I have read, and very much enjoyed, many books published by Persephone over the years – as, indeed, have many of the bloggers and readers I follow. I was thrilled when I came across a copy of Mollie Panter-Downes’ peacetime stories, Minnie’s Room, in my local library. I loved both her War Notes, and Good Evening, Mrs Craven, a collection of short stories set on the Home Front during the Second World War. I snatched up the copy (carefully, of course), and went home immediately to begin reading it.
Minnie’s Room is a companion of sorts to Good Evening, Mrs Craven. Comprised of ten stories, all of which are set outside of the Second World War, the collection runs to just 125 pages. Panter-Downes began to write these tales immediately after she finished her much respected novel, One Fine Day, which I have yet to pick up. They are all dated throughout the collection, and were written largely between 1947 and 1954. The final story, however, was penned in 1965.
In Minnie’s Room, Panter-Downes shows different aspects of British postwar life. She focuses acutely upon the English middle class, who, as the publisher’s note explains, were ‘struggling to try and live in the same way that they had enjoyed before the war.’ This note goes on to say: ‘Many of the stories are about people who once had glorious lives, either because they were more affluent or because they were powerful in India or simply because they had once been young and were now old. In every case they are images of a once-great past now brought low.’
The titular story of the collection is about a family who are astounded that their maid, Minnie, wants to leave their employ in order to live out her days in a room of her own. Minnie’s goal in life is highly Woolfian, although rather than yearning for a space in which to work, she longs for a room in which she can rest. Panter-Downes’ omniscient narrator notes: ‘If a woman got to a certain age without finding a husband and kids, Minnie’s philosophy stated, she ought to have something of her own, even if it were only one room that belonged to nobody else.’
Panter-Downes explores different kinds of relationships in Minnie’s Room, but seems particularly interested in the correlation between employer and employee. She looks at the middle classes, and how they relied in this period upon hired staff – the maid in ‘Minnie’s Room’, the nurse caring for an elderly charge in ‘Beside the Still Waters’, and the nanny of a woman whose childhood memories are collected in the quite beautiful story ‘Intimations of Mortality’.
Familial relationships, too, and their often tumultuous nature, find a place in these stories. In ‘Beside the Still Waters’, to use an example from above, Panter-Downes comments: ‘Her brothers and sister… greeted one another amiably but without enthusiasm. Meeting seldom, they generally parted as speedily as possible, and with a certain amount of relief. On such occasions, Cynthia found it difficult to think of herself and these three middle-aged adults as having at any time constituted a tight little unit known as a family, with a shared roof, habits, sentimental associations, and terms of reference.’
Panter-Downes’ observations are keen, and rather striking. She describes physical interiors with such attention to detail that they seem to be built before the very eyes. In the collection’s title story, for instance, she writes: ‘All the Sotherns were substantially built, and their house in Bayswater was veiled with muffling plush curtains and full of large, softly curved objects filled with down, covered with rosy glazed chintz, or padded with leather. Even the china figures in the drawing-room cabinets contributed to the overstuffed effect, representing, as they did, bonny, plump shepherdesses and well-fed sheep.’
I particularly enjoyed the way in which Panter-Downes fleshes out her characters. In ‘The Old People’, a family, complete with grandparents, have gone on holiday. Panter-Downes describes the working father in the following manner: ‘Lance had appeared at breakfast that morning in shorts and an open-necked blue shirt, but the holiday garb sat on him strangely, with the look of a carefully planned fancy dress that would win its wearer a prize at a dance on board ship. His short legs, unveiled once a year, had a curious air of still being covered by a species of spiritual tweed.’ In this manner, which continues throughout the book, Panter-Downes unfailingly strikes the perfect balance between seriousness and amusement.
However commonplace these stories and characters may seem at first, each tale offers up an element of surprise. These range from something merely glimpsed, to a revelation to the protagonist in question. Each has been placed perfectly into the narrative, and each made me consider something within the story. The tales here are brief, running to around 12 pages each on average, but in every single one, realistic characters and scenarios are presented.
I have admired Panter-Downes’ work for years, and am disappointed that it took me so long to pick up a copy of Minnie’s Room. The collection was fascinating to read, and it further cemented for me just how incredibly perceptive its author was. Time and again, she evokes an England which is utterly recognisable, but which is largely gone.
The stories in Minnie’s Room are largely quiet ones, but they deal with large and important topics – illness, relocation, sadness, poverty, and death, to name but three. Panter-Downes’ sharply rendered insights into her characters have a kind of empathy to them at times. I found Minnie’s Room a real treat to read, and look forward to the day when I can finally get my hands on a copy of One Fine Day.