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’.

Maxtone Graham is particularly interesting on the relationship between Struther’s writing and her life. On one level, she was simply fictionalising her own annual round in Chelsea, Rye and Perthshire. Mrs Miniver’s three children were closely modelled on her own. Yet Joyce no longer lived in a Chelsea square, and her relationship with her husband was now a far cry from the companionable intimacy between Caroline Miniver and Clem. She was ‘re-creating a lost paradise,’ her granddaughter says, as a way of helping her to see it as a gilded cage ‘to which she was ready to say good riddance’.

By the time the book was published, Joyce was ready to say goodbye to Mrs Miniver as well. The new intensity of the war was one reason. Her column lingered on in the Times that autumn, but now in the form of somewhat preachy letters to Mrs Miniver’s sister-in-law. Even more important was a new relationship. Less than a month after the book came out, Joyce met and fell in love with Adolf Placzek, a penniless Jewish refugee from Vienna. Dolf was in Britain only temporarily, however, awaiting a visa for the United States. In May 1940, he sailed for New York. Joyce was devastated. Less than a month later, against all expectations, she went too. The American edition of Mrs Miniver had been selected as a Book of the Month Club Choice, and her publishers wanted her to promote it. Both Tony and his sister, who lived in New York, urged her to take the two younger children to America for safety. The Ministry of Information added an official justification: if Joyce did a lecture tour of the United States, representing Mrs Miniver and her values, it would be effective but inoffensive propaganda for Britain.

In New York, Joyce became Jan, dropping her old name for good. She quickly settled in, seeing Dolf secretly, while maintaining the outward face of a sadly separated wife. Secrecy was essential, to protect her children: but it also seemed a patriotic duty. For Mrs Miniver, published in July 1940, had become an instant American success. The reviews were uniformly laudatory and the book reached the top of the national bestseller list by the end of September. On an autumn lecture tour, Jan told audiences: ‘You see before you, Ladies and Gentlemen, a haunted woman . . . I am NOT “Mrs Miniver”.’

Struther had written her column in part to escape from an old skin, but it clung to her even more tenaciously in the United States. Americans in 1940 were fixated by news and images from across the Atlantic – the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the beginning of the Blitz. Mrs Miniver, shorn of many of the social nuances that British readers found so appealing (or appalling), personified Britain’s resolve under fire. To many Americans, Jan Struther simply was Mrs Miniver. According to Valerie Grove, in her introduction to the new edition, President Roosevelt told Jan that Mrs Miniver had considerably hastened American entry into the war. No evidence is cited for this statement, possibly made when Struther stayed at the White House in June 1943, and it bears the hallmark of FDR’s usual hyperbole in conversation. What one can say is that the impact of Mrs Miniver was both a cause and an effect of the sea-change in American opinion during the summer of 1940.

Opinion polls in the late 1930s had shown Americans to be overwhelmingly anti-Nazi, but also determined not to be dragged into another European war. It was widely believed that in 1917 they had been ensnared by an unholy trinity of munitions manufacturers, Wall Street bankers and British propagandists. This put a damper on overt attempts by the British Government to argue its case in the late 1930s. Isolationists also played up the negative stereotypes of Britain – antiquated, class-ridden, still clinging to an Empire from which Americans had mercifully escaped in 1776. American opinion was anti-Nazi but not pro-British.

Until the summer of 1940, that is. Today many Americans talk of 9/11 as a defining moment in American history. Perhaps, perhaps not, it’s too early to judge. But looking back over the 20th century, we can certainly say that May 1940 was such a moment. At the beginning of that month, when all was still quiet on the Western Front, it remained possible for Americans to believe the myth about the power of the Old World, on which their country had been nurtured. By the last week of May, with German tanks surging almost unopposed to the Channel, that myth had gone for good. France was broken and Britain isolated – with invasion or surrender the likely outcomes.

For the first time in US history, there was no longer a viable balance of power in Europe. Interventionists warned that if the French or British fleet fell into Hitler’s hands the Atlantic would become a German lake. Roosevelt talked of the new age of air-power. What if the Nazis established themselves in Fascist states in South America, within a few hours’ bombing time of Washington DC? America’s own Air Force was negligible; its antiquated fleet was based mostly in the Pacific; the Army was the 19th largest in the world (now the Dutch were out of the reckoning). Britain seemed like America’s front line in a newly perilous world.

