People think they know Mrs. Miniver because they have seen the film, but the real Mrs. Miniver was not Greer Garson: she was equally delightful, but very much more interesting. The real Mrs. Miniver was much more like her creator, Joyce Maxtone Graham, alias "Jan Struther", writer of poems and witty essays for Punch, and mother of three.
Readers may remember that in the film's opening scene, Mrs. Miniver gets off a bus and rushes back to a shop, having had second thoughts about buying an expensive and rather ridiculous hat. This is loosely based on an incident in the book. Mrs. Miniver does dither over buying something. She does get off the bus and scurry through crowded streets to see if it is still for sale. But it isn't a hat, it is an engagement diary in green lizard at 7s.6d. This is much more characteristic of the real Mrs. Miniver, who rightly feels that a diary has to give pleasure throughout the year. It is one of those trivial objects made momentous by its "terrible intimacy and the dull brown calf one she had first chosen for 3s.9d. would not do. There you have the difference between the character Greer Garson played and the one created by Jan Struther.
Jan Struther was born Joyce Anstruther in 1901. Her mother was Dame Eva Anstruther, a writer made a DBE for her services in sending books to the trenches in World War I; she was known to the family as Granny Dame. Jan's father was Harry Anstruther, Liberal MP for St Andrews Burghs. (It was to avoid confusion with her mother and her mother-in-law, both writers, that J. Anstruther became Jan Struther.)
In her childhood at Whitchurch, Buckinghamshire she drove a pony-and-trap and rode side-saddle; she went to school at Miss Ironside's in London, sharing a classroom with the future Queen Mother, whose pigtails she once dipped in ink. Like her, she was just over five feet tall, and ravishingly pretty, with fine blue eyes. Her son Jamie says men fell in love with her once a month for the whole of her life. She married Anthony Maxtone Graham, a Lloyd's broker, in 1923.
The Maxtone Grahams were an old Scottish family. Every summer, the clan -- four families complete with grumbling nannies -- gathered at Cultoquhey, the grandparents' huge stone-built pile in Perthshire. There was a lawn tennis court and eleven indoor staff, there was fishing and shooting, and adventures for the children, with tree houses and charades; a family orchestra and dressing up in clothes from the huge dressing-up cupboard on wet days. A typical jape was dressing a realistic dummy figure and seating it on the loo, so that a succession of people open the door and say "Oh, sorry".
The children numbered eleven cousins, ten boys and only one girl, Jan's daughter Janet. Just like the children in Struwwelpeter, Jan noted: so she wrote A Modem Struwwelpeter in the style of Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Tales, one poem about each child -- for example, Ruthless Mike and Reckless John, who are beastly to their governess Miss Marlinspike; and Janet, who stares so long at the lovely clothes in the window of Horridge's that she becomes frozen into a wax dummy. The poems appeared in Punch, with illustrations by Ernest Shepard, the illustrator of Winnie-the-Pooh and Wind in the Willows, and were later published in book form, now a rare find.
All Maxtone Graham family gatherings involved evenings of charades and pencil-and-paper games which Jan loved: Consequences and Clumps and Newspaper Articles and Weekend Lists, the Dictionary Game, Telegrams and Cruel Collinses, in which you had to see who could compose the most politely heartless bread-and-butter letter.
Theirs was (and is still) the kind of family that thrives on family anecdotes, often centring on aunts. Aunt Elizabeth, for instance, is known for her malapropisms: "I must send some money to the famine in Utopia " and "Oh, that boy's no good -- he's a real fall-out." There were five unmarried great-aunts, a good source of stories. "At least one daughter in every generation should remain unmarried," as Mrs. Miniver reflects, "and raise the profession of auntship to a fine art."
In London Jan lived with her husband and three children at 16 Wellington Square, just off the King's Road, Chelsea, not then as fashionable as it is today -- it was considered raffish but instantly recognizable as the neat stucco square in which the Minivers live. The house had a playroom with a stage in it, as a garage had been built underneath and formed a platform, ideal for their amateur dramatics. A photograph in the family album shows Jan playing the Loch Ness Monster in 1933.
