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International Citation: - "Gan, Wendy; Embracing Domesticity Between the Wars: The Writing of Jan Struther; First published in "Feminist Studies in English Literature" Vol. 8, No. 2, Winter 2001; Hong Kong University. Text extracted from the Jan Struther Family Website, gallopingfox.com/Miniver - © 2001-2003 Robert Maxtone Graham and David Drew-Smythe, under governing terms of the Estate of Jan Struther, 1939 and Ysenda Maxtone Graham."
Wendy Gan is a lecturer in the Department of English, HKU. Her teaching and research interests include the essay genre, the writings of British women writers in the early twentieth-century and Hong Kong film.
Little known today, Jan Struther was a British writer of poems and essays for respectable, middlebrow journals such as Punch, the Spectator, and the New Statesman between the wars. Her one claim to fame was the best-selling Mrs. Miniver, which recorded the thoughts of a charming and urbane upper-middle-class woman going about her ordinary, every-day life. Begun as column to liven up an otherwise dull Court Page in The Times, Mrs. Miniver quickly struck a chord with readers. The gentle charm of her leisured upper-middle-class life captivated the country and by the time the pieces had been collected into an eventually best-selling book, Mrs. Miniver had become the subject of two Times leaders and had even been given as a clue in the crossword of the same paper.1 Mrs. Miniver had become a household name.
Alison Light in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars has argued for the cultural significance of this volume of seemingly slight pieces on a middle-class woman and her family, seeing it as representative of a certain middle-class interwar Englishness and domesticity. Following Light's lead, I would like to continue using Mrs. Miniver, as well as Struther's other essays, as a demonstration of the ways in which interwar middle-class women negotiated with domesticity and to suggest a reason why some women continued to embrace domesticity in this period.
As a modern wife and mother with a literary career of her own, Jan Struther had her finger on the pulse of interwar domestic ideals and the negotiations of lived experience as her popular comic essays and the bestselling status of Mrs. Miniver attest. Her work may be considered minor but a study of it recovers the struggles of the modern domesticated woman (a seemingly oxymoronic term) to negotiate with contemporary domesticity.
In a post-war period when a partial franchise and increasing prospects of work had begun to undermine the feminine sphere of home and hearth for middle-class women, one may expect this negotiation to involve a protest against domestic drudgery. Struther surprises, however, with her embracing of domesticity. It is this acceptance that makes Struther a crucial writer in understanding interwar negotiations with domesticity for I would like to suggest that domesticity was still a popular choice for middle-class women because it could be re-presented to women as a vocation suitable to the new times. Domesticity could be refitted for modernity, enabling women to have the best of the private and public spheres and thus making it unnecessary for women to reject domesticity wholesale.
In this paper, I would first like to consider Jan Struthers comic essays where I argue that she articulates a certain anxiety about domesticity. Domestic life was seen as pleasurable but not completely fulfilling. Traditional domesticity had to be re-negotiated as it was a way of life that could no longer accommodate the demands of the modern woman for a family, as well as a life and identity outside of the world of home and hearth.2 Struthers solution to her own sense that domesticity is not quite adequate comes in the form of the later Mrs. Miniver, where domesticity is rewritten as truly fulfilling by way of a strategy of privacy that enables reflection and cerebration amidst the mundanities of domestic life. Domesticity, no doubt, continues to dominate but, with the aid of a bubble of privacy, it is not allowed to overwhelm Mrs. Minivers sense of self.
The interwar period was a contradictory time for women as feminist progress balanced precariously against reactionary impulses from both men and women. At times, the former was often eclipsed by the latter. The war with its opportunities for war-work and financial independence had opened up new vistas for women, but with the end of hostilities and the re-entry of men into civilian jobs and life, the door to a different life, one other than traditional domesticity, was slowly narrowing. Despite the political success of a partial enfranchisement of women, the prospects for women to advance in their walk to equality seemed grim. Deirdre Beddoe minces no words by calling this period 'anti-progressive and reactionary' for women's history. The array of evidence she has amassed is depressing as fact after fact she draws on points to the reinforcement of the 'notion that women's place is in the home' (Back to Home and Duty, 3). The education of working-class women was slanted towards domestic service; images in the media from magazines to films portrayed women firmly placed within marriage and family; the flapper, a differing model of femininity, was often derided. A cult of domesticity was being promoted at the expense of all other models of womanhood. Fulfillment for a woman was to be found at home with a husband and children and not many women from the interwar period would have disagreed. Marriage was still a popular life-choice amongst women and the 1930s especially 'marked the start of a long-term trend towards marriage' (Women and the Women's Movement, 222). Domesticity was still an alluring prospect for women though its appeal exasperated feminists such as Winifred Holtby:
Holtby, in her sarcasm, actually identifies the attraction of domesticity for these women - the option of a home of her own, a private haven where women could be authoritative and in charge. Holtbys scorn for this desire to remain in the feminine sphere comes from her feminist understanding of the illusions and restrictions of the private sphere. However, the appeal of the domestic world continued to hold sway and it is this appeal that must be examined.
