Thursday 29 August 2013

Delightful Mrs Miniver

It was lovely, thought Mrs Miniver, nodding good-bye to the flower-woman and carrying her big sheaf of chrysanthemums down the street with a kind of ceremonious joy, as though it were a cornucopia; it was lovely, this settling down again, this tidying away of the summer into its box, this taking up of the thread of one’s life where the holidays (irrelevant interlude) had made one drop it. Not that she didn’t enjoy the holidays:  but she always felt - and it was, perhaps, the measure of peculiar happiness – a little relieved when they were over. Her normal life pleased her so well that she was half-afraid to step out of its frame in se one day she should find herself unable to get back. The spell might break, the atmosphere be impossible to recapture.

Mrs Miniver, as you can tell from the opening passage of the novel which bears her name, is a fortunate woman, and she is well aware of that, and is always prepared to count her blessings. But wealthy, happily married women face trials and tribulations just like anyone else, even though they may pale into insignificance compared to what else was going on in the world. Jan Struther’s classic tale of family life is utterly charming - forget about that dreadfully sentimental old film, and read the book! Mrs Miniver is actually a rather endearing character, and I found her easy to warm to, despite the difference in life-style (no say nothing of income) and a gap of well over 50 years.

It’s set in the months immediately before WW2, and takes us through to the onset of the conflict, ending at Christmas 1939, by which time Mrs Miniver is doing war work in London, leaving staff at her country home to care for seven evacuees and her three children (when they are not away at school. To be honest, for much of the time you wouldn’t know how grave the situation is. But her tone gets more serious as things worsen, and there are unexpected glimpses of the way life changes. She describes the difficulties of getting around on a moonless night in the blackout when, she says, one ‘confines oneself to neighbours who are within groping distance’, and in the evening there is so little traffic that ‘people’s footsteps on the pavements make quite  a loud clatter’. And she mentions the beneficial effect on people’s health, telling us: 
And apropos (literally for once) des bottes, you’ve no idea how all this walking has improved people’s figures. Men with incipient pots, women who were developing Dunlop ridges above the belt, are now sylphlike.
 I just love that description.

However, for me the most moving and thought provoking comment on the war is her account of the lack of children. My mother’s family took in evacuees, and an entire school was moved out of London to the small Surrey town where she lived, so my view is based on her memories, and the impact made by this sudden influx of children and their teachers. But, of course, those extra youngsters in that one place meant fewer young people somewhere else, a fact which I’ve never considered before – and I don’t think I’ve seen it referred to elsewhere.  Anyway, Struther, writing as Mrs Miniver, confides:

The other thing I miss, terribly, is children. Not only my own - I do at least see them (and plenty of others) at weekends: but children in general, as an ingredient of the town’s population, a sort of leven. It may be different in some parts of London, but around here they have acquired a rarity interest. They used to be daisies and are now bee orchises.

Her view was interesting, especially as I am taking a leisurely stroll through Vere Hodgson’s wartime diaries. But this book isn’t about the war, or politics, or current affairs: it’s about people, and the way they react with each other, and the odd things that make us love our families, and above all it’s about Mrs Miniver’s thoughts on Life, the Universe and Everything. And that’s where it’s strength lies, because it’s warm, and funny, and very joyous and life affirming and, surprisingly, it’s very easy to identify with Mrs Miniver (especially as she has the ability to laugh at herself) and her concerns with her family and the small things of everyday life.

Like many other novels issued at this time, Mrs Miniver was originally published as a regular column in a newspaper. Stuther, a poet and essay writer, was asked to produce pieces to liven up the court page in The Times! Peter Feming (Ian’s brother) wanted her to create an ‘ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself’. Her pieces, gathered into a book in October 1939, were immensely popular, and are thought to have been based on her own life and family.
They mostly take the form of straight forward, short narratives, with one topic for each chapter, but my 1989 Virago edition includes four  ‘letters’ written by Mrs Miniver after the book’s original.

There’s no overall plot, so if you like a book with a strong storyline, this is not for you, as it’s really a series of reflections on different topics and situations. Funniest of all is Mrs Miniver’s account of how she and her husband track down a mystery smell in their country cottage. They fear it might be drains, or a dead rat – but it turns out to be two boxes of fishing bait (once alive, but now in an indescribable state) left behind in a bag abandoned by their eldest son!

A portrait of Jan Struther by Fritz Reichl,
 in the National Portrait Gallery,
Some things, it seems, never change. A visit to the dentist was every bit as unpleasant then as now, despite the padded cushions on the adjustable chair, and the ethics of shooting are just as controversial. But the way of life has altered. I suppose there are still people who enjoy shooting parties, and country house weekends, but for most of us it’s a lifestyle that’s difficult to imagine.

And Jan Struther has created such a warm, humane character that class has no place here. How could you not like a woman who keeps all her old Christmas present lists (there are 17 of them taking up space in an overcrowded drawer) because they evoke happy memories, a ‘memory-film’ of the past… the early days of her marriage, her husband building his reputation as a successful architect, the birth of her children, their growth and changing interests… She is so delightful, I cannot think how I have passed her by for all these years. 


  1. It's a lovely book, isn't it? I was surprised how well off they were in the book - I'd rather expected a bit of 'Provincial Lady' genteel poverty. Not sure why - perhaps I misread the film too! I should watch that again now I've read the book.

    1. I expected more genteel poverty as well, and for some reason I thought the whole book was set during the war - I was surrprised to find so little mention of it. And the only thing I remember about the film is that it seemed full of a sickly sentimentality, which irritated me.

  2. Ooo this sounds right up my street. Cosiness is often the order of the day - H E Bates, Derek Tangye, Paul Gallico, Winifred Peck, Nancy Mitford..I'm a sucker for it. Thanks for the intro.