This week's story is a "revisit" for me. I read Mollie Panter-Downes' collection Minnie's Room: The Peacetime Stories about four years ago. It's funny how the the brain works. I couldn't quite pull from memory what the story was about, though I knew I had read it. Soon enough, however, once I'd read a page or two it all started to come back to me and it was only a matter of refreshing the details. I'm happy that there's more stored internally than I thought. It's also a reminder how beneficial rereading is. Not only is there the pleasure of returning to a story I liked, but being able to read something a second time after so many other books of a similar nature have been explored--it all turns into added knowledge of a particular era of history or type of writing if that makes sense.
"Minnie's Room" is about an "ugly Londoner" who has worked as a cook for one family for over 25 years. If by her 45th birthday she hadn't married, she planned to quit and get a room of her own and enjoy her remaining years independently. During the war single women (and no doubt plenty of married ones, too) couldn't seem to avoid the potential of a love affair with so many soldiers flooding London. No such luck for Minnie, though. Of course the family, consisting of parents, son and a spinster daughter, can't understand why she would leave such a lovely home only to be all on her own.
"The truth was that Minnie was that extremely rare thing among the English, a natural magnificent cook, who would have found her medium and her style whatever happened."
Before the war her dinners were especially memorable. Even after the Sothern family had "shrunk"--both literally and figuratively Minnie is such an asset to the family they cannot conceive of life without her. The war changed everything for everyone--poor and rich alike. The Sotherns are a respectable, middle-class family who depend on their servants. One by one they abandon the family for better opportunities, so the family must learn to adapt. They take on new roles, so foreign to them before the war, but cooking is something else entirely. Minnie seems to be the glue that holds the family and their way of life together.
'Damn it! exploded Mr Sothern. 'We ought to be life enough for her! She oughtn't to need anything else.'
With the announcement of her finally taking leave of the family, they literally collapse. How will they continue to look after themselves. For the son it will be easy enough to simply move in with friends and visit the family making the work lighter for "poor Norah". With a sickly mother and no marriage proposal in sight, it's left up to the unmarried daughter to take care of the home. Who could they possibly find to take Minnie's very capable place? Inquiries at work agencies always come up empty. It's almost laughable that a family is trying to realistically hire help now after the war as no one wants to go into service anymore.
For Minnie, it's a new world that opens up for her. She fills her small flat overlooking a "green cloud of a lime tree" with inexpensive seconds and cast offs and thinks of the lovely smell that will fill her room from the tree. What's most poignant is the spinster daughter has feelings of envy upon visiting her--no matter how sordid the room feels, well knowing this is an independence she's not likely to see in her situation, so you wonder who's benefiting and who's losing out in the end. Yet another exquisite story by Mollie Panter-Downes. If you've not yet read her--here's the gentle nudge--go pick up one of her books or a short story. You won't regret it.
Next week: Margaret Bonham. The bookmark is getting closer to the end of the book now and my thoughts are beginning to turn to new story collections as I plan on continuing with my Sunday short story reading. More lovely anticipation of (hopefully) good things to come.