Review: One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes

But in the early morning light, seen from the top of Barrow Down, the huddle of grey and pink and cream houses looked merely charming. Up here, man had long ago been obliterated by the green armies of fern, the invading foxgloves, the cony and the magpie. Bumps under the honeycombed turf marked the site of old shelters for man and beast where cattle had lowed and the smoke of little fires had written “Morning” and “Hunger” in the sky. Wealding children sometimes found old flints buried under the rabbit droppings; picnic parties munched their hard-boiled eggs among ghosts.  In spring, dog-violets spilled small blue lakes in the bleached grass, followed later by the pink and white restharrow, clean as sprigged chintz, and the great golden candlesticks of mulleins. Up here, on the empty hilltop, something said I am England. I will remain.  (p. 9)

Morning dawns in the village of Wealding, and so begins One Fine Day.  It’s 1946, the war is finally over, and residents of Wealding and the town of Bridbury are gradually returning to some kind of “normal” life.  And yet things changed dramatically during the war.  There was, of course, the tragic loss of life, the young men who never returned.  But there were also fundamental changes in England’s social fabric, which this short novel portrays in exquisite and sometimes painful detail.  Laura & Stephen Marshall are an upper middle class couple, and before the war they benefited from daily household help in the form of a cook, a maid, and a nurse to care for their daughter Victoria.  Dinner magically appeared on the table every night, the house was always clean and ready for guests, and Victoria was presented to her parents before bedtime, freshly scrubbed and wearing clean pajamas.  The Marshalls were shocked into a completely different lifestyle during the war, when their household help found better work at better wages … and never returned to a life of service.

One Fine Day follows Laura Marshall through a typical day of errands and household tasks, after Stephen leaves for work and Victoria gets off to school.  Laura ventures into the town to buy food.  She queues at the bakery and the fishmonger, dealing with competitive customers, grumpy shopkeepers, and a shortage of their better merchandise.  But this book is not about what Laura does, it’s about what she thinks, and what that tells us about her changing world.  Occasionally she reminisces about her youth, and the man she almost married, and we gain insight into the society in which she was raised.  Through a conversation between Laura and her mother we learn that Laura’s parents, who live further away from London, were able to keep their servants.  Their home still reflects the golden age of British Empire.  “It was like going back to another world, seen through the nostalgic lens of world catastrophe.” But then Laura’s errands take her to the home of some local gentry, who are no longer able to keep up their estate.  They have sold it to the “National Trussed,” and are in progress of moving into a flat located near the manor house.  She surveys the packing and dismantlement with dismay, noting the marked contrast with poorer families who have bettered their circumstances and “bred and bred like rabbits in their dreadful cottage.”

A sense of loss pervades this book.  The loss of material goods and comforts serves as a symbol for the loss of Empire that was just beginning to unfold.  You can see those “English ladies and gentlemen who would forever inherit the earth,” who took pride in turning the world map pink, begin to falter.  And yet there is also an air of hope, of accepting one’s new circumstances and seeing the possibility of happiness ahead.  Much of this is conveyed through Laura’s sensory perceptions, as she picks fruit in her garden or rides down a lane on her bicycle.  As the day draws to a close, Mollie Panter-Downes shifts the point of view to Victoria, and then Stephen, and somehow manages leaves the reader with the feeling that while their lives are irrevocably changed, everything will work out for them in the long run.

I read this book for Virago Reading Week.

10 thoughts on “Review: One Fine Day, by Mollie Panter-Downes

  1. Fantastic, Laura. I am SO glad you enjoyed it – I loved it, as you know. I found your comments on loss and the loss of empire especially, very interesting. I hadn’t thought about that aspect of the novel before. I can’t wait to reread it – your enthusiasm has made me want to jump right back into its pages!

    • Rachel, isn’t it interesting how different readers can pick up on different aspects of a book? Especially one as short as this? Also, this is one of those books where the more I think about it, the more I like it.

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  3. I must read this because I have a feeling that I will come down on the other side. My mother was one of those people who came out of service and bettered herself because at last there was a way of using her intelligence and certainly before the war there would have been no way that I would have stayed at school after fourteen, let alone gone on through education to get a PhD. If the book makes me sympathise with Laura then it will be well written indeed.

    • Annie, I would be very interested in your thoughts if you choose to read it. I may have given undue emphasis to the “loss of servants” aspect in my review. And the characters are not really central to the book. It’s more about an overall mood or feeling created by the prose.

      Also, it may strike chords with you that I totally missed, since I’m not English. I heard about this book first from Rachel (the first commenter), who wrote in her review, “I haven’t read a better book about the after effects of war, and neither have I read a better one about my beloved England and what it means to those of us who were born and bred here. It is a quietly patriotic novel, as only a British novel can be, and as such, it made me almost tearful in places, as I contemplated what it would have meant to lose this proud little island, with its green hills, its marshes, its moody seas, its stormy skys, its majestic spires, to another nation, and have our history and culture erased, destroyed, defeated, forever.”

      I can understand how this novel would do that …

  4. ‘while their lives are irrevocably changed, everything will work out for them in the long run.’ A very good end to your review and I think the reason why I liked this book so much.

  5. Hi Laura,
    Its a long time since I’ve actually thought about what i’m reading and since I really like your review so I hope you don’t mind me responding. (Its also pretty late so I hope you’ll excuse any grammar, punctuation errors as its written off the cuff)
    I’ve just finished reading “One Fine Day” and its funny that you mention that perhaps you’ve over emphasised the servant issue because that was something I felt when I first read your review it. Yes the class issue is important but I thought the book was about much more.
    In many respects Laura is everywoman, written from the perspective of someone who would be familiar with that particular world. This book was written in 1946 at a time when the country was still traumatised by the war and its aftermath. For me, maybe because I was completely bowled over by the authors talent for imagery, that its heart was the theme of regeneration and the knowledge that whilst things have changed irrevocably, life (England), will go on. The “One Fine Day” representing the start of the healing process. The war was a great leveller and many of the emotions felt by Laura are universal. The narrative describing the war time station really struck a chord with me and it wasn’t just women of her class who found it hard to readjust when the men returned. As Stephen says ” we are all foundering”.

    • Ann, thank you for your thoughtful comments. This is such a powerful book, I can’t get it out of my head! I really view the “loss of servant” aspect as a symbol or metaphor for a larger sense of loss. But even so, that’s only one aspect of this complex and thought-provoking book.

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