Time-lag Tragedies

20th December 1939


Thank you for your letter, or rather your protest. All right, I apologize -- not for what I actually said about Agnes Lingfield in my last letter, but for what I didn't bother to say. That is the worst of letters, even long ones. So often, one has just enough time to describe some mood or incident in detail, but not enough to sketch in the background without which its proper values are lost.

You scold me for saying, apropos of Agnes's lamentations, that "everything that really matters will go on being the same," war or no war. That's all very well, you say, but what about the thousands of people who were already having a struggle to make ends meet, and who are now completely ruined? What, for instance, about your and Clem's old governess, who has invested every penny of her savings in her West Kensington boarding-house and whose lodgers have all vanished to the country? You say you doubt whether "the fun of thinking things out" and "delight in awareness for its own sake" will be much consolation to her. My dearest woman, I had not forgotten about Miss Baines (as a matter of fact I went to see her last week -- but I'll tell you about that later). Nor had I forgotten about all the other unadvertised tragedies which the outgoing tide has left behind it in big cities -- the small bookseller, the small upholsterer, the garage proprietor, the man who sells old prints, the woman who sells home-made cakes. One couldn't possibly forget about these people: they make up, so far, the war's biggest casualty list -- and they haven't even got the consolations of glory.

In moments of sane detachment one can see that we are living simultaneously through a war and a revolution; and that -- provided we can win the war quickly enough -- the world which we are going to build up out of the revolution has got to be a world in which this kind of distress doesn't arise. But one can't expect people to look at the long view when they are being forced to focus all their attention on wobbly stepping-stones in order to save themselves from drowning. The fact that they are, so to speak, time-lag tragedies doesn't make them any less tragic.

These real victims were exactly the background against which I meant you to see my picture of Agnes Lingfield wailing and bleating that nothing was ever going to be the same again -- when all she meant was that she might have to order two courses instead of four and put away everything except the "flat" silver. The other people, astoundingly and to their eternal credit, don't wail. They have too much pride: and besides, never having got into the habit of leaning too heavily on a sense of security, they don't entirely lose their balance when it is removed. Whereas Agnes is like one of those drapy droopy elegant women in 18th-century pictures: you've only got to twitch the marble-and-ormolu pedestal from under her elbow and there she lies sprawling.

But actually, even if I had been talking about the real tragedies instead of the bogus ones, I still shouldn't take back what I said. "Delight in noticing things," and so on, may not, as you say, be much consolation when your savings are lost and your home broken up; but to most people it is a little consolation, and a little is better than none. A bankrupt boarding-house keeper who enjoys watching trees come out in Kensington Gardens is just that much happier, you can't deny, than a bankrupt boarding-house keeper who doesn't. As a matter of fact, Miss Baines said something very like this when I went to see her. She was showing me her bowls of bulbs.

"I'm so glad I found time to get those planted," she said. "I was almost too busy to do it before war broke out; and now they're one of the few things that keep me going. Look -- I've planted a measuring stick in each bowl; it makes something to come downstairs for every morning. And another thing," she said, "I often think, especially in the evenings, how glad I am I made all the children I was with learn such a lot of poetry by heart. I don't know whether Clem and Susan have remembered any of it, but I have. And I keep on thinking, well, that's one lodger that can't give me notice, anyhow." (This reminded me of a remark that Badger made right at the beginning of the war, when it looked as though we were going to get no plays, films, pictures, or music at all. "We must live on stored beauty," he said, "like a squirrel on nuts.")

I've asked Miss Baines down to Starlings for Christmas. If Clem gets leave she will love to see him again, and even if he doesn't she says she'll enjoy being in a house full of children. On the spur of the moment it was the only way I could think of to cheer her up; but I know perfectly well that this kind of thing doesn't solve the eventual problem of Miss B., or of all the other Miss B.s. Which brings one back to the old argument between the Lady Bountiful and the Impatient Revolutionary, as to whether it's worth while patching up a dilapidated house -- or social system, or world order, or whatever you like -- when what is really needed is a new one. The L. B. sends a nice bowl of soup to the poor, and then sits back and thinks she's done the whole of her duty. The I. R., with a sneer of "Palliatives!", rushes off to recognize the world, and thinks he's doing the whole of his. Personally, I believe they're both wrong. It certainly isn't enough to send soup and then think no more about it: but it equally isn't enough to reform the world (which can't be done in a flash) and leave people, in the meanwhile, soupless.

The truth is, some of us are more suited by nature to be Palliators, or Patchers, and others to be Rebuilders; very few have either the time or the temperament to do both jobs. There ought to be some arrangement by which all the people who are trying to clear up the present mess could label themselves either "P" or "R," and guarantee not to interfere with each other's jobs while continuing to get on with their own. That would enable half of them to go on providing the necessary soup until the other half had finished creating the much better world in which charity soup won't be needed. To make out that these two methods can't be used concurrently seems to me dangerous nonsense.

What a dissertation . . . But if you will go and accuse me of being callous about Miss Baines, just because I am (quite unrepentantly) brutal about Agnes, you bring it on yourself!--

With love, yours ever,


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