They also rented the chief coastguard's cottage near Rye in Sussex for weekends, sometimes leaving the children there with their nanny while they went off on their adventurous travels to as yet untouristic places like Majorca and Andorra and Romania. Although they were often hard up during the Depression, Jan Struther's motto about travelling was "Book now -- worry later".
From this background Jan Struther emerged in the 1930s as a stylish writer of poems and pieces for Punch, The Spectator and The New Statesman. In one of her essays she refers dismissively to herself, "who never wrote a poem longer than 30 lines in my life, and miserable puling stuff at that, full of love and flowers . . . " but in fact she preferred writing poems and they are crisp, succinct, metropolitan lyrics full of memorable and pertinent lines on love and loss, youth and age. "At a Dull Party " begins: "In fifty years at most I shall be dead" and ends: "Then, Christ! what spendthrift folly brought me here -- To breathe stale smoke, and drink, talk, think, small beer?"
She was not a novelist; she was happier making keen and accurate observations from everyday life -- on a character she has met in the park, on the mysterious fish served for lunch in trains, on how to charm a small child into going to a concert.
Mrs. Miniver was created when Peter Fleming, brother of Ian, asked Jan to brighten up the Court Page of The Times: he said it was full of articles about woodpeckers and stoats. Jan was already writing light leaders for The Times; he asked her to write about "an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life -- rather like yourself ", although as he must have known, her style of life, her acute perceptions and her talent were all far from ordinary. All these she transferred to the person of Caroline Miniver. ( "Miniver " was a name she borrowed from heraldry: it is a kind of white fur used for trimming robes; the name Caroline is teasingly withheld until almost the end of the book.) The pieces appeared every few weeks and were instantly a hit. People would write to Mrs. Miniver; in vain did Jan Struther insist that she was not one and the same, nor were her children the Miniver children. Nobody was fooled. Her children Jamie, Janet and Robert were exactly the same ages as Vin, Judy and Toby, and they did the same things. Jamie remembers that it was he who left his bait to putrefy and cause a ghastly stink as Vin did at "Starlings".
Mrs. Miniver was published as a book in October 1939, just after the outbreak of war. Shortly afterwards, Jan took her two younger children to America, where she had been invited to lecture, and her book became a Book of the Month Club choice and a best-seller. These essays, wrote the American poet and author Stephen Vincent Benet (who wrote the line "Bury my heart at Wounded Knee") "are beautifully written, with form, with style and a deceptive simplicity . . . every word is in place, like the flowers in a beautifully tended garden. Mrs. Miniver also manages to project the warmth and wisdom of an engaging personality." America, still neutral, was charmed by the Minivers, an ordinary British family -- so they thought -- affected by the war. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told Jan Struther that Mrs. Miniver had considerably hastened America's entry into the war; and Winston Churchill said that Mrs. Miniver had done more for the Allies than a flotilla of battleships.
In New York they stayed at first in Beekman Place with Aunt Rachel Townsend, who as a matter of course arranged for Jan to be listed in the New York social register; Jan, who had leftward leanings, was not at all pleased. Jan and her children later lived on Central Park South...
Jan bequeathed to her children, says her daughter Janet Rance, the best of all four-letter words: zest. As a child she sometimes wrote her name "Joyous" instead of Joyce. "She dashed through life at full tilt, with gaiety, energy and grace. She loved words, and would pause to net and examine them like a butterfly enthusiast." (Words, as Mrs. Miniver considers, "were the only net to catch a mood, the only sure weapon against oblivion.")
That zest is apparent from the very first page of Mrs. Miniver. Zest for life, she reflects, is "an accidental gift . . . impossible to acquire, and almost impossible, thank heaven, to lose". It is lacking in the Lane-Pontifexes, who make her spirits sink every time they ask the Minivers to dinner; but it is there in abundance in Mrs. B, the new charlady, "with her large good-humoured laugh".
