39. One Fine Day - Mollie Panter-Downes
I do more re-reading now than I used to, but I tend towards books I already know I'll love. So there are some novels I'll read every two years or so, and some that I don't remember much about, but knew I loved ten years ago, say. What I seldom do (understandably, perhaps) is re-read books that I didn't love - those that I disliked, or thought only quite good.
Thank goodness I decided to re-read Mollie Panter-Downes' One Fine Day.
I first read it back in 2004, and thanks to never emptying my inbox (currently at 76,992 emails - all read, don't worry) I can tell you that I reported thus to my online book group: "I did enjoy this, but not as much as I was expecting given Nicola’s love love love of it. I was expecting E.M. Delafield and it landed more Virginia Woolf than I thought it would?? Memorable, though." The Nicola in question is Nicola Beauman, doyenne of Persephone Books, who has often held up One Fine Day as an almost perfect novel. Indeed, it was she who rediscovered the book for Virago's Modern Classics series.
Well, turns out Nicola was right, of course. I had initially thought One Fine Day only fairly good, whereas now I believe it is an absolutely excellent - and, indeed, important - novel.
My early comparison with Virginia Woolf is one that I stick by, although why I would have thought that was a bad thing, I can't imagine. But I am aware that a lot of you will be turned off by the mention of Woolf - let me encourage you not to be! One of the reasons that I think One Fine Day is an important novel is that it is something of a bridge between the middlebrow and the modernist. It is Panter-Downes' style which makes the novel so exquisite, and yet it has none of the inaccessibility of which Woolf can be accused. She has all the fluidity and ingenuity of the great prose/poetry stylist, combined with the keen and sensible observation of the domestic novelist. Time for me to hand over to Mollie Panter-Downes for a fairly long excerpt:
The bus was full of women, sighing, sweating gently under the arms of their cotton dresses as they held on to their baskets and their slippery, fretful children. A tiny boy screamed like an angry jay, drumming his fists on the glass. He wa-anted it, he wa-anted it! Bless the child, wanted what? It, it, ow-w-w! he wept with fury at adult stupidity already frustrating his simple world. A spaniel on the floor at somebody's feet shifted cautiously, lifting a red-cornered eye towards his owner, hoping and trusting that no one would tread on his paw. Human uneasiness and irritability seemed to fill the bus with hot cottonwool, choking, getting up the nostrils. If it did not start in a moment, it might burst with pressure from its prickling cargo. Only a young man, a hiker, seemed to sit aloof and happy in the heat. He wore a blue shirt and drill shorts; on his knees was a knapsack. His neck was a dull red, so was the brow of his cheerful, ordinary face. Perhaps he had only just come out of the Army or the Air Force, thought Laura, watching him study his map with such happy concentration. Ow, ow, ow-w-w, wept the tiny boy, unable to escape and go striding off amongst the bracken, still handcuffed to childhood. I'll smack you proper if you don't stop, threatened his mother. The young man studied his map, reading England with rapture. The driver, who had descended to cool his legs and have a word with a crony outside the Bull, swung himself up into his seat. An angry throbbing seized the bus, the hot bodies of the passengers quivered like jelly, the jaws of an old woman by the door seemed to click and chatter. With a lurch, they started. The tiny boy's tears stopped as though within his tow-coloured head someone had turned a tap. His brimming eyes stared out at the streets as he sat quietly on his mother's lap, clutching a little wooden horse.I think that's brilliant, just beautiful. Mollie Panter-Downes also has a great way with metaphors and similes, offering unexpected images which somehow don't jar, and convey much more than a simple statement could. I'm not going to be able to resist quoting MPD (if you will) quite a bit, by the way, so here's an example: 'Now that he was home, he could not abide the thought of other people's bath water running out, meeting on the stairs with forced joviality, someone else's life pressed up against one in a too small space like a stranger's overcoat against one's mouth in a crowd.'
