Mollie Panter-Downes’ Good Evening, Mrs. Craven: The Wartime Stories
Persephone No. 8 (1999)

So you can choose to follow along with my bookish digression, or, you can do a quick online search on this collection and find many thorough reviews of and responses to it because — both in and out of Pesephone Week — Good Evening, Mrs. Craven has shown itself to be a particular favourite amongst readers in recent years, but before I get to talking about it, I want to mention another wartime book.

And, to be fair, I have relatively little to say about the stories specifically, but please don’t boot me out of the Persephone Reading Week Clubhouse just yet: this is Persephone related, in a particularly Persephone-ish way, but reading this short story collection got me thinking about something seemingly un-Persephone-ish, Marge Piercy’s novel, Gone to Soldiers.

I discovered Gone to Soldiers when I was about 20 years old; Small Changes was the first of Marge Piercy’s novels that I’d read and thereafter I fiercely gathered them up and read them one after the next and Gone to Soldiers was amongst them. (Ironically, I haven’t enjoyed her most recent novels as much, but that discussion would be straying into un-Persephone-ish territory.)

It was published in 1987, so a relatively recent work of hers at the time, and it was the first time it had occurred to me, as a young reader, that there was anything to say about women’s wartime experiences, that a novelist might take it as their subject, as Piercy had.

Doesn’t that seem incredibly naive, when now we seem to be surrounded by such works? But that’s how it was: I remember excitedly explaining to someone that this novel considered how the war affected ordinary lives of people on the homefront — affected the lives of women on the homefront — as though that simple idea was radical, unthinkable. And, yet, still fascinating.

It seemed, to me, groundbreaking. And I wasn’t alone.

Here is what Newsweek had to say:
“Piercy’s war takes on universality of a sort that Hemingway’s war, or Mailer’s war, could never have achieved…she has mastered a huge subject, dismantled a centuries-old sex barrier and widened our perceptions of both war and literature. All this in a good beach book makes GONE TO SOLDIERS a victory by any standards.”

And here is what Dorothy Allison had to say in Village Voice:
“…what Marge Piercy has achieved with her stunning 703-page opus, GONE TO SOLDIERS, is unquestionably literature — a novel that moves as easily from battlefield to home front as it does from female to male perspective…Piercy is as much a poet as a novelist, with a poet’s gift for language and capturing the moment in essential details…Piercy has brought that poetry into GONE TO SOLDIERS, the sweep of change, loss, and growth, the feel of life going on — the lives that will eventually become our own.”

Isn’t it interesting? Go ahead, re-read their comments, and then see if our thoughts travel along a-similarly-Persephone-inspired path.

Both reviewers seem to respond positively enough but one says that it’s “not Hemingway”, it’s “not Mailer”…”it’s a good beach book”, and the other says it’s “unquestionably literature”.

This touches on a much broader issue in terms of the kind of literature and experience that is valued culturally (would the reviewer have called Gone to Soldiers a “good beach book” if Hemingway or Mailer had written it?), and it also goes directly to Persephone’s mandate to print “mainly neglected fiction and non-fiction by women, for women and about women”, which is “designed to be neither too literary nor too commercial”.

And both Gone to Soldiers‘ reviewers, as was true of many of its reviewers at the time, remarked upon the introduction/inclusion of female experience in wartime narratives that more typically focussed on male experience.

And here is where this gets decidedly Persephone-ish and spirals back to Mollie Panter-Downes’ short stories in Mrs. Craven because there she was, writing about just that, women’s wartime experiences (the same war, even), but her work had, seemingly, been all-but forgotten, has been neglected. And not to minimize the importance of Marge Piercy’s novel in any way, but she was clearly writing in a tradition — perhaps even one of which she, too, was unaware, certainly one unrecognized by many of her readers — elements of which we 2010 readers can rediscover, thanks to Persephone’s reprints.

The Persephone edition’s introduction by Gregory LeStage does a terrific job of placing Mollie Panter-Downe’s writing and importance in context. And many other readers have done a brilliant job of explaining exactly why you should read Mollie Panter-Downes’ short stories. Good Evening, Mrs Craven embodies the fundamental changes, small and large, in people’s lives during wartime, and they can be appreciated as invaluable literary and historical works. The simple fact that they have gone un-read for too long is not a good enough reason on its own, but it’s an important part of the reason for me.

Here are three quotes from Mrs. Craven that would undoubtedly stand in marked contrast to readers of Hemingway’s and Mailer’s wartime fiction.

“Remarks which six months ago would have been meant ironically were often quite serious now, and she didn’t want to laugh when she wasn’t supposed to.”

“Ruth disliked the phrase ‘so little time left’. Suddenly she was inordinately conscious of time. The house was full of it, ticking between simpering shepherdesses on the mantelpiece, grumbling out of the tall mahogany case in the hall, nervously stuttering against Adrian’s wrist.”

“One used the same words for a parting which might be for years, which might end in death, as one did for an overnight business trip.”

PS Something else that Gone to Soldiers and Good Evening, Mrs. Craven have in common for me is how long I’ve stumbled in reading them. I purchased Mollie Panter-Downes’ stories in my first Persephone shipment, with Vere Hodgson’s diaries, but it took Verity and Claire‘s Persephone Week to get me to restart and finish reading them. And I have started Gone to Soldiers at least five times and have fallen before the halfway mark every time: maybe my Wartime Reading this week will make my sixth time the charm?