She would write in longhand, leaning back with her feet up on a sofa, using fine-quality lined paper with a gold-embossed pen. In a lecture entitled "Pens, Ink and Paper", she said: "Genius can write on the backs of old envelopes, but mere talent requires the very best stationery that money can buy." But she was more typically found at some activity:
"One moment she would be learning to play recorders and the theorbo, studying Gaelic or Esperanto, or tackling chess, or baking a hedgehog in clay. A week later she would be making guitars, teaching herself to paper walls or plant-hunting in the Outer Hebrides. She built a boat in the back garden of our cottage near Rye, and we all joined in because her zeal was infectious. If there was ever a dull moment, none of her family or friends can remember it."
She was fond of good practical jokes at all times, although she had two favourite abbreviations, "J in VBT" (joke in very bad taste) and "J in WPT" (joke in worst possible taste). Once, to prove that the upper classes never take any notice of their servants, she pretended to be too ill to come down to dinner at Cultoquhey and dressed up as a maid. She served dishes right through the meal and was not recognized by anyone until during the pudding course, when she astonished the company by sitting down on her husband's knee. While in America, she would collect a pocketful of sea-shells from the Atlantic coast, and later scatter them on the Pacific sand with the words "That'll fox them".
Jan Struther's name is still familiar today, not just from Mrs. Miniver but because of her hymns, particularly the well-loved Lord of All Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy -- which is sung regularly at weddings and was one of the hymns chosen for the memorial service of the Lockerbie air disaster -- and When a Knight Won His Spurs in the Stories of Old, a favourite in schools.
She was not at all religious: she was agnostic, and certainly wouldn't dream of going to church unless dragged. But Canon Percy Dearmer, of Westminster Abbey, was asked in 1931 by the Oxford University Press to compile a new hymnbook to rival Hymns Ancient and Modern, and he proceded to ask a few competent versifiers he knew to write a hymn or two. Jan wrote a dozen, proving that although she once said to Percy Dearmer, "My dear Percy, don't tell me you really believe all this stuff!", she could express her faith in an essentially optimistic universe.
One of her funniest pieces in Try Anything Twice (a collection of writings from Punch and The Spectator published two years before Mrs. Miniver, and just as crammed with wisdom and wit) is about going to the fearsome Mrs. Cattermole's establishment to find a new nanny. "Wanted: A really nice nanny. Born, not made. Must be fond of dogs and able to make toffee. No dragons or duchesses need apply. " In reality, the Maxtone Graham nanny, the spirited Miss Annie Good, was devoted to Jan and stayed until the children were grown up. Jan would not allow her to wear a uniform and they ignored the custom of the nanny calling her charges "Miss Janet" or "Master Robert".
Janet remembers being told to clear up her bedroom, knee-deep in discarded clothes. "But Mummy," said Janet, "you don't tidy your clothes away!" Jan was far too fair-minded to contradict this. "Well," she said, "if I can't be a Shining Example to you, let me at least be a Horrible Warning!"
Despite her upper-class background she was not at all "respectable and Miniverish" in Janet's view, and quite the reverse of snobbish or stuffy. People who have seen the film assume that she was a twinset-and-pearls type, but this is equally inaccurate about both Miniver and Jan Struther. They share at times a robust exasperation with their social milieu.
Mrs. Miniver writes with distaste of the "Really Nice Children" in Kensington Gardens: in sleek perambulators, pushed by trained nannies, "children who had rocking-horses and special furniture with rabbits on, and hats and coats that matched, and grandmothers with houses in the country". By contrast, in an essay Jan describes the much more appealing children in "Pump Lane", the slum terrace behind the Square: these children "live entirely on Jam and white bread but are ravishingly beautiful and unreasonably healthy."
It is typical of Jan, says her daughter, that she had no great regard for the family jewellery she had inherited. In 1939, when they were leaving London in a hurry, she had just one lunchtime left in which to wrap the jewellery and stow it in a bank. But then she heard that Dame Myra Hess was playing Bach at the National Gallery that lunchtime, and she preferred to go and hear "Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring". "Bach is so very all-right-making, isn't it?" she said. The family jewellery, left un-banked, was stolen; but all her children inherited her love of music.
