Mollie Panter-Downes’s One Fine Day was a good book to read at the start of term: it’s both short and exquisite. Reading it reminded me why I do what I do, why reading is both my work and my play, my vocation and my indulgence. I luxuriated in the language, which is just self-conscious enough to feel artful without becoming precious:
Once the jolly monks had ambled across these meadows to fish up their Friday dinner. Now only a heron, grave as an abbot, attended to his fishing among the broad leaves. The pale fluff of meadowsweet and the tarnished buttercups shimmered in the heat and the dancing, humming flies. Was there thunder about? Laura still felt her face burning as it had burnt in the Trumpers’ shop. How little one understood anything or anybody, after all. One or two people in one’s life really well, and the rest walled up in their separate cells, walking around walled up in darkness which a sentence would suddenly, appallingly, illuminate.
The novel is the story of a single day in 1946, when the memory of war is still fresh and its remnants are everywhere — barbed wire across the fields, German prisoners on the farms — and peace is still a fragile joy:
Planes were no longer something to glance up at warily. The long nightmare was over, the land sang its peaceful song. Thank God, thought Laura … Let us give thanks, Mr. Vyner said, very simple, very quiet, when the handful of the faithful bowed their tired knees before God. 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.
It’s a world at peace but also a world in transition: Laura and her husband Stephen do their own housekeeping now, without the servants who once kept the house neat and put the food on the table. “There seemed to be few of the old quiet moments for talking,” Stephen reflects; “all through their meal they would be jumping up and down.” And yet, uncomfortable as he finds it, it also strikes him “as preposterous,” looking back, “how dependent he and his class had been on the anonymous caps and aprons who lived out of sight and worked the strings”:
All his life he had expected to find doors opened if he rang, to wake up to the soft rattle of curtain rings being drawn back, to find the fires bright and the coffee smoking hot every morning as though household spirits had been working while he slept.
The change is even greater for the local squire’s family, who are turning their home over to the National Trust and moving into a flat over the stables. “The group over the fireplace gazed down at [Laura] with well-fed amiable arrogance” when she visits the family just before their move:
declaring that they were English ladies and gentlemen who would for ever inherit the earth. Thus should life be, they said, the green garden and the trout rising in the river … Thus will life always be, stated their healthy confident faces. But in a minute there was nobody in the room but Aunt Sophia.
The house will no longer belong to them; instead it will belong, in stately anonymity, to the nation — “Visitors … would ask their host intelligently, What is that? instead of Who lives there? For so obviously its personal life had ended.”
The novel is not a lament for these losses, though, so much as a tribute to the nation’s continuity in spite of them — to the persistence of a larger history, greater and more enduring than any of its individual parts. From the top of Barrow Down, Laura looks out over a landscape that speaks “of the Druids, of Drake, of this precious stone set in a silver sea, of the imminent Sunday roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.” “Easy come, easy go,” thinks Laura, as she feasts her eyes on the view, which “drew the eye on to distant hills, to aerial villages, to unsubstantial, heavenly wraiths of towns which flashed a sudden signal from a golden window.”
The novel’s not all at this elevated pitch, though, and in fact I liked the unexpected comedy of it the best — like Laura coming unexpectedly on the earthy Mr. Prout “enthroned” on his outdoor privy,
peacefully smoking, a fat old man in his shirt sleeves, not visible deranged by the spectacle of a lady appearing between the lilac bushes. He looked like an enormous Buddha, meditating beneath the clustering green berries. Grossness disappeared from the situation, and now the only problem seemed to be: To bow or not to bow, to break in upon that tranquil solitude or to tiptoe respectfully away?
And there are sharp moments too. “He looked at her amiably, as though she were a nice sofa,” Laura thinks, meeting a handsome young man; “that must be the penalty of the grey hairs, the tired shadows under the eyes, that must be the beginning of getting old … the young men like George looked at you and saw a sofa.”
Exquisite, comic, sometimes tender. And yet I did end up with a faint reservation about the novel, because it is a kind of paean to England. I was reminded of some criticisms of Kate Atkinson’s A God in Ruins (Dorian’s, for example) as a book that’s just a bit too self-congratulatory about “the Greatest Generation.” One Fine Day is written in the aftermath of war’s trauma, and perhaps its investment in victory and its tributes to those who paid for it with their lives is easier to sympathize with. They date the book somewhat, though: it’s not just evocative of a period, but also, itself, a period piece. That doesn’t mean it’s dated, in the pejorative way we usually mean that, though. It’s just too well-written for that, and its people, too, are not simply ciphers in service of nationalism. At the end, when Laura runs down the hill, back to her husband and her daughter, her increasingly shabby home, her life of lost privilege and new privations, she’s also running towards happiness and love.