Struther's comic essays, written throughout the thirties and collected in Try Anything Twice in 1938, are interesting because they both assent to and mildly challenge this dominant cult of domesticity by introducing a mixed sense of pleasure and dissent towards the feminine sphere. Domesticity as expressed in her comic essays is enjoyable and yet perplexing with its pains and anxieties. This ambivalence is conveyed by the use of humour in her essays as humour, on one level, not only produces a pleasurable effect but, on another, offers an opening for criticisms to be made. Humour can disturb conventions and norms, though the degree and political value of such a disturbance can vary. This thought is an important one to bear in mind as we turn to the comic essays of Jan Struther where I would like to suggest two types of humour are at play. One form of humour employed by Struther highlights incongruities and celebrates them; the other form encourages resignation but simultaneously produces a paradoxical opportunity to challenge and critique. This first vein of humour allows Struther to create in her essays her characteristic zest and enthusiasm for the diversity and little absurdities of life. All Oak Diners have Figured Tops, for example, playfully interrogates the plurality of languages, particularly incomprehensible shop languages. Moving in a consumer world where 'stockings, stays, frocks, coats or hats' are translated into the shop-speak of 'hose, corset, gowns, mantles or millinery', good plain English is inadequate (Try Anything Twice 1938, 122).3 To live in the modern world is to encounter the new dialects of consumerism: gateaux for an iced cake, bizarre, unexplained acronyms for sizes of women's clothes, adjectives such as art and quality misused in sales pitches (124). Yet from the deplorable to the 'racy, individual and exact' gems of these new languages, Struther's essay persona delights in the sheer inventiveness of the new languages (125).
Yet, this enthusiasm and playfulness sometimes shades into nervous anxiety as the limits and strains of domestic life begin to make themselves felt. Bubbling throughout Jan Struther's domestic humour as seen in Try Anything Twice are moments of chaos which celebrate the small joys of domestic life but which also indicate potential unrest and unhappiness. Domestic inadequacies are exposed and nervously dismissed with humour. In Half Term, for example, the prospect of seeing her boy at boarding school sends the essayist into paroxysms of anxiety as well as delight, so much so that she, to her horror later, mistakenly spots the wrong boy as her son as her car pulls into the school driveway. How should she behave as the New Parent? Are hugs and kisses acceptable? Or is that too much molly-coddling? As a mother, re-familiarising herself with her son after a time of separation, a sense of anxiety and estrangement creeps in. Watching him intently, she notes that he is still living in an alien world (73). The next day, the remoteness and politeness washes away a bit more and she recognises his independence and improvements in manners. However, the troubling sense of distance and alienation between mother and son is played down through mild humour. Anxiety gives way to pleasant bafflement as her son amuses her with his strange ways.
A sense of anxiety continually runs through other pieces, especially those concerning money. Unhappiness and discontent at the state of domestic finances are masked by resigned humour. Financial Crisis writes in the manner of a medical information pamphlet of the 'distressing malady' of straitened circumstances, complete with symptoms - a certain queasiness on receiving mail, especially bills, overdrawn accounts, stiff letters from banks and creditors - and possible solutions that range from the practical to the fantastic (95). Admittedly struggling with this financial disease herself, the essayist downplays its disadvantages, resolving her difficult situation with a cheerful look at the brighter side. The lack of money will save time and effort on decision making, leaving her more time for the pleasures of daydreaming.
Struther's use of humour deflects attention away from unsettling incongruities. Humour distracts; it defuses the tension and makes the constraints of domestic life acceptable as Paradise Lost demonstrates only too well. Paradise Lost describes an idyllic holiday in Spain spent by Struther, her husband and two other friends. Spanish weather and life is highly agreeable to all and when the tempting bait of a Spanish farm for sale is dangled before them, dreams of change are momentarily entertained and then brushed aside:
Her desire for change is evident but frustrated by the inertia of the English mindset. However, mourning for beautiful Spain is not allowed to be indulged in; impetus towards change is to be nullified. The aptness of E, one of her travelling partners, beginning to read half-aloud Paradise Lost just as they sail away from an unspoiled Spain, after an entire holiday of having it optimistically shoved in his pockets, cannot fail to be but amusing; the uncanny truth of Milton's poetry hitting several bullseyes at one go. Any sense of self-pity at the loss of this earthly paradise or any sense of ferment is quickly curtailed, and transformed into laughter. The verses of Paradise Lost voiced aloud are neither a sentimental reminder nor a push for change, but a sign of resignation and life pragmatically moving on as E finally gets down to his holiday reading.