Her happy marriage, like so many others, did not survive the effects of the war. Tony Maxtone Graham was with the Eighth Army when he was captured by Rommel and became a prisoner of war, so they did not see each other for five years. After their divorce in 1947 Jan returned to New York and the following year married the love of her life, Adolf Placzek, a tall, erudite Viennese whom she had first met in London in 1938 when he had escaped from Hitler and Jan was helping to look after refugees. "Dolf " went to America with ten shillings and a suitcase, and eventually became head of the Avery Architectural Library at Columbia University, from which he retired in 1980.
Nobody could fail to be charmed by Mrs. Miniver, who embraces domesticity, parenthood and social life alike with such positive enthusiasm. Even filling a Christmas stocking with tiny things was like writing a sonnet, keeping to the agreeable limitations of a strict form. Mundane things fill her with delight: picking up the blackened twigs from the lopped plane trees in the street, and later watching astonished as they burst into bud in a vase; making conversation with a blimpish colonel at a shooting party: "Thank God for colonels, thought Mrs. Miniver; sweet creatures, so easily entertained ... there was nothing in the world so restful as a really good English colonel."
Mrs. Miniver is launched on the first page as a woman well pleased with her life. She is home again, after the "irrelevance" of the summer holidays: back to her neat, friendly house in the Square. Tea is already laid in the upstairs drawing-room, where the small fire burns brightly and sun floods through the open windows. She has been buying chrysanthemums. October, she reflects, should be the first month of the year:" That laborious affair in January was nothing but a name. "
The Minivers' is a world where the eldest son is away at Eton, and they do not even have to make their own early-morning tea. Each morning just before nine, a garage-hand brings the car round to the front door. At weekends they motor down to their country house, "Starlings", and when the cottage next door is threatened by a developer, they can effortlessly buy that too.
Even if we do not envy Mrs. Miniver the material comfort of her life, we are utterly charmed by the delicate and humorous aperçus of her open and fertile mind. "To be entirely at leisure for one day", she writes, "is to be for one day an immortal." Surrounded by domestic servants and therefore not always busy, she is none the less invariably alert. Even a walk on the Embankment throngs her mind with "glimpses of the sage's vision" -- she also wrote a poem about it, called "Intimations of Immortality in Early Middle Age": feeling at one with every other person in the street, with the thrush and the dray-horse and the cat.
We can trust Mrs. Miniver to see through the absurdity of trying to get Christmas shopping done early. Impossible, she declares. "The feeling of temporal urgency cannot be artificially induced, any more than the feeling of financial distress. The rich young man who determines to work his way round the world may gain many things, but the experience of poverty is not one of them." Without the contagious zest of crowds, Christmas shopping in a half-empty shop is "as joyless as a mariage de convenance ".
Such insights enliven everyday life in what might otherwise appear as nugatory as a Mrs. Dale's Diary. Going to the dentist, choosing a doll with her daughter, embarking on her first aeroplane flight, driving to Scotland for August: new perspectives spring to mind. "She wondered why it had never occurred to her before that you cannot successfully navigate the future unless you keep always framed beside it a small clear image of the past."
Jan Struther was essentially a sociable creature. But how one shares Mrs. Miniver's hopes, as she drives down to stay in the country, that her hosts might happen to share her habits and "hate sitting long over meals; walk quickly or not at all; enjoy arguments, jokes and silences, but detest making conversation; and realize that a day without a chunk or two of solitude in it is like a cocktail without ice".
Mrs. Miniver is particularly perceptive on marriage, at its best a partnership of equal friends. Marriage, she decides, is like two crescents bound at their points; in the middle there has to be a leaf-shaped space "for privacy or understanding, essential in a happy marriage". Clem Miniver is a successful architect whose latest plum is the Vanderhoops' new country house, and also a thoroughly amenable husband "who would generally rather do things than not". The exasperating thing about so many of the couples they know, Mrs. Miniver decides, is their unevenness: "like those gramophone records with a superb tune on one side and a negligible fill-up on the other which you had to take whether you wanted it or not".
