It’s not often that you find a book so exquisitely written that the story takes a back seat to the absolute divine quality of the language it is expressed in. In One Fine Day, Mollie Panter-Downes effortlessly uses just the most perfect words in the perfect order to create a crystal clear image of a sweltering summer’s day in a rural post war village, the heat rising in a shimmer off the surface of the baked, softened tarmac on the roads and the crops in the fields swaying gently in the hot breeze. It is a moving, elegiac novel about love, beauty, and most importantly, freedom; that precious, indefinable gift that was almost destroyed, and that millions of men died to protect, so that their beloved England would never have to lie under the flag of another. 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.
One Fine Day centres around the day in the life of Laura and Stephen Marshall and their daughter Victoria. They live in a large house in a country village and are used to servants and a decent standard of living. Stephen, recently returned from the war, has been shocked to find Laura managing the house alone, as all the servants have either been killed or have moved on to more exciting and better paid work in the city. His beloved garden is ruined – the gardener was killed in France – and Laura can barely keep the house clean, let alone produce an evening dinner. Victoria has grown from a toddler to a little lady, quite unrecognisable to her father, and Stephen is left floundering now he is master of a house no longer in capable hands, a husband to a rapidly aged wife, and a father to a child who barely remembers him. We follow Laura through her domestic focused day in the country, while Stephen is in his London office. From shopping in town, to household duties, to visits to the poorer neighbours in the search for a gardener, and finally to a blissful afternoon spent on Barrow Hill, a local landmark, Laura’s life and thoughts are laid bare. We also understand life from Stephen’s perspective as he goes about his day in the sweltering heat of a battered and bruised London, wondering at the futility of his daily commute, worrying about the state of his house, and about their future.
My words can never hope to adequately describe how simply breathtaking this book is. Laura is one of the most charming, irresistable characters I’ve ever come across; she is a free spirit, a little downtrodden by her experiences, and greying around the edges, but still young, and vibrant, and yearning for more spontaneity and freedom in her life, unencumbered by the duties of house and family. Her childlike delight in escaping for an afternoon and just soaking in the beauty of the surrounding countryside and the wordless, heart filling, irrepressible joy she feels in knowing the war is over, is almost tear jerking in its sweetness. By the end of the day, as she sits on the Hill, despite the difficulties of her postwar life, she realises with tearful joy that she can rejoice in being free from fear, look into a sky no longer filled with latent menace, and plan a future again. Stephen’s journey throughout the day is no less touching; despite his disappointment with his disordered house and the strains of his desk bound job, his love for his wife and daughter eclipse all of this, and his realisation that what the house looks like doesn’t matter – he is alive, and Laura is alive, and without each other, everything is dust and ashes – made my heart sing.
Laura and Stephen’s life has changed forever; no more will their house run like clockwork, the cogs greased by the hands of that unseen army of servants who keep everything clean and serve meals on time. Many of those they loved are dead, the things they took pleasure in are no longer available or they don’t have time to enjoy them anymore, and all the worry and strain and risk and danger of the war seems hardly worth it, as their former life is in ruins, and they don’t know how to cope with the one they have now. However, over the course of this hot summer’s day, when the roses are in full bloom and the sky is a cornflower blue, and all England is laid out in her splendour to be admired, they both come to experience the true joy of freedom from fear, and the luxury of once again having a future, and they realise that they are lucky, so lucky, to have each other, to have survived, to have lived through it all and to have come out on the other side, battered, but not broken, ready to live again.
It is making me feel strangely emotional, writing about this remarkable book. I am currently reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, an autobiography about her experience of living through the First World War, and bringing that personal viewpoint of war into my reading of One Fine Day, it has, on reflection, made me feel incredibly grateful that my youth has not been tainted by the constant horror of a war that threatens to destroy everything I hold dear. How truly awful it must have been for women to be stuck at home during those terrifying five years (‘women sew, men fight’, says Laura in One Fine Day), knowing little of the fate of their husbands, sons, brothers, friends, lovers, out there in a distant trench, fighting not just for their own lives, but for those of people they had never met, part of the King and Country it was their duty to preserve and protect beyond anything else. Constant worry, constant stress, constant fear, becoming part of your everyday life, due to a war you never wanted and don’t see the point of, ripping apart everything you love and plunging your existence into five long years of hardship and sacrifice and grief. And then when it ends, if you’re lucky, your husband comes home, and he’s different, and he doesn’t know you anymore, and though only five years have passed, it could have been twenty, for all the changes that have happened. The servants have gone, the house has gone to pot, most of your friends have been widowed, and half of your village has been killed or packed up and gone, unwilling to put up with the limited opportunities a rural life now offers after the widened horizons of a war worker’s life. Where do you go from there? How do you even begin to pick up the pieces and go back to a semblance of normality? I have no idea how they did it, and I am in such awe, and have such gratitude towards these brave men and women of my grandparents’ generation who sacrificed so much so that the people of my generation would have the freedom we so blithely take for granted. I know, after reading this beautiful book, that I am never going to look at the rolling hills of the English countryside in quite the same way again. You must read this. It will send shivers down your spine.
‘We are at peace, we still stand, we will stand when you are dust, sang the humming land in the summer evening.’