John Vane: London Fiction – Good Evening, Mrs Craven

John Vane: London Fiction – Good Evening, Mrs Craven

I knew precisely nothing about Mollie Panter-Downes until a reader brought to my attention a volume of London Stories – helpfully called London Stories – put together ten years ago by that brilliant London historian, Jerry White. Its 25 selections are a mixture of fiction and non-fiction, the oldest from 1603 describing London stricken by plague, and the most recent from 1999, written by Hanif Kureishi.

The story by Panter-Downes is called Good Evening, Mrs Craven and was written in 1942. Here’s how it begins:

For years now they had been going to Porter’s, in one of the little side streets off the Strand. They had their own particular table in the far corner of the upstairs room, cosily near the fire in winter, cooled in summer by a window at their backs, through which drifted soot and the remote bumble of traffic.

This was wartime central London: there were restaurants and motor vehicles and air pollution and, despite the damage brought by the Blitz, life went on. That included secret love lives: the Mrs Craven of the story’s title is not the wife of her dining companion, Mr Craven, but what in those days people would have been called his mistress. Porter’s was the location of their trysts:

Every Thursday evening, wet or fine, they would be dining in their corner under the bust of Mrs Siddons, talking quietly, sometimes holding hands under the tablecloth.

The story is outstanding, capturing both the predicament of “Mrs Craven” and the vibe of a London restaurant which, despite being located just off a street considered contemporary and raffish, seemed stuck in an earlier era.

Everything contemporary seemed remote at Porter’s. The whole place looked as if it had been soaked in Madeira – the rich brown walls crowded with signed photographs of Irving and Bancroft and Forbes-Robertson, the plush seats, the fly-spotted marble Muses forever turning their classic noses hopefully towards the door, as though expecting to see Ellen Terry come in.

Ellen Terry was a celebrated actress of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Forbes-Robertson was an actor and theatre producer from the same era. The “Mrs Siddons” mentioned in the earlier quote might be Sarah Siddons of an even older vintage. A real life restaurant called Porter’s in the vicinity closed down nine years ago.

Panter-Downes won renown for her novel The Shoreless Sea, published in 1923 when she was just 16, and for her Letters from London for the New Yorker, published during the war years. In a 2010 appreciation of her for the Guardian Annabel Wynne described those letters as being “from a past we think we know”, with descriptions of the city covered in sandbags and with pillar boxes whose yellow paint changed colour if the air became poisonous.

A collection of Panter-Downes stories entitled, Good Evening, Mrs Craven was published by Persephone Books and can be purchased here. The London Stories collection, an Everyman Pocket Classic, is still around too. It also contains works by Graham Greene, J. B. Priestley, Thomas De Quincey, Eliza Lynn Linton, Charles Dickens and more.

Buy a copy of John Vane’s London novel Frightgeist: A Tall Tale of Fearful Times. It’s all about an election to be Mayor of London. How much more topical could that be?

Categories: Culture

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