Downes wrote the “Letter from London” in the New Yorker for 45 years. In addition, she wrote short stories, 21 of which are collected here. They all date from World War II. They are small in scope, more like snapshots of a situation than narratives, but the keen observation and the lack of sentiment make them quite fascinating. Panter-Downes seems immensely reliable.
She deals largely with the women left behind in England, ever more hungry, lonely, anxious, and cold. One story is narrated from the point of view of a man, kept in London on important war work, who chafes at his safe domestic routine and envies a former schoolmate who manages to get himself killed as a parachutist. A couple of them focus on the strange relationships wartime forged: lodgers, paying guests, master/servant relationships turned topsy turvey. There are a couple of lovely ones (“Battle of the Greeks” and “Literary Scandal at the Sewing Party”) that poke fun at the country working parties where the women of a village cooperated to make “comforts for the troops.” (Angela Thirkell had a good time with these, too.) Melancholy is never far away, though. The title story, “Good Evening, Mrs. Craven” uses the device of a dinner at a Strand steakhouse to sketch the pitiful situation of a long-time kept woman whose lover has been sent abroad with the military. It’s all very small-scale but affecting nonetheless.