The moment of danger has passed, but it is that fraction of an opening which humour identifies, allowing dissatisfaction and anger to peep through that is crucial. Even though Struther's domestic humour is not revolutionary, by attempting to cover the cracks and tensions in constructions of middle-class femininity and domesticity, the contradictions and difficulties of being a modern mother or the struggles to live within one's means are only further revealed. The use of humour in her comic essays signals the presence of potential fissures of dissent and represents a gentle challenge to the cult of domesticity prevalent at that time. The golden hue of domestic life, of the little home of their own has been presented as slightly tarnished.
Struthers criticism of domesticity is mild, registering that domesticity is suspect as a fulfilling way of life for women. Her ambivalent response was not unusual amongst middle-class women writers, though some of whom such as Vera Brittain and E. M. Delafield were engaged in a more strenuous critique. Though the cult of domesticity was dominant, the acceptance of domesticity as the only role for a woman was never taken completely for granted. The impact of feminism, the taste of financial independence that work had brought to many women in the first World War, as well as technological advances that brought forth the vacuum cleaner and gas stove ensured that the feminine sphere of home and hearth would not continue unchanged nor unquestioned. Vera Brittain's diary of the thirties reveals that debate over women and domesticity was still alive and well. On 17 June 1932, she records a conference on The Family in a Changing Society where with Naomi Mitchison and Ellen Wilkinson, MP, she gave a talk on:
The topic of a woman's domestic role was almost too familiar and common suggesting that it was an issue frequently debated. Even at Chelsea Babies' Club, a local branch of an organisation that dispensed advice on childcare, motherhood was not assumed to be the only role of a woman. Indeed, Brittain makes a record of another debate, this time held by Mrs. Mary Piercy, chairwoman of the Chelsea Babies' Club, on whether motherhood should be a full-time job for women (97). No doubt the Chelsea Babies' Club with its middle-class, educated, professional members could afford to be liberal and progressive, but such discussions within its ranks do show that the relationship of women to the family, and in consequence, to the rest of the world, was not all cut and dried. There were points of resistance and challenge. Professional women, both married and unmarried, insisted on stirring things up and on making the position of the ordinary married woman uncomfortable (54).
There was recognition that old concepts of domesticity had to be debated and negotiated. Even within a relatively conservative woman's service magazine such as Good Housekeeping, the call for women to return to traditional notions of femininity and domesticity was not a simple, backward, reactionary move. The Good Housekeeping notion of domesticity for women was tempered by a recognition of modernity and the effects of that on women's lives:
Good Housekeeping's mission statement, printed in its first issue editorial, keeps the focus firmly on the woman at home; at another point even hailing the housewife as the keystone of the arch and the pillar of the house (11). However, alongside this emphasis on the woman as housewife and mother was a belief that the new role of the post-war homemaker should not follow the old lines of drudgery and a narrow world view. Labour-saving devices, such as the vacuum cleaner and the washing machine, together with the dissemination of efficient, scientific housekeeping methods were supposed to free up the modern housewife for important time for herself. Housework was a duty to be quickly disposed of to get to the more crucial end of leisure. Advertisers were quick to pick up on this shift. A 1927 advertisement for Standard's electric washing machine and vacuum cleaner brought this home with contrasting pictures of a housewife with and without a washing machine and vacuum cleaner. Where the deprived housewife swept carpets in clouds of dust and did the laundry enveloped in steam, the well-equipped housewife calmly vacuumed her living room and sat reading in a garden chair with her washing drying on a line in the background (75). Electrolux's 1924 tagline for its vacuum cleaners - Give her pleasure - Give her Leisure. Give her an ELECTROLUX for Christmas - could not have been more explicit in identifying leisure as the ultimate goal of the housewife (33): There should be no drudgery in the house. There must be time to think, to read, to enjoy life, to be young with the growing generation, to have time for their pleasures, to have leisure for one's own - to hold one's youth as long as possible, to have beauty around us - line and colour in dress, form and colour in our surroundings; to have good food without monotony, and good service without jangled tempers (11).
