There are 21 short stories in Good Evening Mrs Craven: the War-time Stories of Mollie Panter-Downes. These portray the lives of people on the Home Front, getting on with their lives set against the backdrop of war. They’re not stories of action but their subjects are psychological, emotional and social. They offer a glimpse into what life was like then – the mood, the atmosphere, the tension and the fear, the hopes and the devastation, the loss and the loneliness, the stress and the tragi-comedy of life.
Mollie Panter-Downes’s style is fluent, a touch journalistic, sometimes subtly ironic and most pleasurable to read. There are stories of housewives, evacuees, billeted soldiers and Home Front volunteers, of the ladies in the Red Cross sewing party who met ‘twice a week to stitch pyjamas, drink a dish of tea, and talk about their menfolk’, the effects of food rationing, of lovers separated by the war and of ‘The Woman Alone’.
Social changes are highlighted in stories such as ‘Cut Down the Trees’. Forty Canadian soldiers are billeted at Mrs Walsingham’s big house by the river. Her maid, Dossie is horrified by the changes. She mourns the passing of the old way of life, blaming the Canadians:
Of course it wasn’t precisely their fault they were there, but it made her sick to hear their big boots clattering up and down the stairs and to see their trucks standing in line along thelime avenue. (page 150)
She looks forward to the end of the war:
When peace came, sane existence would be immediately resumed. Dossie sincerely believed that the big house, quietly chipping and mouldering above its meadows, would be instantly repopulated, as though by a genie’s wand, with faceless figures in housemaid’s print dresses, in dark-blue livery and gardener’s baize aprons. She believed that the lawns would be velvet again, that visiting royalty would once more point a gracious umbrella towards Mrs Walsingham’s Himalayan poppies, that the gentry would know their places and sit over their claret in the dining room, where they belonged.
In contrast, Mrs Walsingham is more realistic and accepts the inevitable change. When the trees are cut down to make space for the soldiers’ ‘paraphernalia’ she thinks it is an improvement, letting in more air and light. She says
It’s altered the view from this side of the house, but what’s a view? Everything else is changing so fast I suppose we shouldn’t bother about trees and water staying the way they were. (page 153)