Catching his eye at a dinner party, she reflects: "It seemed to her sometimes that the most important thing about marriage was not a home or children or a remedy against sin, but simply there being always an eye to catch." Time and again, the reader is arrested by Mrs. Miniver's crisp common sense. She happens to enjoy weekend shoots, loving the winter countryside and the element of "playing Indians", but she hates the tedious, cliché-ridden arguments about whether shooting is right. When asked by the colonel, at Lady Chervil's table, to give her opinion, she replies that blood sports are "indefensible but irresistible", which she hopes will close the matter. Besides, "it seemed to her that to abolish shooting before you had abolished war was like flicking a speck of mud off the top of a midden."
Mrs. Miniver's children are a touch angelic (there are no tantrums) but she is perceptive in appraising them -- especially Vin's feelings as he goes back to school -- and she does capture the way in which children fill their parents' lives with rituals. So much of the fun of parenthood lies "in watching the children re-make, with delighted wonder, one's own discoveries". On Christmas morning, when they burst in shortly after six to open their stockings: how odd, she reflects, that the tangerine in the toe of the stocking lingers even though children get a good supply of fruit all the year round.
This is one of the moments -- when the stockings are being opened, and the dawn is breaking, and she can hear the distant tinkle of teacups -- which Mrs. Miniver feels "paid off at a single stroke the debit side of parenthood: the morning sickness and the quite astonishing pain; the pram in the passage, the cold mulish glint in the cook's eye; the holiday nurse who had been in the best families; the pungent white mice, the shrivelled caterpillars; the plasticine on the door-handles ... the alarms and emergencies, the swallowed button, the inexplicable earache, the ominous rash appearing on the eve of a journey; the school bills and the dentist's bills; the shortened step, the tempered pace, the emotional compromises, the divided loyalties, the adventures continually forsworn."
Here is a glimmer of eternity framed in domesticity.
Over their small enclosed world of routine and contented pleasures, the threat of war begins to hang like a nimbus. It starts abruptly with the excursion to get gas-masks, which fills the children with excitement and Mrs. Miniver with the realization of danger. "It was for this, thought Mrs. Miniver as they walked towards the car, that one had boiled the milk for their bottles, and washed their hands before lunch, and not let them eat with a spoon which had been dropped on the floor. "Gone are her feelings of security and material permanence. "Look thy last on all things lovely, Every hour . . . ". Mrs. Miniver is sustained, as always, by poetry. When the bombing looms, she thinks of things that are truly irreplaceable in the house: like the notches on the nursery doorposts, marking the children's heights.
For the first time we hear Mrs. Miniver express negative feelings: she "felt she had been wrung out and put through a mangle". She no longer sees only beauty and falling leaves, but "allotments and rubbish-tips, the gas-works on one side and a row of dilapidated hoardings on the other". Suddenly there are spanners in the works of her easeful life. "Chimneys smoked, pipes burst, vacuum cleaners fused, china and glass fell to pieces, net curtains disintegrated in the wash." She wakes every day to a mental list of nags: "Sink plug, ring plumber, get sweep". At such times, she knew, you must just "put on spiritual dungarees and remain in them until things are running smoothly again".
It is this element which adds substance to what would otherwise have been just a charming and amusing period piece. Mrs. Miniver's friends begin to panic about not having achieved what they want in life. She, like everyone else, is rearranging not chrysanthemums, but values. At least the war obliges people to learn new skills, she consoles herself, which bring a freshness and rejuvenation normally alien to most adults, who never learn anything new at all. Deciding, on a whim, to visit the Zoo, she runs into her old friend Professor "Badger" Badgecumbe, and they go and look at the echidna, a hideous creature who is the incarnation of accidie. Inactivity, she decides, is the greatest sin of all.
"However long the horror continued, one must not get to the stage of refusing to think about it.... Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter -- people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief."
This was the essence of the message to which her American readers responded. The unfortunate of the world were in lingering torment, while "the fortunate ones were merely condemned to watch it from a front seat, unwilling tricoteuses at an execution they were powerless to prevent. The least they could do was not turn away their eyes . . .".
Finding herself in the Swiss Alps during this anxious last summer before the war, Mrs. Miniver observes a little German boy just like Toby. The children of the world are one nation, she realizes, as are the blind of the world, or the old. If only governments would spend the price of a few bombers on free exchange visits for families . . .
