Minnie’s Room by Mollie Panter-Downes

 

I seem to have drifted away from my original intention of reading and writing about the books that have lingered unread on my shelves, so I shall attempt to make amends by reading and reviewing Mollie Panter-Downe’s Minnie’s Room, published by Persephone Books, which has been in my possession for at least a year, and possibly much longer. Panter-Downes isn’t nearly as well-known in Britain as she deserves to be, in part because much of her writing was originally published in The New Yorker.  She also published four novels, the best known of which is One Fine Day (1947), a beautifully observed and poignant book exploring the effects and aftermath of World War II on a marriage, a way of life and a wider community, which I strongly recommend.  Persephone Books has also published another collection of Panter-Downes’ short stories, Good Evening, Mrs Craven, written between 1938 and 1944. Minnie’s Room, a series of ten short stories originally published in The New Yorker between 1947 and 1965, covers much of the territory explored in One Fine Day – the loss of status for middle-class families, struggling to maintain standards without the domestic servants that had been available before the war, and the emotional repression associated with upholding middle-class ‘standards’.  In the first story, which gives the collection its title, a family’s cook  prepares to leave the family she’s served for 25 years. The family are astonished that she would want to leave ‘the basement, a vast, Victorian catacomb’ (p. 5) she has lived in for a quarter of a century for a room of her own with a window looking out on a lime tree, believing that they were ‘her whole world’ (p. 4-5) and that she was as dependent on them as they were on her.  The unmarried middle-aged daughter of the family realises at the story’s close that without Minnie, she will be required to minister to all her parents’ needs and ‘[f]or a moment, Norah had the most extraordinary emotion, a frightful pang of purest envy’ (p. 10).  Throughout the collection Panter-Downes exposes, without cruelty or even explicit comment, what her characters cannot quite admit to others or to themselves.  Declining family fortunes (echoing and reflecting the sense of a nation in decline following the loss of Empire and its concomitant loss of national prestige) expose the snobbery, exploitation and emotional repression underpinning middle-class values.  Occasionally funny – ‘[h]is short legs, unveiled once a year, had a curious air of still being covered by a species of spiritual tweed’ (p. 42) – often poignant (without being elegiac), Panter-Downes’ stories reveal a class struggling to adapt to the post-war order. We see an elderly couple leaving London for South Africa in ‘The Exiles’ in the hope of maintaining their previous standard of living and perhaps more importantly in search of the deference and social distinctions swept away in Britain by the war.  In ‘Beside the Still Waters’, a dying matriarch is left in the care of an elderly servant to the relief of her four adult children, only one of whom appears to recognise that ‘Nannie is the only decent one of the lot of us, the only one who will be there with love at the end’ (p. 29). The adult children’s claims that they are too busy or have too little space for their ageing mother hint at declining standards of living but also perhaps also reflect the weakening of familial obligations by the delegation of affection to domestic servants.  In ‘Intimations of Mortality’, a woman looks back on an incident with her nursery maid who she realises in adulthood was ‘the only person in my life who loved me without wanting any return’ (p. 74); that story might easily have been narrated by the narrator of ‘Intimations of Mortality’. The stories are thematically rather than explicitly connected, but reading them in the order in which they were published gives a clear sense of a passing order.  In two of the later stories, Panter-Downes describes young women marrying ‘down’, out of their class, with the marriages depicted as imparting a sort of quasi-Rabelaisian vigour to their enervated middle-class families.  In ‘Their Walk of Life’, first published in 1953, the petty snobbery and prejudice of a middle-class family are revealed as a man attempts first to prevent and then come to terms with his only daughter’s marriage to a farm labourer, imagining ‘his grandchildren […] red as little foxes, playing round his feet’ (p. 87).  In ‘The Willoughbys’, published in 1954, the daughter of a snobbish woman unconsciously rejects her mother’s frigid good taste for marriage to a ‘North Country businessman’ (p. 99) who ‘looked as though he would enjoy the pleasures of the table’ (p. 100).  These are the individuals families that will thrive, Panter-Downes implies, while the others will simply wither, clinging to increasingly irrelevant values.

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