Paperback edition - available September 2002
" ... The moving story of The Real Mrs Miniver is told here by her grand-daughter, and rarely can a biographer have been so perfectly attuned to her subject.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham is a writer of remarkable accomplishment, and her portrait -- subtle, sympathetic and ruthlessly perceptive -- is brilliantly built up through a magpie instinct for tiny, telling detail.
Jan's quaint childhood, for instance, is vividly shown to us through the eyes of the child -- the textures, the smells, the voices -- and yet everything we need to know -- her parents, her background -- is somehow there.
As a storyteller, Ms Maxtone Graham is perfectly in control of her material and her voice is exceptionally beguiling. She manipulates her readers as skilfully as Mrs Miniver did hers, and this delightful book deserves as great a success as any accorded to her famous forebear."
It was a 20-handkerchief weepie starring Greer Garson in the title role. In 1942, Mrs Miniver broke box-office records, had cinema-goers queuing round the block on both sides of the Atlantic, and won five Oscars. The film of English village life, where hostilities are concentrated on the flower show rather than the battlefield, and where it is not the dashing RAF pilot but his bride who is killed, was credited with turning American public opinion solidly behind the British war effort.
Its unlikely origin lay in a series of newspaper columns on family life, whose chief delight was the exactness with which Mrs Miniver caught the details of English life and which the Hollywood scriptwriters turned into pastiche.
More extraordinary than any of this, however, is the story of the real woman, alter ego of Mrs Miniver, impossibly dedicated mother, loving wife, and perfect hostess. Joyce Maxtone Graham was a Chelsea hostess, mother of three, and wife of Tony, the laird of Cultoquhey. She was also Jan Struther, writer of poetry and hymns, and partner in a marriage gone stale who had an adulterous affair with [Dolf Placzek] an Austrian-Jewish refugee 12 years her junior, for whom she eventually divorced her husband. Two generations on, her story has finally been told by Jan Struther's granddaughter, Ysenda Maxtone Graham.
Along with Joyce Maxtone Graham's five other granddaughters, she was bequeathed a unique challenge in a poem written a generation before any of them were born. While pregnant with her daughter, Janet, Joyce wrote Advice to my Future Granddaughter, which includes the then prophetic lines:
It was to debunk the "Miniver myth" and unravel the real person, that she set about writing her biography. She was helped enormously in her task by Dolf, who gave her nearly 200 of Jan's letters and his blessing in telling her grandmother's story before he died last year at the age of 87.
By interweaving excerpts from them with the facts of her life and recollections from others, she has produced what her grandmother could not - "a riveting and truthful glimpse into the conflicting roles of her life".
THE FINANCIAL TIMES; Nov 10, 2001(extract)
... elopement to New York did not
bring Jan lasting happiness. America began to pall; she
suffered writer's block and recurring "jungles"
- her word for dark bouts of depression. MGM produced an
appalling sequel to Mrs Miniver, in which the heroine
dies of cancer. Two years later, after a mastectomy, so
did the real Mrs Miniver. She was 52.
The Real Mrs Miniver" is a slyly clever title to give this biography of the poet, journalist and broadcaster Jan Struther. Most of us need reminding that "Mrs Miniver" was not Greer Garson, the actress who took the lead role in the weepy Hollywood film of 1942. ...
... In this outstandingly accomplished biography, Ysenda Maxtone Graham peels away the layers of confused myth-making to reveal the small, sharp woman who stands at the heart of Mrs Miniver.
Although Ysenda Maxtone Graham is Jan Struther's granddaughter, the two never met (Struther died in 1953, Maxtone Graham was born nine years later). So for the most part, Maxtone Graham is in the same position as every other biographer - interviewing relatives, sifting unreliable memories, hoping for some defining diary or cache of letters to turn up. Yet she also has the advantage of understanding the family culture from the inside, of knowing instinctively how a row, an affair or a lengthy separation might play out in the life of a woman who could not have been more different from the serene Mrs Miniver.