The modern housewife was allowed to enjoy herself and, judging from the range of non-fictional writing in Good Housekeeping, she was also to be aware of the burning issues of the day. Good Housekeeping printed provocative pieces on capital punishment, on domestic wages for housewives, on the pros and cons of being an unattached woman, on the threat of Fascism.4
The feminine sphere was thus being modernised to incoporate new technologies that could benefit women at home and also to present the domestic woman with opportunities to engage in issues other than staid domesticity. Domesticity, as it was being re-emphasised, was also being re-written, though interestingly not rejected. Even feminist Vera Brittain did not demand for the end of the feminine sphere but instead argued in Honourable Estate that a womans career, her life outside of her home, made her a better wife and mother (cited in Revising the Marriage Plot, 70). While Struther's early essays suggest that domesticity is not always pleasurable and fulfilling, her solution is not to eradicate domesticity as a way of life for women or to look outside of domesticity as Brittain does in the form of work. Instead she renegotiates domesticity by creating Mrs. Miniver, a modern woman who achieves this Good Housekeeping ideal of modern domesticity by delving deeper into the feminine sphere and creating a core of privacy that enables her to cultivate her inner life amidst domestic banalities. By this, Struther demonstrates that the dream of the private haven is not an illusion that melts away under the pressure of housekeeping and childcare demands. It is there within the home - one only has to dig deeper beyond the list of Sink-plug. Ruffle-tape. X-hooks. Glue Ring plumber. Get sweep. Curse laundry to create a protected personal space for ones own reflections (Mrs. Miniver, 93; italics original).
This would have been a form of domesticity that only a section of the better-off middle-classes would have been able to enjoy. Cynthia White in Womens Magazines believes that the Good Housekeeping ideal would have oppressed its middle-class readers by insisting that women should have the housework under control as well as time for leisure and reflection. For the lucky few like the upper-middle-class Mrs. Miniver who could afford to maintain servants, the ideal was still attainable, as domesticity with the help of servants became less of a physical burden and more of a creative experience. Indeed the interwar period was still a time when creative domesticity was a distinct possibility for middle-class women. Though this period saw a shortage of domestic servants that caused unending headaches to middle-class women used to plentiful domestic help, Judy Giles argues that the interwar middle-class woman still enjoyed advantages denied to her Victorian predecessors and her post-Second World War successors. She had greater mobility and freedom than her mother and, though increasingly difficult to find, she still had the option of domestic help denied to her daughter. As a result:
The middle-class woman thus had opportunities within the home to explore a form of creative domesticity. Where working-class women faced the tough, physical brunt of domesticity in the shape of scrubbing and washing, their middle-class counterparts luxuriated in a private world that gave them the time to reflect; or at least, offered opportunities to express themselves through such domestic arts as interior decoration or to exercise their minds through childcare or cooking, domestic tasks that required intelligence and skill. Thus, the siren which beckoned middle-class women back into the home might have been one offering pleasures and not simply oppression: 'Mozart and Einstein' and not 'baths and ovens' (A Woman's Essays, 137-9).
The literary apogee of this version of creative domesticity is Mrs. Miniver. Mrs. Miniver is perhaps best described as an adaptation of the essay form; the interwar, updated descendent of the Edwardian essayists - Robert Lynd, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, E. V. Lucas and A. A. Milne. Though these Edwardian masters of the essay continued to enjoy a steady following in the interwar period, as an anthology of their works which consistently went through eight editions in nine years proves, the raging success of Mrs. Miniver signals a key change.5 The old figure of the male essayist in tweeds, smoking a pipe in an armchair by a fire reflecting on the minor pleasures of life has shifted to the figure of a woman - intelligent, observant and homely. With creative domesticity, the domesticated woman is transformed from drudge into essayist. Home becomes the private room of one's own that Virginia Woolf in 1929 called for every woman artist to have. Having a space to herself, the housewife thus can potentially become an artist too. This shifts the concept of home-as-prison to home-as-sanctuary, a move which Mrs. Miniver consistently demonstrates, right from its opening pages:
Holidays are not an escape for Mrs. Miniver but an 'irrelevant interlude'. Home is the focal point of her pleasures; and returning home with chrysanthemums, full of joy at being back at last after the holidays, Mrs. Miniver re-enters the pleasant set rhythms of her house:
This is a space that is totally familiar to Mrs. Miniver, organised to her liking. She knows what there will be for tea, she knows where the new books are, she knows the status of the jig-saw puzzle. External noises, though beyond her control, are comfortingly known by her. There are no sudden, threatening surprises here.
