My Husband Simon by Mollie Panter-Downes


One of my favorite books from 2017 was One Fine Day by this author. She wrote for nearly 50 years for The New Yorker and her writing there informed many about wartime in London. This is one of her early books and is somewhat autobiographical, though the marriage she describes is not her own.

The narrator Nevis is a young woman who has published two novels and falls in love with an unsuitable man and impetuously marries him. The phrase “falls in love” is not quite it; the title when the book was published in the US originally gives it away:  Nothing in Common But Sex. Though they were both middle class, their differences were sufficient to make the marriage unworkable. I learned from the Afterward that she was upper middle class while he was lower middle class. Though it was obvious that class differences were a big issue, I have to confess that my understanding of class in 1930 Britain is so bad that I had them reversed.

From the outset Nevis tells us the marriage lasted four years so its end was not a surprise. She reveals herself to be pretty unappealing, at least to these twenty-first century eyes. Complaining about the servants while also complaining about others who bemoan the problem of getting good servants, well, that’s unpleasant whatever the century. She tries to be clear-eyed about the relationship with Simon:

Sometimes I hated him for having the power to make me lose control so completely; to make me forget that I was a fastidious, civilised individual with a sense of humour and a tolerable amount of intelligence, and make me conscious only of a poor, bewildered body that blundered between rage and jealousy and desire…. I would find myself listening with a sensation of horror to the sound of my own voice. Naturally it was deep and soft. In these quarrels with Simon it rose to the querulous, unlovely note that was heard so often when the public-house at the corner closed on Saturday nights. The man would walk a little ahead; the woman would follow three paces behind, her mean shoulders bowed, her voice shrill and defiant. These women with their awful hands and their soggy, anxious faces….

She worried that Simon would drag her down to his social level. She was in thrall to him and was self-aware enough to recognize her “poor, bewildered body.” Her other concern was that he and his family would overwhelm her ability to write. She was given a choice when her New York editor offered her an opportunity to spend several months in New York to focus on her writing. She let Simon know she was leaving five days before she took off.

I was elated when I read One Fine Day and strongly felt the love of the author for her characters. This one didn’t uplift or enlighten me.

Mollie Panter-Downes, My Husband Simon, back in print by British Library Publishing, 2020, 240 pages (I read the kindle version). Available from Amazon.

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