Jan Struther was the restless child of unhappy, ambitious parents. Her mother, who liked to stick pins in photographs of her enemies, was made a Dame for sending library books to the trenches during the First World War. Her father was a Tory MP whose love of heraldry was responsible for Mrs Miniver's distinctive name (The Times wanted something beginning with "M", and miniver is a kind of ceremonial fur). Marriage to Tony Maxtone Graham, eldest son of a Scottish laird-to-be, brought three children and, for a while, something approaching a steady happiness. It was this kind of life - of weekdays in Chelsea and Saturdays to Mondays in the country (this was still a time when nice people didn't say "weekend") - that Struther described so brilliantly in her Mrs Miniver columns. She was expert at catching the telling moments of everyday life: the decision to buy a good-looking diary, the gloom when a dear old car finally has to go, the conviction that October, not January, should properly be called the first month of the year.
There were a few people who hated Struther's miniaturist approach, finding it twee and offensively irrelevant. When her columns came out in book form just after war began, E M Forster's review in the New Statesman was sneering and snobbish. Rosamond Lehmann said in The Spectator that the effect of waiting for the next Mrs Miniver column was like being locked up in Borstal while anticipating a visit from a particularly condescending Lady Bountiful.
Mostly, though, people loved Struther's creation. Roosevelt credited Mrs Miniver with hastening America's entry into the war, while Churchill maintained that she had done more for the Allies than a flotilla of battleships.
But if Mrs Miniver's fans had known about Jan Struther's private life, they might have been less enthusiastic about her observations on Christmas stockings, chrysanthemums and fruit-picking in Kent. Infidelity had early on attacked the foundations of the Maxtone Graham marriage, and by 1939 Struther was in love with a much younger man, a clever Jewish refugee from Vienna. She followed him to America, under the cover of accompanying her two younger children to safety, and they eventually married in 1948. This late settling into love did not bring about a creative renaissance for Struther, who by now was struggling to write anything except a few lines of doggerel poetry. Instead, her final five years, before cancer caught her at the age of 52, were marked by an intense and disabling depression, which at its worst involved a five-month stay in a psychiatric sanatorium.
In this very good book, Ysenda Maxtone Graham does far more than simply recover the forgotten history of a minor writer. She musters all the wit, charm and emotional curiosity of the grandmother she never met to create a fascinating study of middle-class female experience during the last century's most difficult decades.
Made famous by soppiness (extract)
Ysenda is the clever and capable grand-daughter of the woman who wrote the articles for the Times which grew into the wartime film Mrs Miniver, namely Joyce Anstruther, telescoped into the pen-name Jan Struther, also known as Mrs Anthony Maxtone Graham. The author has inherited the looks and gifts of a granny whose father, dressing for dinner alone every night, knew that clarity and simplicity of expression are the outward signs of a writers inward integrity. Miss Maxtone Graham wastes no time; her biography is composed of quick perceptions briskly expressed. Her grandmother has taught her to suck eggs, especially those of sentimentality and charm. As a writer she stands at this moment where her forebear remained for good, on the foothills of fame ...
... This is a tragic tale full of fun, a biography sized to its subject. Jan Struther had charm in oodles, but she inundates you with it, she dunks you in the syrup of her wayward manners, and forces you to bask in the reflected glory of her eccentricity. Indefensible but irresistible, was her measured retort at many a party to questions about bloodsports. Shes thoroughly irritating, but the book isnt.
GREER GARSON thanked even the doctor who had brought her into the world when she accepted an Oscar for playing the title role in MGM's film Mrs Miniver. Her tears merged in the ocean of those shed in cinemas across America in 1942 at the plight of the Hollywood England that MGM had created. But, as she increasingly took on the character's mantle, entertaining journalists to tea and cucumber sandwiches at home in Los Angeles, she unwittingly helped to lift a burden from the shoulders of a very different woman, the English poet and writer Jan Struther ...