Thus the soothing regularity of her domestic life is no prison, but a means of setting her free. In the warm, secure embrace of her orderly home, Mrs. Miniver can allow her thoughts to wander and ponder on life and its strange twists and turns. It enables her to develop a rich inner life, to attend to her personal, emotional and intellectual needs. Though there are times when domestic worries intrude - chimneys smoking, pipes bursting, servants falling ill - Mrs. Miniver takes them in her stride by re-imagining domesticity as a two-tiered model:
Domestic happiness is about perspective - there is the mechanics of life and then there is living. Domestic irritations and chores are to be kept in their proper place, at the edge of one's existence, leaving an inner core of privacy and inner peace where the more important process of living really takes place.
Even with familial relations, Mrs. Miniver takes a similar attitude. She never over-interferes nor coddles her children. Allowing her children to be independent and respecting their own space, in turn, allows her to preserve her own space. The same principle extends to her modern, companionate marriage with her husband, Clem:
Marriage is a partial overlapping of spaces, but the key to its success is to ensure one's personal outer crescent is not encroached on. Mrs. Miniver and her husband are together and yet separate, a portion of themselves reserved for private and personal uses. She may be a wife and a mother but she is still very much her own person; her identity has not been subsumed in domesticity.
Hence, at the core of Mrs. Miniver's existence is her desire for privacy. So private is she that as readers we barely know her personal history, her past or her appearance. As such, it is then hardly surprising that the genre description of the Mrs. Miniver pieces as essays is frustrated by the use of the third person for the first person pronoun of the essay form would have been too familiar, too unreserved, not allowing Mrs. Miniver to leave an outer crescent out of sight from her readers. Indeed, the use of the third person pronoun in Mrs. Miniver works to keep Mrs. Miniver aloof and separate. We are allowed to listen in to the ponderings of Mrs. Miniver but instead of rendering the barriers between reader and Mrs. Miniver as transparent as possible and the entry into her mind smooth, Jan Struther tends to create distance between reader and character. While at times she does use the quiet, unobtrusive pronoun she as a substitute for the proper noun Mrs. Miniver, she does not do so often enough. Stiff proper nouns pepper each piece, making them awkward stumbling stones in Mrs. Miniver's stream of consciousness. Where an understated she would have been sufficient, Struther insists on the proper noun. A Wild Day, for example, is a largely stream of consciousness piece which follows Mrs. Miniver as she writes and posts a letter, while reflecting on the sudden change in weather and its convergence with the unsettled times of international crises. Yet within this short piece, the proper noun, Mrs. Miniver, appears four times.
Apart from the necessary use of the proper noun in the opening sentences to establish whose voice the reader is listening in to, there is little need to use Mrs. Miniver again. She would have sufficed and created fewer jerks in the narrative. Instead, the constant Mrs. Minivers used in the text continually draw attention to the enigmatic mask-like name of Mrs. Miniver. The use of a first name would have softened the intrusive use of proper nouns, but Caroline is withheld until late in the book. Though we are sharing the innermost thoughts of Mrs. Miniver, she remains a cipher. Each time we run up against her chosen moniker, we recall only that she is married and feel a sense of aloofness, for her famous iconic name, known to all in the late thirties, is not even her own, but that of her husband's. Her surname, borrowed by Struther from heraldry, works like a heraldic emblem too, signifying status and a public persona.6 Her public name may identify her as an appendage to a man, but it is a sign that does not fully define her. Hidden away, beyond the reach of her public persona as Mrs. Miniver is her private self. Struther's rewriting of domesticity thus emphasises a strategy of privacy that protects female identity from the pressures of domesticity and preserves the pleasures of a creative and cerebral domesticity.
Mildly problematic as interwar domesticity was felt to be by a contemporary woman writer such as Struther, the solution was not to reject it wholesale but to modernise and transform domesticity. In staying committed to domesticity, Struther was not unusual. Indeed while some contemporary feminists were keen for women to burst out of the feminine sphere and into the public sphere, many middle-class women like Struther were happy to remain indoors and conduct the renovations necessary to re-fit domesticity for the new post-war era.
Though now largely forgotten, Struther's negotiations with interwar domesticity reveal the elasticity of the feminine sphere and its ability to accommodate the new demands of modernity. Demands for self-development and personal growth could be easily incorporated into the ideologies of domesticity. Her work also expresses some of the sentiments that affirmed the conservative, middle-class English womans belief that domesticity was still desirable and workable in the post-First World War era. Struther's depiction of creative domesticity was particularly appealing for it showed that a rich mental life could be achieved, not by going outside of the domestic world, but by instead delving deeper into it. Domesticity was not the obstacle but the answer to the fuller life that the modern post-war woman demanded. Domesticity, as portrayed by Struther, offered the rewards of family life as well as the space to develop the personal self. With such a picture, no wonder the allure of the domestic life in the interwar period remained strong.