Reviewed by Harriet
I’m sure I’m not alone in having rejoiced when the British Library announced a new series of reprints of 20th century women writers: ‘a curated collection of novels by female authors who enjoyed broad, popular appeal in their day’. Already an avid reader of this genre of novel, I looked forward to making new acquaintances as well as reuniting with old favourites. And to crown it all, one of the series consultants is Shiny’s very own co-founder and Editor-at-large, Simon. So it was with great pleasure that I opened my first package of three books, one of which I began reading the same day.
I can’t imagine why I’ve never read Mollie Panter-Downes before. I’ve read many reviews of her most famous novel, One Fine Day, but never managed to read it. That novel was published in 1947, but My Husband Simon (1931) precedes that date by sixteen years, and was the last of her four pre-war novels. And what a total delight it is.
The narrator of the novel is Nevis Falconer, a young woman of 24. As the book starts, it is autumn 1930, and Nevis is asking herself whether, given all the experience of the past four years, ‘I would make up my mind quite so precipitously to marry Simon Quinn if I met him for the first time today’. She soon realises that, even though she might shout, scream, or run away, in the end she would ‘marry him just the same’. The rest of the novel tells the story of this inevitable marriage.
It’s clear from the start that the attraction between the couple was instantly and irresistibly physical. We learn that after their first meeting at a party they went to a small riverside pub for dinner, where they ended up staying the night together. Back in her flat, the following morning, Nevis tells us, she stared at the pile of manuscript sitting on the table: ‘I turned it over vaguely as though it belonged to someone else’.
This episode clearly foreshadows what will happen to her life after she meets Simon. For Nevis is a novelist. At the age of 21, when she first met Simon, she had already published a highly successful novel, and, as the story moves forward from that first encounter, she reveals that she had followed it up with a second one (the one she had stared at in manuscript), which neither she nor her publishers thought nearly as good. She’s now struggling with her third attempt, and it’s not going well. The implication is clear – this tempestuous, infuriating, irresistible relationship is overshadowing her creativity.
She and Simon are living in fashionable Montpelier Place in London – he goes out every day to his work at the Stock Exchange and she struggles painfully with her writing. In the evenings, they socialise, often with Simon’s family, who Nevis rather despises. As Simon (who describes himself as ‘practically illiterate’), says of his wife, she ‘damned anyone as unintelligent who a) had not seen the latest play and read the latest novel; b) did not know who Virginia Woolf was; c) could not look at a dress and say “My dear, is it Molyneaux?” ‘ Yes, Nevis is an intellectual snob, and undoubtedly a social one too. But I would argue that she is redeemed by her honesty and her constant self-examination. Take her reaction to the sudden death, in childbirth, of Simon’s pretty, rather simple sister-in-law Gwen: ‘I had been fond of her, but not very fond. We were like two people stranded on separate islands, unable to converse except by amiable signals’. But she is horribly shocked by the event, which leads her to ponder on the ‘monstrous outrages’ that happen in the world, while everyone tries to carry on as if everything is normal. She and Simon had briefly toyed with the idea of having a child of their own, but after Gwen’s death it’s clear this is not going to happen.
Meanwhile, Nevis has a battle of her own in process. Marcus Chard, a representative of her New York publisher, has come to Europe and made contact with her. He’s tough minded and honest, and makes no secret of the fact that he was disappointed by her second novel. But, he tells her, he knows she has it in her to write one as good as, or better than, her first. However, in order to achieve this, he says, she needs to get right away from London (and of course from Simon). He happens to have an empty flat in New York City, where she can live for as long as it takes. It’s obvious to the reader, and indeed to Simon, that he has an ulterior motive, but this is an issue that Nevis deliberately decides not to confront. Until the very end, that is, when she and Simon have to take a hard look at their future. What will be the outcome? That’s for the reader to decide.
There’s so much to enjoy and admire in this excellent novel. There’s Nevis herself, of course – cultured, thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive, confused – much given to agonising about the state of the world and of human beings in general – and a fascinating portrait of a writer struggling with an intractable block, self doubt, and an overwhelming desire to achieve something she’s not sure she can manage. It’s also a brilliant picture of London in the early 1930s, and of the unspoken but unavoidable class distinctions that permeate the society in which Nevis and Simon move. And then of course there’s Simon himself – handsome, charming, with immense sexual magnetism, but with no interest in the finer things of life which so absorb his wife. He’s never read Nevis’s books and is completely uninterested in them – his ‘idea of real enjoyment was sitting in a crowded tap-room, talking horses with a drunk navvy who might later pick a fight with him’. And yet…in the final analysis, Simon is arguably the real hero of this novel, which after all bears his name.
Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Mollie Panter-Downes, My Husband Simon (British Library, 2020). 978-0712353120, 240pp., paperback.BUY at Blackwell’s via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)