It's unusual for me to talk about the style of a novel before I address the rudiments of the plot, but I do think it's MPD's style which sets her apart from her contemporaries. In terms of plot, nothing really happens. One Fine Day, as the title suggests, is all set during one day. The war is over, and people are beginning to get back to their old lives - only, of course, nothing can ever really be the same. Laura (the central character, through whose eyes we see most of the novel) goes shopping, visits a family in the village, tries to retrieve her dog from a gipsy encampment, and walks up a beautiful hill. The events of the day are, in fact, uneventful. It is this ordinariness, in contrast to the uncertain and unkind days of war, which resonates throughout One Fine Day. Laura's observations and reflections are not dramatic or life-changing - but that is their beauty. What a relief it must have been to read about the pursuit of a gardener, or the view from a hill, rather than menacing newspaper headlines and the constant worry about loved ones. The novel relaxes into this peacefulness and freedom - but with a continuous backward glance. The war has changed Laura. She is
a bit thinner over the cheekbones, perhaps, the hair completely grey in front, though the back was still fair and crisply curling, like rear-line soldiers who do not know that defeat has bleakly overtaken their forward comrades.There is an undercurrent throughout One Fine Day of changed times - not just the working-class villagers who no longer want jobs in domestic service, or need to pay strict adherence to codes of class civility. Laura has been separated from her husband Stephen for years; he has not watched their daughter Victoria grow up. The family is not destroyed by this, nor is it even unhappy - but it is strained, and it is tired, but resilient. Mollie P-D conveys so perfectly the triumph and relief of this weary, determined little family unit, who do not fully understand one another, but who stand together, grateful for all they have managed to keep.
Alongside Panter-Downes' beautiful writing, it is the character of Laura which is the novel's triumph. Perhaps the two cannot quite be separated, because she is built of this wonderful style - it is not quite stream of consciousness, it never leaves the third person, but it flits through thoughts and noticings and reflections as Laura does. And she is such a wonderful character. She reminds me a bit of Mrs. Miniver, but without her slight tweeness. Laura loves beauty, especially beauty in nature; she is a little absent-minded and uncertain, but she is strong and caring and optimistic. Laura is observant but not judgemental; intelligent but not an intellectual. A line of poetry runs through her head, in relation to her everyday activity:
Who wrote that? Laura wondered absently. She could not remember. Her mind was a ragbag, in which scraps of forgotten brightness, odd bits of purple and gold, were hopelessly mixed up with laundry lists and recipes for doing something quick and unconvincingly delicious with dried egg.Laura is a perfect heroine for the wave of feminism which re-evaluated the worth of domestic life. Perhaps especially because she does not entirely idealise it herself; she describes her class and people as 'all slaves of the turned-back fresh linen, the polished wood reflecting the civilised candlelight, the hot water running into the shining bath.' But she is a willing slave - all grumbles and laments are covered in the sheer gratitude Laura feels for life and freedom. I can't convey quite what a wonderful character Laura is, nor quite how perfectly Panter-Downes understands and shapes her. To create a character who is both realistic and lovable must be one of the most difficult authorial tasks. She is as psychologically well-developed as Mrs. Dalloway or Laura Ramsay, but as delightful as Mrs. Miniver or the Provincial Lady. It is an astonishing combination.
I wrote blandly, back in 2004, that One Fine Day was 'memorable, though', unappreciative wretch that I was! Truth be told, I had not remembered much of the novel. And I doubt I will remember which steps Laura took, which neighbours she encountered, nor which views she expressed. This is the sort of novel which cannot be remembered for its contents; only for the impression it leaves. And that I certainly shall not forget. I'm so grateful that I returned to One Fine Day, and was given a second chance to appreciate properly the work of brilliance that it is. I am only left wondering, of course, quite how many other novels I have underestimated in this manner...??
Others who got Stuck in this Book:
"An ordinary day, an ordinary family, ordinary lives, but an extraordinary novel." - Margaret, BooksPlease
"The author’s love for this part of England absolutely sings through this little gem of a novel" - Geranium Cat's Bookshelf
"But there were also fundamental changes in England’s social fabric, which this short novel portrays in exquisite and sometimes painful detail." - Laura's Musings
"It is a moving, elegiac novel about love, beauty, and most importantly, freedom" - Rachel, Book Snob