Prompted by Julia Blackburn's mention of Minnie's Room : The Peacetime Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes I headed for the Persephone shelves to find my copy and I'm very grateful to Julia for the reminder.
I flitter and flutter about with Persephone books. Some times they are all in the same place, sometimes that looks like too much grey in one place and I mix them in with everything else. But at the moment they are still nicely housed on the octagonal book table with a few exceptions, war diaries on the war shelf, Flush by Virginia Woolf over in the Bloomsbury department, cookery in the kitchen.
I hadn't read Minnie's Room before but a story a day over the last ten days has become a ritual and one I'm feeling quite bereft of now that I've read them all. Short stories like this work for me because they do what they say; they are properly short and can easily be carefully read in a slow-taps-bath-running interlude, ten or so pages, not half-novellas pretending to be short which have flood potential.
But even better, Minnie's Room complemented my recent read of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters perfectly because these stories cover that same immediate post-war era.
Being born in 1953 I'm a bit blind about this period of time and it's been interesting to focus some attention on it. All those things you take for granted as a child just because they 'are', that's just the way it was and then eventually you reluctantly become a primary historical source yourself as you start to re-examine that time in your life.
The introduction to Minnie's Room sets these ten stories in their post-war context well. All previously published in the New Yorker and edited in chronological order from 1947 through to 1954 with the final one leaping ahead to 1965 and a most felicitous and uplifting last story of moving on to a new life whilst preserving what mattered from the old, it's so very cleverly done.
This timescale offers a measured narrative progression through all that post-war disquiet and uncertainty after those years which had spelled death, destruction and deprivation for so many; all those entrenched habits exposed as they try to nestle down and survive in this hiatus whilst the old order shrivels and the new one emerges.
Think of even more alliteration, more heavy and leaden D-words, depleted, depressed, demoralized, downcast and you can almost hear the nail being driven into the coffin, feel the weight of this disappearing world on those shoulders (can you tell I've been reading Gerard Manley Hopkins alongside Ulysses...does it show?)
Though the upper classes were struggling to come to terms with the new social order and managing on much less money than they had been used to, it was the middle classes who were hit hardest by the burden of income tax at 9/- (shillings) in the £, almost 50% in old money, which on reflection seems quite staggering. They are all represented in various guises in Mollie Panter-Downes's book and please forgive the indiscretion, I never give away this much plot, but the title story sets the scene on this world perfectly and I couldn't resist it.
Skip from * to ** if you want to.
Minnie, 'an ugly little Londoner', the housemaid who came to the family as 'a raw girl' twenty-five years ago, has saved up enough money to leave the family she has lived with and worked for and, moving into a little rented room of her own, will finally achieve independence.
A first step up that ladder now becoming accessible to all.
Helplessly incapable of caring for themselves, the Sothern family suddenly find great stores of previously unspoken gratitude for Minnie which quickly turns into a barely-concealed resentment and anger as they realize they will be utterly useless without her. Suddenly it is Minnie who is free and spinster-daughter of the family, Norah, who will be trapped into cooking, keeping house and caring for her parents, whilst her footloose brother Maurice can move out and venture off on his own.
Even Maurice's supposed powers of irresistible male persuasion, brought in as a final and desperate weapon in the family's arsenal of bullying and coercion, can't prevail over the 'ugly little devil'.
As the family look out of their Bayswater window, with its 'muffling plush curtains' and onto the square as dusk falls, the sweet-scented lilacs hold no magic. It's clear the sun is setting on a way of life for the Sothern family and countless others like them, whilst a new dawn is rising for legions of Minnies and as she gazes out of her window her gratitude and humility is immeasurable,
'There was a big lime tree growing in the street, just opposite the window, 'In the hot weather I shall get the smell lovely.'
All clear, you can look again now.
Those who had the power find it eroded, find themselves out of step with the world they thought they knew whilst the dis-empowered suddenly find they have the resolve, the means and the courage to change it.
I didn't know much about Mollie Panter-Downes but having read the publisher's note and then Minnie's Room it's of little surprise to discover that the New Yorker published 852 pieces by her between 1938 and 1984.
Here are the widows, the spinsters, the memories, the holidays, the weddings, the bereavements and all perfectly captured in microscopic detail. I have been beyond impressed with the delicate and intense perception of that oft ignored detail, those little moments that can so easily slip through a writer's fingers or when added clumsily become superfluous moments which draw too much attention to themselves.
Somehow Mollie Panter-Downes captures the essence of the moment and conveys it with a delicacy and an immediacy, coupled with that elusive ease and necessity all making these stories a complete pleasure to read in the midst of far too much pre-Booker contemporary fiction than is good for me right now.
More of similar to follow very soon and not in the usual gorge that leaves me over-sated, because from August I'm planning a Middlebrow-a-Month to keep this flame flickering gently in amongst all my other reading.
I'll post about it on the last day each month and then announce the next one so if you want to join in the reading and then chat about it over a tray of virtual tea and scones in comments, you'd be very welcome.
Here's advance notice of the first one for August 31st.