Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 25, 2011

Mrs Miniver, by Jan Struther

My copy of Mrs Miniver is an original wartime edition of this famous little book, which began life as a puff-piece in The Times but when war came the story grew to become the voice of stoic Britain.  The cover is austerity brown paper, there are no pictures – only text – on the front and back covers, and the pages are speckled with age.  It feels like the very book that my mother would surely have read.

The Minivers are from the ‘professional classes’.  There’s a boy at Eton, daddy is an architect.  In chapter one an anonymous someone responds when Mrs M contentedly rings the bell for tea, and in chapter two an un-named ‘garage-hand’ brings the car round in the morning.  Mrs M is comfortable and mildly complacent but not unaware of how fortunate she is to be able to take pleasure in the everyday.  While naively believing that she understands what life is like for the Other, Mrs Miniver hasn’t forgotten their financial ups-and-downs when they were too hard-up to afford a taxi home after dinner out.

But the book is only deceptively twee: read carefully and you will find that Struther is a sharp observer.  There is sly mockery of ‘Lady Courtney Butfish’ who will only take ‘really nice children’ as evacuees, and only then if it is really necessary and doesn’t upset the servants.  There is boredom at county parties with people so out-of-touch with the need to work that they would ‘have gone to the guillotine rather than use the expression ‘week-end’ ‘(p11).  For Lady Chervil and her ilk, Mrs Miniver has rehearsed an acceptable answer if asked her opinion of blood sports: they are ‘indefensible but irresistible’ because any objection to hunting ‘was bound in that company to be a tedious and unprofitable discussion’. (p13)

For those not au fait with the pre-war British class system, it’s a bit confusing.  Mrs Miniver travels by bus and thinks twice about buying an expensive ‘engagement book’ (a diary) but when her charwoman isn’t well she has to go in search of a replacement herself, wandering bewildered through a council estate.  When things go wrong all at once and ‘one must put on spiritual dungarees and remain in them until things are running smoothly again’  it is she, not a housekeeper or butler, who must sort things out until once again household matters are a ‘low, distant humming in the background’ (p92).

Unlike the famous film, the book focusses on the period before war was declared and the Phoney War, but the sense of domestic safety is nonetheless shattered when they queue up with everyone else to collect their gas masks.  There is Mrs Miniver and Nannie; Judy and Toby; Mrs Adie the Scots cook,  and Gladys, the house-parlourmaid.  (Vin is presumably away at school, and Clem must be at work).  Yes, this is a considerable household by our standards, but they all share the same patriotic ambition: ‘we were fighting against an idea, and not against a nation’ (p61).

The Minivers have a house in London, and ‘Starlings‘ in Kent (not quite ‘top-drawer’!) and though they have enough cash to then also buy Old Parsloe’s Cottage, they do it up themselves, ‘painting and whitewashing and carpentering and digging and weeding and planting’ (p90).  The war changes this kind of labour from a choice to a necessity when they have to join in the local hop-harvest because so many of the labourers have joined up.

And Mrs Miniver is alert to the incongruities of the English class system.  In London in August when the well-bred are in the countryside, the ‘great tide of perambulators’ from the ‘nursery tea-tables of Bayswater, Kensington, Brompton, Belgravia and Mayfair’ is replaced by children who are ‘whey-faced, thin, ragged, merry and shrewd’ (p112).  Between the lines we can see her asking herself where those children play when those prams are there.  Naively, (for how could Struther have known then what miseries evacuation could bring?)  Mrs Miniver thinks that one benefit of the war would be that evacuation would enable these children to see ‘cows, and running streams, and growing corn‘ which they would otherwise never see unless a ‘miracle happened’. But, she gently suggests, perhaps ‘the structure [of society] could be changed without altering the texture’ (p113).  Was Struther a closet Leftie??

The most quoted passage from Mrs Miniver comes towards the end of the book when the family has decamped to Starlings:

It oughtn’t to need a war to make a nation paint its kerbstones white, carry rear-lamps on its bicycles, and give all its slum children a holiday in the country.  And it oughtn’t to need a war to make us talk to each other in buses, and invent our own amusements in the evenings, and live simply, and eat sparingly, and recover the use of our legs, and get up early enough to see the sun rise.  However it has needed one, and that is about the severest criticism our civilization could have. (p123)

Well, yes, there are other criticisms that one might have of imperial Britain, and yes, it is a bit sentimental, and I did wonder a little bit if Mrs Miniver’s blossoming awareness of how the other half lived was perhaps influenced by her experiences in less class-conscious America where she went on a lecture tour not long after the war started – but it’s a charming little book nonetheless. (It’s only 128 pages long).

Hollywood made Mrs Miniver into a film (which I haven’t seen) but I found this perceptive review which applies in some respects to the book as well.  However Jan Struther was very annoyed about the sequel, and eventually sued MGM for ‘killing off her character’ .   But I suspect that it wasn’t really MGM that killed off Mrs Miniver at all, it was post-war austerity and the social changes that accompanied it.

You can read Mrs Miniver online if you life, but I’d recommend that you try to find an authentic old edition like mine…

PS I was prompted to read Mrs Miniver by the Virago Reading Week which promotes reading the work of women writers.  I do have heaps of Virago titles on my shelves, but my Mrs Miniver wasn’t one of them.

PPS I am indebted to the Mrs Miniver digital edition for some of the biographical information above, and also to Wikipedia.

Author: Jan Struther
Title: Mrs Miniver
Publisher: Chatto and Windus, 1939
No ISBN
Source: Personal copy, found in an Op Shop somewhere for $6.00 AUD.


Responses

  1. Thanks for this good review, Lisa. I found it especially valuable being written far from the UK. Outsiders’ takes are so often sharper than ours and I liked your understanding of Mrs Miniver’s internal discussions: servants and making do, keeping her children safe but concerned for less privileged kids – those conflicts which must have arisen for many people in her position.

    If you liked her enough, you might enjoy ‘The Real Mrs Miniver’, written by Jan Struther’s granddaughter (Ysenda Maxtone Graham). You’ll be amazed at the difference between the real and the percieved Mrs M!

  2. Wonderful review, and thank you for taking part in Virago Reading Week! It’s interesting to read about the war from the point of view of someone wealthy enough to ride through most if it unscathed, but the very real shift in class consciousness due to the war did have a profound effect on the way Mrs Minivers lived. No more servants, for starters. I think hardships are relative – as trivial as not being able to afford a taxi might be for those of us who can never afford to take taxis, that must have represented a real need to economise for the Minivers. Such little things show that the war really did affect everyone. I must read this soon – I have a copy somewhere, though the Virago edition is not nearly as lovely and age speckled as yours!

  3. This sounds lovely – the irony and satire in the language gives it the edge that makes me want to read it. That at the just before the war setting which also appeals. I might, despite your recommendation, check out a digital version. Thanks for an interesting review, Lisa.

    For some reason – despite by love of 1930s/40s films – Mrs Miniver is still on my To See list. I love Greer Garson (at least, I think she’s Mrs Miniver isn’t she?).

    • Yes, Greer Garson was indeed Mrs Miniver, but (as you’ll see if you follow the digital link above) the film was nothing like the book. I’m going to see if I can find a copy too, I love all those war time movies!

  4. OK – I’ve ordered it because you like some of my very favourite books. Also – I loved your Amy Witting review. Just sayin’…

    • Thank you, McC – you’ve made my day!

  5. […] who posts about Australian and New Zealand fiction. She has broken her usual mould in writing a wonderful review of Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver, discussing the difficulties of reading an upper class […]


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