Wednesday, November 07, 2007

One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes


An ordinary day, an ordinary family, ordinary lives, but an extraordinary novel.

I read One Fine Day fresh from reading The Verneys, moving from England in the seventeenth century to England in the twentieth century; from one century dominated by the English Civil War to a century divided in two by the Second World War. I enjoyed the contrast between the books, one non-fiction and the other a novel. I'm also very fond of the cover of my copy of One Fine Day.

One Fine Day is a beautiful, poetic novel about England in 1946 after the Second World War had ended. It was written in 1946 and published in 1947 and although it recalls an England that had disappeared with the war it also looks forward with optimism to the future. It’s a novel vividly evoking life in the post-war period. I was fascinated and drawn into this book right from the start. Part of my fascination was because it made me think of what life was like for my parents, picking up their lives together after the war and part was because of the wonderful imagery and sense of time and place.

Not a lot happens and yet so much is conveyed of the changes in society as the novel recounts the events of a hot summer’s day in the lives of Laura and Stephen Marshall, a middle class couple struggling to manage the house and garden without the servants they had before the war.

“Meanwhile, here they were awkwardly saddled with a house which all those pleasant years, had really been supported and nourished by squawks over bread-and-cheese elevenses, by the sound of Chandler’s boots on the paths, by the smell of ironing and toast from the nursery. The support, the nourishment, had been removed. Now on this summer morning, when doors and windows stood open, it was possible to hear the house slowly giving up, loosening its hold, gently accepting shabbiness and defeat. Nature seemed to realize its discomfiture. Birds hopped boldly through the front door, evidently meditating a lodging; Laura’s dusting hardly discouraged the bold machinations of the spiders. As she sat drinking her tea, a yellow butterfly came in and settled on the faded plum-and-white pattern of the curtains as though it could no longer distinguish between outside and in.”

It’s not only the house that has changed. Laura feels life is passing her by, that she is getting grey and dull and like an old sofa. She pictures her life “From being a measureless room with endless arches stretching away, away, contracting to a span the size of a hearthrug.” Such a powerful image of the contrast between youth and age.

Life is also changing in other levels of society. The young people are leaving the village, for the cities where there is work. George, who she hopes would take over from their old gardener is off to work in a garage in Coventry and the girls who previously would have be live-in help are also leaving: “Ethel and Violet had disappeared squealing into the big bright world where there were no bells to fun your legs off, where you could go to the flicks regular, and where you worked to the sound of dance music pouring out continuously, sweet and thick and insipid as condensed milk dripping through a hole in a tin.”

During the day Laura meets several people when out shopping (food is still in short supply and rationed), talks on the telephone with her mother, still harking back to the days of the British Empire and goes out on her bicycle to look for Stuffy, their bitch who has escaped she thinks to go the gypsy’s dog on Barrow Down. On her way to look for Stuffy, she meets Edward Cranmer. The Cranmers, whose family have lived in the old manor house for generations are giving up the house, as they can no longer afford its upkeep. Edward’s mother and aunt will still be living in a flat over the stables wing, whilst the house is going to be used partly as a holiday hostel and partly as an agricultural training centre for boys. Yet, another reflection on the changing times.

Laura continues on her search for Stuffy and finds her with the gypsy on Barrow Down hill. In contrast to the Marshalls and the Cranmers his life is unaffected by change, living in an old railway carriage in a rough field, unencumbered by possessions and property. Laura is envious of him and when she finds the dog instead of going home she spends the rest of the afternoon and evening on the hillside, leaving Stephen and Victoria wondering and worrying where she can be. From Barrow Down she looks out over England. I could quote many passages where Mollie Panter-Downes so beautifully captures the essence of the English countryside, but here is just one quote:

“The country was tumbled out before her like the contents of a lady’s workbox, spools of green and silver and pale yellow, ribbed squares of brown stuff, a thread of crimson, a stab of silver, a round, polished gleam of mother of pearl. It was all bathed in magic light, the wonderful transforming light in which known things look suddenly new.”

Although there is nostalgia and a tragic sense of all that has been lost, Laura realises how lucky they are, lucky to be alive and all together and what it would have meant if England had lost. She ponders that life will go on: “We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.”

A memorable novel about England in the aftermath of war.

7 comments:

Dorothy W. said...

This sounds interesting. It seems that the Virago books often have a similar feel to them -- similar types of characters and plots and themes. They are very psychological novels, more about the mind than about action.

BooksPlease said...

Yes, One Fine Day is definitely more of a psychological and social study than a novel of action.

Tara said...

I read about half of this and put it down for some reason - traveled or had a commitment with another book. In any case, I need to finish it. I also love the cover and agree whole-heartedly with Dorothy's thoughts.

StuckInABook said...

Read this about three years ago, and loved it - has to be read slowly, as each passage is deliciously written. Had the luck to find her first novel, The Shoreless Sea, in a secondhand bookshop - it's very difficult to find, I believe, so I should step up and value my luck by reading it!

BooksPlease said...

Tara, it's well worth finishing and re-reading as well.

Stuckinabook I had to slow down my usual rate of reading because it is so beautifully descriptive. I'd love to find The Shoreless Sea - I'll check the library site first.

danielle said...

I recently found a copy of this--the same edition. I am really looking forward to reading it. I've heard her short stories are very good as well.

GeraniumCat said...

I'd been coming to the conclusion for some time that this was a book I'd loved, but had failed to note its title. For a long time I thought what I was looking for was Ordinary Families by E. Arnot Robertson. It wasn't, though that's also a good read, and very funny in places. Your review has convinced me that this is the book - I remember the search for the dog which ends up looking out across England. It was, as I recall, a pleasure from start to finish. Thank you for the review, I shall find a copy and look forward to a re-read.