Tuesday, July 21, 2020

My Husband Simon - Mollie Panter-Downes

This is the first of the British Library's new Women Writers series that I've read, it has set the bar high for whatever follows it either in the same series or more generally in my own personal reading. To be fair the other 2 Women Writers titles already out, and the 5 which are coming all look strong and it's going to be really interesting to see where these go.

There will probably be spoilers in this post.

Nevis Falconer is 21 the author of a successful novel, and staying at an older friends country house for the weekend, when she meets 28 year old Simon Quinn. There's such a spark between them that by the Sunday evening they're staying at a pub losing their respective virginities, already intent on marriage.

We then skip forward 3 years to a crisis point for Nevis. Her writing is not going well, she feels trapped by domesticity and then Marcus Chard, her American publisher turns us at the Savoy and invites her for lunch.

There is some speculation as to what extent 'My Husband Simon' is autobiographical - Nevis is more or less the same age as Mollie when she writes her first book, marries, produces her second book, and the age she would have been when she was writing this one. I'm more inclined to see it as a what might have been, than of her actual life. If it is a self portrait it's in the form of deeply unflattering caricature, but I think it's more likely a parody of a type rather than meant to be any one person. It's certainly a younger version of the type that's forever cropping up in the background of Dorothy L. Sayers, or makes up half the cast of a Nancy Mitford.

There's also a lot of commentary about how temperamentally unsuited Nevis and Simon are, that the only thing that keeps them together is sex, but I'm not sure the reader is in a position to judge this because we see everything through Nevis' eyes, and she's far to self absorbed and unobservant to be reliable. I'm not convinced about the class difference that Simon suggests in his afterword either. If Nevis is socially a cut above Simon it's a very small cut and seems mostly to be based on his father having made his own money.

Nevis says he never struck her as being particularly intelligent, that she can't understand how he built up the business, but it's Edward Quinn who who has the generally patrician markers of a good palate for wine, and a love of reading and books (which he collects in first editions). The deeper problem between the couple is Nevis's immaturity and lack of awareness. When Simon tells her that she misunderstands what intelligence is, damning anyone "...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 Molyneux?" she seems to agree with him. She certainly applies the test to his brother.

I found Nevis fascinating in her awfulness, and Mollie expert in the way she reveals it layer by layer. She's a terrible snob, both intellectually and from a class point of view, staggeringly self absorbed, and totally lacking in empathy - and yet despite it all she's a character I like, maybe because right at the end of the book there is a moment of genuine self awareness, but mostly because of Mollie's skill in writing this monstrously egotistical young woman.

Simon is a presence that threads through the book becoming more real with each episode. It's increasingly clear that he is self aware, and loves her in a way that she's not yet capable of understanding. (Spoiler here) early on Nevis tells us that Simon doesn't want children because it will spoil her figure, later it becomes clear that he wants them very much. Not having them is one of several ways he puts her needs first. When he states that Marcus Chard understands her he is perhaps realising that what Nevis likes about Marcus is that he takes the responsibility of her choices away from her whilst flattering her intelligence.

The original blurb for the book suggests that Nevis's choice will boil down to being a wife or mistress, but I think it's more likely to be between being the wife of a man who will treat her as an equal, or one who will make her into a trophy. And that's maybe the reason Nevis is likable, it's because rather than despite of her flaws. The fact that she's selfish enough to keep fighting even when she's dimly aware that what she's fighting for isn't worth having.

I know 'One Fine Day' is generally considered a better book, and maybe it is, but I prefer 'My Husband Simon'. I love the way it unfolds, there is a brilliantly disturbing scene in a park with some beggars, a few with her servants (On holiday in Venice, Nevis is happy to head for the Lido everyday, later her housemaid tells her she should try Bogner Regis - Nevis is appalled, it is a perfect bit of comedy in the middle of something generally darker). An intriguing description of a Dutch still life in the Quinns house "...a hideous and very valuable Dutch painting of six oysters in surprised conjunction with two dead pomegranates and a dead widgeon." which forms part of the background to a heated discussion about D H Lawrence.

The painting gets mentioned a couple of times - in my time as a student the view was very much that even the dead widgeon could be understood as a sexual metaphor - a theory that slightly postdates this book, and is now somewhat discredited. The agreed symbolism of the oysters and pomegranates has not changed so much, Mollie's wording makes that clear, and she's using this image to signify a couple of things, but Nevis seems unaware that the picture is in it's way every bit as explicit as anything Lawrence wrote.

And so it goes on. This is a goldmine of details about a particular London in the early 30's, there's a checklist of books, the central relationships are drawn with an incredible deftness of touch, and I could go on for a couple more thousand words when really 4 will do  - seriously, consider reading this.


  1. Lovely review and glad you enjoyed! I'm intrigued and surprised about your comment on class - it seemed glaring to me from the novel, and all the more divisive because they are fairly close on the spectrum but not close enough. But interesting to hear another interpretation!

    1. It's an interesting point. I see Nevis as socially and intellectually insecure. She dislikes the Quinns partly because they disapprove of her - she's not got the social cachet of her sister in law, I think we can infer that she hasn't been a debutante from the dismissive way she speaks about the Erskine's, she doesn't have money, and neither dogs or servants much care for her - which isn't surprising when you get down to brass tacks on how she views her servants. It's Simon who's at ease in different social situations even when he's impatient of them, and has so many of the romantic novelists markers of being upper class. On the other hand her sensitivity towards class and the nuances of social position and different social circles absolutely do make it a novel about class too. It's why I like this book so much - there's a ton of stuff to unpick and discuss about it, and MPD has the genius not to be explicit. She's made me think about every 1920's/30's author I can remember looking for parallels for Nevis.

  2. I am so looking forward to reading this. Mollie Panter -Downes is one of my favourite writers and loved One Fine Day and her short stories. This series looks very exciting indeed!

    1. I loved this book, it felt like another lockdown relevant one too - Nevis certainly feels cooped up in her life, and as I'm still stuck in my flat with not much to do but write, knit, and consult with myself about what dinner might be I could relate.