The image of Britain was transformed. The negative stereotypes never disappeared, and were still highlighted by isolationists, but for most Americans they were overlaid by new virtues. At the end of May 1940, Dunkirk began the process. The evacuation could easily have been presented as the last act in an ignominious retreat; instead, journalists played up the heroism of the men on the beaches and the boats in the Channel. ‘In that harbor, in such a hell as never blazed on earth before,’ the New York Times told its readers, ‘the rages and blemishes that have hidden the soul of democracy fell away.’

The death of the old, class-ridden England and the birth of a new, democratic one in the ‘purgatorial’ flames of total war: this was the prevalent theme of American correspondents in London during the summer of 1940. The ‘little ships’, the Home Guard, the Few, and above all the courage of Londoners in the Blitz were celebrated in print and especially on the radio. Ed Murrow’s live commentary during an air raid in September 1940 became an American classic. ‘You burned the city of London in our homes and we felt the flames,’ Archibald MacLeish told him later.

The Ministry of Information in London decided to produce a documentary about the Blitz, but kept its fingerprints off the finished product. When London Can Take It was shown to American audiences that winter there were no British names on the credits, and the commentary was delivered by the veteran American correspondent Quentin Reynolds. An estimated 60 million Americans saw the film in the winter of 1940-41. As Nicholas Cull observed in Selling War (1995), the Blitz became an Anglo-American ‘co-production’.

This was the atmosphere in which Mrs Miniver climbed to the top of America’s reading list. Another bestseller that summer was Alice Duer Miller’s long poem The White Cliffs, in which an American mother tells of her love for England and its values. Both books celebrated Englishness; both spoke of the ordinary things of life imperilled by the Nazis; and, not surprisingly, both were snapped up by Hollywood.

In November 1940, Struther sold the film rights in Mrs Miniver to MGM for $32,000. By the time the movie had grossed nearly $9 million she was complaining that it was a lousy deal, yet it was a substantial sum, worth perhaps $750,000 today. But she surrendered all control over the script and setting. MGM wanted the character not the stories. Mrs Miniver, her husband Clem and their three children all remained, though her first name was now Kay not Caroline. Also familiar to readers of the book were such vignettes as her getting off the bus, or him buying a new car; but that was it. Mrs Miniver became a war movie about the Britain of Dunkirk and the Blitz. Its setting was an Olde English village in Kent, wreathed in roses and riddled with class, whose tensions are gradually but tragically resolved in the common struggle against an evil enemy.

The makeover was in tune with the long Hollywood tradition of ‘British’ films in presenting an antique setting and focusing on class and hierarchy. But it also set a precedent: the theme is how a new England is emerging from the chrysalis of the old. Although the Minivers look to British eyes extremely affluent, it is essential to the film that they are middle class, unlike the aristocratic Lady Beldon. Her granddaughter, Carol, becomes engaged to the Minivers’ elder son, Vin, before he leaves to fight with the RAF. After toying with various endings, MGM killed off Carol in an air raid, leaving Vin and Lady Beldon to mourn together in a church pew at the end, united in grief, resolution and a new-found equality.

Using the MGM archives, Mark Glancy, in When Hollywood Loved Britain (1999), has shown how the script of Mrs Miniver evolved from the autumn of 1940 to the spring of 1942. After Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, for instance, a running joke about Vin’s adolescent Communism was written out in favour of brief and blander references to ‘social reform’. After America entered the war in December 1941, it was permissible to sharpen Mrs Miniver’s initially motherly encounter with a wounded German airman into a blazing ideological row, which ended with her slapping him across the face.