... Mrs Miniver was the perfect wife of a perfect family. Jan Struther, Mrs Tony Maxtone Graham, whose marriage had lost much of its warmth but was being held together by parenthood and the domestic conventions of the gentry, had started a passionate affair with a Jewish refugee in London. Now she had the perfect cover for joining him in the States (though she could hardly admit it to herself). This was not the behaviour to be expected from the writer of "Lord of All Hopefulness", "When a Knight Won His Spurs", and other hymns for Percy Dearmer's book Songs of Praise. But she was not a believer: one of the bonds with her husband was their shared hatred of sermons. Yet she loved to please (men in particular), and Canon Dearmer was an attractive man. The Dean of Liverpool wrote to him, in a style not then unusual among Anglican dignitaries: "Working through these hymns, I see that she has got us into a new stream that will rive and make glad the city of God."
... this perceptive biography by her granddaughter, the journalist Ysenda Maxtone Graham, tells the story with much family pride in, and compassion for, the fascinating, swearing, sexy, talented grandmother she never knew. She also has a keen awareness of the social nuances and emotional cruelties of the country-house Englishness that captivated Struther's American admirers, but from which her spirit longed to escape... The book can be enjoyed for both the compelling narrative, and the generous quotations of the subject's still-vivid secular poetry.
No housework for Mrs Miniver
... In 1937 ... the author Peter Fleming had approached a fellow-journalist with the suggestion that she might brighten the Court Page of The Times with an occasional column about "an ordinary sort of woman, who leads an ordinary sort of life. Rather like yourself", he unflatteringly added. His friend, Joyce Maxtone Graham (Jan Struther), delayed for a year before sending in an unsigned article ...
... The Times readers took to her [Mrs Miniver]. Some, deceived by the fact that there was no author's name at the foot of her fortnightly column, sought her advice about home management. When Mrs Miniver mentioned her acquisition of a new cleaning lady, readers requested more precise details in the hope of achieving similar success. "Forgive my bothering you," one correspondent wrote to Mrs Miniver, care of The Times, "but I know what a wonderful housekeeper you are." This presented some difficulties to Mrs Miniver's creator, a lady who had no interest whatsoever in housework. ...
One of the many merits of Ysenda Maxtone Graham's book about her grandmother Joyce is that it reveals the abyss separating Mrs Miniver from her creator. Joyce Maxtone Graham had been initially happy in her marriage to a genial, charming man who shared her love of jokes and pranks. By 1937, however, Tony Maxtone Graham had become a bit of a club bore, thriving on gin and tonic, old stories and interminable rounds of the links. In Clem Miniver, Ysenda Maxtone Graham suggests, her grandmother re-created the man she had once loved; it was hardly her fault that readers assumed she was describing life as it continued to be.
Mrs Miniver stuck by her man; her creator, meanwhile, left her husband to follow Adolf Placzek, a Viennese intellectual whom she had encountered as a refugee in London, to New York. The phenomenal success of the Mrs Miniver book in England and its publication in America had provided the perfect cover for her defection. Lauded when the 1942 film came out as "the real Mrs Miniver", Joyce Maxtone Graham was put in a difficult position. Her husband Tony was taken prisoner in North Africa and her public required her to grieve and wait for a man she had already left. Appearances were maintained; Vera Brittain was one of the few who dared to suggest that Mrs Miniver's creator ought to be in England with her children, not living it up in the safety of America. Such criticisms were rapidly stifled. To an adoring American public, Joyce Maxtone Graham and her creation were indistinguishable.
Ysenda Maxtone Graham writes with a sympathy which never becomes over-indulgent about a woman whose most surprising achievement, besides having created one of the most influential English ladies of the mid-twentieth century, was to compose one of the merriest hymns in Canon Dearmer's Songs of Praise: "Lord of all hopefulness, lord of all joy". Its considerable charm is increased by the knowledge that Joyce Maxtone Graham was a resolute agnostic.