"But it ought not to NEED a war", she writes to her sister-in-law, "to make people do their duty, talk to each other on buses, give slum children a holiday in the country, and live simply and eat sparingly and recover the use of their legs and get up early enough to see the sun rise. We should seize upon this mood: press a magic button and retain this vision of ourselves, "recapture the spirit of this tragic, marvellous and eye-opening time, so that having recaptured it, we can use it for better ends".
Mrs. Miniver, you feel, could rule the world.
Throughout the war Jan Struther continued to write and to lecture on Anglo-American relations. MGM paid her handsomely when they made their fanciful film, and with part of the money she bought two fully equipped ambulances for the British war effort. A few years later, she refused to see The Miniver Story, a 1950 sequel even weepier than its predecessor, in which Greer Garson succumbs to cancer. She successfully sued MGM for killing off her character, and rushed in to show Dolf the substantial damages cheque, crying, "Oh Dolf, don't let's waste all this lovely money, let's spend it!" The following year, Jan herself found she had cancer. She died in the Presbyterian Hospital in New York in 1953 at the age of fifty-two, never having failed in her courage and good humour, and her ashes were buried at Whitchurch near Aylesbury, alongside her father.
She had arranged to donate her corneas for transplant, so that someone else would have a chance to see the beauty of the world through her eyes; and she had already written her own epitaph:
What happened, readers may wonder, to "Vin, Judy and Toby", the real Maxtone Graham children? Jamie, the eldest, is sixty-five and lives by the Tweed, a collector and dealer in vintage fishing tackle in Peeblesshire and "having the most fun I've ever had in my life". Janet, a magazine writer, married the monocled Major Patrick Rance, author of the Great British Cheese Book and owner of the most famous cheese shop in Britain, at Streatley in Berkshire. They have seven grown-up children and spend a lot of time at their house in Provence. Robert was born in 1931. After a "first" at Cambridge he drifted from the Scots Bar to work as a lawyer in industry at Sandwich, Kent. When not presiding at public inquiries into town planning disputes he lives at Sandwich or at bolt holes in Avignon, Edinburgh or London. He and his wife Claudia own and run two antiques markets. They have a daughter named Ysenda (after one of her great-aunts) who not only looks exactly like her illustrious grandmother but writes wittily for Harpers & Queen. Every year Robert, the family archivist, produces a Christmas album for family circulation, full of Maxtone Graham anecdotes and on occasion an essay or two by Jan Struther.
Valerie Grove, London, 1989
FURTHER FAMILY NOTES BY ROBERT MAXTONE GRAHAM, APRIL 2001.
Twelve years have elapsed since Valerie Grove wrote that "Postscript". My brother Jamie has been forced by ill health to retire from his fishing tackle business. My sister Janet died at the end of 1996, and her husband Pat eight months later. Jan Struthers widower (my stepfather Dolf Placzek) died last year. Obituaries of all three can be found on-line by going to the "back issues" of The Times - The Times London - dated 17 January 1997, 27 August 1997 and 24 March 2000. My daughter Ysenda is married to a London lawyer, and has two sons called Toby and Charles. Her first book, The Church Hesitant, was published by Hodder & Stoughton in 1993. Her next book, 'The Real Mrs. Miniver - Jan Struther's Story', was published by John Murray (London) in November 2001 and has met with critical acclaim. Access to the John Murray website via the logo adjacent.
In retirement, I continue to compile privately-printed leaflets as Christmas presents for the extended family, the most recent of which was A Bibliography of Mrs Miniver and of Other Books by Jan Struther, with Jans Short Account of her Father, Henry Torrens Anstruther M.P.,. This link - Bibliography - will access comprehensive Jan Struther bibliography pages on the family website maintained by my cousin, David Drew-Smythe. Printed copies have been deposited at the British Library, London Library, Cambridge University Library, National Library of Scotland, Library of Congress, and at the University of Pennsylvania, where Jan Struther was awarded an Honorary D. Litt. in 1943.