One Fine Day by Mollie Panter-Downes


JaquiWine's review of this book prompted me to put it on my list and what a pleasure it has been to read. It is a celebration of the end of World War II and coming to terms with a changed world for the upper class in England. Through the course of a hot summer day Laura surveys the diminished life she and her husband Stephen have now that those who cleaned their house, fed them, took care of their child, and cared for their lawn and garden have other occupations available. It is set a year after the war ended and was written a year later.

The new struggles of the family are not meant to evoke much sympathy and though the outlook is a bit bleak for Laura's family, the descriptions of her experiences of the day are so beautifully written as to be uplifting in themselves. During that day, Laura packs her husband off to London to work, her child off to school, and does the shopping and other errands. We are introduced to an interesting variety of folks in the village, including the village trollop whose son she tries to hire for gardening. George Porter now has other good prospects. She realizes that this good-looking young man sees her as he would see a sofa, as she is nearing 40 and this vision of herself, seen as a sofa, occurs to her several times throughout the day. She encounters the boring vicar, butt of jokes, and thinks of his wife, an equally unappealing character. She thinks:

Mrs. Vyner and I together, a couple of sofas. But girlishness could descend on Mrs. Vyner at the piano, playing a Bach chorale. Then her face became at peace, while her fingers arranged the pattern of exquisite logic, of utter reasonableness, fitting in piece after piece like drawers of a perfect little Chinese box, sliding them in quietly, returning to open one again and show the design, after all a little different, and then closing the doors on the completed thing, and sitting flushed, for a moment translated. Thus should life be, said Mrs. Vyner at her piano. Thus should it be, she would say, with the thorns of the Women's Institute for the moment lifted from her brow, no chick or child clamoring round her feet, and her light gray eyes shining.

She also spends an hour with members of the Cranmer family who have just sold the Manor after centuries in their exalted position. They experienced losses during the war, as did the woman who cleans Laura's house a few mornings a week. Late in the afternoon Laura does her last errand, retrieving their dog Stuffy who took off up the mountain called Barrow Down to get herself pregnant. The gypsy whose dogs Stuffy went to visit urged Laura to climb to the top of the mountain as it was such a beautiful day. She does and finds herself elated and grateful. "For we are so lucky, so enormously lucky, thought Laura. Up here, in this clear rarefied light, their luck seemed immense. They were alive, they were all together….Now that she had a free moment in which to stand back and look at it, it struck her as stupendous."

She thinks of the time when the war had just ended. "But never, even then, had Laura felt quite this rush of overwhelming thankfulness, so that the land swam and misted and danced before her. She had had to lose a dog and climb a hill, a year later, to realize what it would have meant if England had lost. We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote short stories for the New Yorker, then a column, Letters from London, until 1984. 

Mollie Panter-Downes, One Fine Day, Atlantic Monthly Press Book, Little Brown and Company, 1947, 241 pages. Available at the UVa library and from Amazon.

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