The tautness of the final film was due to the young William Wyler, who arrived on the set as director in September 1941. Under his aegis, the male characters faded into the background – earlier scripts had envisaged scenes of Clem and Vin at Dunkirk – while the women of the village moved centre-stage, particularly Mrs Miniver (Greer Garson) and Carol (Teresa Wright). It was Wyler also who rewrote the ending, with its famous scene of the vicar preaching to the bereaved villagers in the bombed parish church. Why, he asks his congregation, have civilians paid such a high price? Because, he tells them, ‘this is a people’s war! It is our war! We are the fighters! Fight it, then! Fight it with all that is in us! And may God defend the right!’ As the congregation sings ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, the RAF is glimpsed through the ruined church roof, flying out to do battle. Maxtone Graham claims that FDR was so stirred by the film’s closing sermon that he requested it be dropped over occupied Europe as a leaflet and broadcast to the world by the Voice of America. This, like other claims about the film’s appeal to Roosevelt and Churchill, is hard to document – there doesn’t appear to be any evidence for them in the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library. But there is little doubt that the ending was Rooseveltian.

Rhetoric about ‘a people’s peace’ was a staple of the British Communist Party’s pacifist propaganda in 1939-40, and was then appropriated by the mainstream British Left in the crisis of total war. If this was a ‘people’s war’, demanding the energies and even the lives of the whole population, then the reward must be a people’s peace, not a return to the deprived 1930s. Transposed across the Atlantic, however, the notion of a ‘people’s war’ lost its radical edge. When Mrs Miniver was released, in June 1942, interest in the war effort had shifted from blitzed Britain to besieged Leningrad, from the Libyan desert to the Caucasian steppes. America now had its own war, mostly in the Pacific. Pearl Harbor and Bataan, the Coral Sea and Midway had entered the national vocabulary. But all these were far from home: the continental United States was never invaded, occupied or even bombed (except for a few random Japanese shells on the West Coast). Any evocation of the Home Front as a battle front was welcomed by US propagandists, particularly one that turned Hollywood’s prewar British film into a statement of universal values.

Thus America adapted Mrs Miniver, and then adopted her. A million tickets were sold within six weeks, and the movie won five Oscars. Swallowing her private reservations, Struther became an enthusiastic booster. ‘There are Mrs Minivers in every freedom-loving country in the world,’ she declared after the premiere. Across the Atlantic reactions were more mixed. British critics mocked Hollywood’s fake Kentish sets and its caricature of things English. ‘No gents’ outfitters of our acquaintance supplied Mr Miniver with his pyjamas,’ the Observer sniffed. But most reviewers were also touched by the film and its evocation of the Home Front. ‘I love it,’ Vera Brittain wrote in her diary, ‘but I think Jan Struther is a charlatan posing as a patriot in the safety of the USA.’

For Struther herself the movie brought renewed fame and a kind of catharsis: to her relief, Greer Garson gradually assumed the persona of Mrs Miniver, though the strains of her own double life continued, and there were increasing bouts of depression – her ‘Jungles’. In May 1945, she returned to England with her children. She and Tony failed to patch up the marriage and they were divorced two years later. Jan went back to New York to marry Dolf, but she never again matched her earlier literary success. In the autumn of 1950, MGM made a sequel, The Miniver Story, without her permission. She took legal action and the studio settled out of court for $13,000, $8000 of which was compensation for killing off the character she had invented. MGM’s story of Mrs Miniver’s protracted battle with cancer was a spectacular flop, losing the studio $2.3 million. It lacked drama: living in Churchill’s Britain was exciting, dying in Attlee’s Britain was not. The meticulous Wyler was no longer director; Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon had lost their earlier sparkle. The only good thing the Punch critic could say was that her death in the last act spared film-goers any further sequels.

The cancer that had killed Mrs Miniver then turned on her creator. In August 1951, Jan had an emergency mastectomy, after which it was mostly downhill. In December 1952, she wrote 18,000 words of a travel book about America, to be called ‘Cactus and Columbine’, that she had been planning on and off since 1940. In one chapter of the draft there is a ring at the door around teatime. ‘“It’s me,” said a familiar voice, “I hope I’m not too early.” “Not a bit,” I said, with the forced cordiality born of guilt.’ The visitor is Mrs Miniver, resurrected as a vehicle to explore America through British eyes. Right up until her death in July 1953, Jan Struther remained a haunted woman.