Mollie Panter-Downes: One Fine Day (1947)

One Fine Day

Mollie Panter-Downes was a British novelist and columnist. She’s well-known for her novel One Fine Day and her wartime short story collection Good Evening, Mrs. Craven.

One Fine Day is set on a summer’s day in 1946. It follows one day in the lives of Laura and Stephen Marshall and their young daughter, Victoria. During the war, Stephen was away like most men, while Laura and Victoria, together with other women and their children lived at their big house in the village of Wealding. While the Marshalls haven’t lost anyone during the war, they are still reeling. Their marriage suffers from the strain that comes with the changes in their way of life. Belonging to the upper-class, they were used to have servants: cooks, maids, gardeners. During the war, a lot of the servants left, died or moved on and only a very few were willing to return. Taking care of a big house and garden is clearly not what Laura was meant for. She makes a poor job of it and the house and people inhabiting it grow shabbier every day. While Stephen was gone, nobody minded the chaos, but now that he’s back, Laura feels she has to make an effort and mourns her loss of freedom.

Stephen hopes that things might get back to normal soon and before he leaves the house that morning, he begs Laura to go and look for a new gardener.

The book changes the point of view a few times, but mostly we follow Laura’s outer and inner life. She goes to the small village to buy food – no small feat as there’s still rationing and there’s hardly any choice. Then she prepares dinner, which takes her ages. Every household chore takes ages and is never done to satisfaction. The war and the house have taken their toll. She’s constantly tired. She’s thirty-eight but feels and looks much older.

A large part of the day is dedicated to hunting Stuffy, the Marshalls’ small dog, who has run away. When she goes to find her, she takes this opportunity and makes an excursion up a hill from which she can see the beautiful English landscape and savour an intense moment of solitude.

One Fine Day reminded me a lot of Carr’s A Month in the Country, only the time is even more condensed. The richness doesn’t lie in the plot but in the inner lives of the people and the lyrical descriptions of a beautiful, hot English summer day.

What a morning! Later it would be very hot, but now the dew frosted the grey spikes of the pinks, the double syringa hung like a delicious white cloud in the pure air. The cat sat with her feet close together on the unmown grass, and suddenly, sticking out a stiff back leg, ran her mouth up and down as though playing a passage on the flute. Summer at last, thought Stephen, and about time too. London wold be an oven.

The beauty and warmth of the day affect all the characters. It makes them live intensely and hold still for a few moments. There’s a lot wrong with the life they are living. They are not equipped for it and the spouses have grown apart. But this beautiful day revives them, makes them appreciate what they have, makes them wish to get closer again. The end is uncertain, because in uncertain times, hopes and wishes are easily squashed. While we are not sure they will be able to make it – as people, as a couple – there’s hope.

The novel is gentle but outspoken. The characters hope and dream but they are realistic. They see things the way they are, notice the marks the war has left. Laura who knows she’s lost her looks, tries to strive for charm instead. Or here – an early description of Wealding that used to be

 ( . . . ) the perfect village in aspic, at the sight of which motorists applied their brakes, artists happily set up easels ( . . . )

Those days are gone and now Wealding is

It’s perfect peace was, after all, a sham. Coils of barbed wire still rusting among the sorrel were a reminder. Sandbags pouring out sodden guts from the old strong-point of the bracken, the frizzy lily spikes pushing up in the deserted garden of the bombed cottage, ( . . .)

One Fine Day is intense and lyrical, a novel for those who like introspective books and don’t need a lot of action. But it’s also masterful because of the delicate way Mollie Panter-Downes uses motifs and other recurring elements that reinforce the themes of loss, change and – more positively – transformation. And how she juxtaposes the lives of her two main characters, who undergo, in one single day, a whole transformation, believing at first that they each want what the other has – an independent life, leisure to savour what a day brings -and then discover – it’s already there – they just have to grab it.

I first came across this novel on Danielle’s blog here.

