Zest

David Reynolds

  • The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
    Murray, 314 pp, £17.99, November 2001, ISBN 0 7195 5541 8
  • Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther
    Virago, 153 pp, £7.99, November 2001, ISBN 1 85381 090 8

‘Perhaps it is too soon to call this one of the greatest motion pictures of all time,’ the New York Times said in June 1942, ‘but it is certainly the finest yet made about the present war, and a most exalting tribute to the British.’ The film was Mrs Miniver, whose heroine had come from a 1939 bestseller by the British writer Jan Struther. MGM’s 1942 movie had little else in common with her book, however, nor did its glossy portrait of a successful marriage correspond to the double life of Jan Struther. The film in fact took on an existence of its own, particularly in the United States, where it became a symbol of wartime Britain and a powerful evocation of Allied values. It also haunted Jan Struther to the end of her days.

Her double life is the central theme of her granddaughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham’s often moving biography. Jan Struther was the pen name of Joyce Anstruther, a tomboy figure who was very much the embodiment of her own favourite word, ‘zest’. In 1923 she married a Lloyd’s broker, Tony Maxtone Graham; she wrote poems, hymns and short stories, and did well. They had three children and lived in style in Chelsea. After a decade, however, the marriage went cold. His life began to revolve around cars and golf; she retaliated with botany and books. The brokerage business flagged. In 1936 they had to abandon Chelsea for something more modest.

At this low moment Joyce was asked by Peter Fleming, then a leader-writer on the Times, to help enliven the Court Page, whose only light relief from the comings and goings at the Palace was a series of articles about flora and fauna – ‘Woody Plants for Limey Soil’ or ‘Family Cares of the Little Owl’. Fleming wanted to add ‘a light and feminine touch’, in the form of occasional stories about a fictional woman. ‘What sort of woman?’ Joyce asked. ‘Oh, I don’t know – just an ordinary sort of woman, who leads an ordinary sort of life. Rather like yourself.’ Choosing to take that as a compliment, she agreed to try. She thought up the name within an hour – ‘miniver’ was a kind of fur used for trimming ceremonial costumes – but it was a year before she came up with the first article. ‘Mrs Miniver Comes Home’, signed ‘From a correspondent’, appeared in the Times on 6 October 1937. ‘Mrs Miniver and the New Car’ followed two weeks later and so it went on, at regular intervals, for the next couple of years. Publishers started bidding for a book after the second article. The collected stories were published in October 1939 as Mrs Miniver.

Reading the current reprint, one can readily appreciate why people either loved Mrs Miniver or loved to hate her. She was a happily married yet highly independent woman, upper middle class but often critical of her social milieu. Her daily life was comfortable – London house, weekend cottage in Kent, Scotland every summer. Her husband was a successful architect, her elder son was at Eton, and her chores were done by others. This was a life composed of small pleasures and small discomforts, precisely depicted. Some 1939 reviewers were infuriated, among them E.M. Forster, who dilated on the contrived snobbery of the professional classes. ‘She is always so smug, so right,’ wrote M.F. Savory of Worthing in a letter to the Times; ‘the only thing for Mrs Miniver is a direct hit from a bomb.’

Timing, however, was everything. The pieces appeared in 1938 and 1939, when, as Maxtone Graham observes, Mrs Miniver’s ‘safe, framed world’ on the Court Page was a place ‘to retreat to after facing the news on the previous pages, which was steadily growing worse’. We now know that 3 September 1939 ushered in only the Phoney War, and even when the Blitz began the following summer, casualties were far fewer than anticipated. In the whole war indeed, only 147,000 British civilians were killed or seriously injured by bombing, even though, in 1936, military planners had privately forecast 150,000 casualties in the first 24 hours of an air attack. ‘We thought of air warfare in 1938,’ Harold Macmillan recalled after the Cuban Missile crisis of 1962, ‘rather like people think of nuclear warfare today.’ During Munich week in September 1938, and again in September 1939, when three million people fled London in the first days of the war, many really did anticipate the end of civilisation. ‘Back to Normal’, Mrs Miniver’s post-Munich piece about life, cherished possessions and ‘the value of dullness’, spoke to millions. The character took on a life of her own, and Joyce was soon receiving a substantial mailbag addressed to ‘Dear Mrs Miniver’. She felt, she said, ‘rather like a ventriloquist whose doll has suddenly struck up an independent conversation with the audience’.

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