Just an aside – I’m not sure why it says Molly on this book cover, as she’s clearly called Mollie and my edition – same picture – says Mollie.

29 thoughts on “Mollie Panter-Downes: One Fine Day (1947)

  1. I thought this was marvelous and was very disappointed that the author hadn’t written more. I particularly liked the way the book captured just a tiny slice of life after the war and how much things had changed. As you say, it’s a very introspective, quiet novel. Very understated.

    • You know, I wa s so puzzled when I looked at the list of publications. She pubkished her first novel at 16. It’s so surprsing – and disappointing- that she hasn’t written more.

  2. I love Mollie Panter-Downes’s non-fiction and so I’ve been cautious about reading never fiction, in case it didn’t live up to expectations set high, but I think you might have convinced me to start reading.

    • Don’t hesitate, jane. You won’t be disappointed. I’ve heard her short stories are equally good. Thanks for mentioning the non-fiction. I’ll have to try that, it seems.

  3. I have a lovely old hardback of this somewhere on the shelves – and if, as you say, it has echoes of “A Month in the Country” I think I should be picking it up soon!

  4. A lovely review of a really, really lovely book! Gentle but outspoken is exactly what it is. I’m so glad I read this a second time – the first time I liked it, but wasn’t overwhelmed; the second time I recognised what a talent MPD displayed.

    Have you read her London War Notes? They’re phenomenal – and just reprinted by Persephone.

    • Thanks, Simon. I had to read it very slowly to savour the complexity. I was so surprised. I expected a great book but she’s amazing. No, I haven’t read The War Notes. Thanks for the suggestion. I’m very intereested in reading more of her.

  5. I *love* this book and have read it a few times now. Really a perfect follow up for the Carr! Do you know I had no idea that her name was spelled wrong on that cover–mine is an older copy but I have seen that one many times and never noticed! Very bad of them. I wish she had written more, too. I read her first novel–OOP now, and while nowhere near as good as this, I still enjoyed it.

    • I’m so glad you wrote about it. It took me three years to get to it! It’s a wonderful companion piece to the Carr novel, isn’t it?
      I’m looking forward to reading another of your favourites soon – The World my Wilderness.
      So the cover is a mistake? That’s not something I’ve seen often. Poor copyeditor. To miss a msitake like that is mortifying.
      You did read her short stories, didn’t you?

  6. A lovely review, Caroline. For a subject like World War II, which has been covered exhaustively, this book touches a little discussed aspect of it — namely, how the family resumes after such a long absence. Of course, things can’t go back to “normal.”

    There was a wonderful movie made in 1946 called “The Best Years of Our Lives” that takes viewers through the homecoming of three soldiers and how they try to re-assimilate into their old lives. But this is told from the perspective of the servicemen. One Fine Day seems to be told from the woman’s perspective. That fact alone makes it interesting enough for me to want to read.

    • Thanks, Jackie. It’s a lovely book. I’ve seen The Best Years of Our Lives. I love it.
      This is mostly written from the POV of the woman. It was interesting that the “chaos” of the war, living with other women and children was so liberating. And that the perfection she’s striving for makes it impossible to do things right. And the descriptions – I could have qouted most of the book.

  7. Great review as usual Caroline.

    As I get a little older I am appreciating more and more these kinds of books that are not plot driven but are instead based upon characters. Especially those that concentrate upon the characters’ inner selfs. Thus this sounds like book that I would really like.

    • Thanks, Brina. I’m very fond of this type of book. And the more I think about it, the more I realise just how good a book this was. I’m sure you’d like it.

  8. Great review, Caroline. I’m sure I would love this one, the introspective style certainly appeals. A Month in the Country should take priority as I already have a copy in the house, but I’ve made a note of it. Thanks for reviewing this.

    • Thanks, Jacqui. My pleasure. I try to do the same – read the books I already own first. I hope you’ll read this some day. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

  9. I have a copy of this, too, thanks to Danielle’s review! Delighted to know that you loved it and I am completely sure I will, too. It sounds beautiful.

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