Sunday, 13 November 2011

Mrs Miniver

I just ran into an erudite eggcorn - Mrs. Minerva for the wartime film Mrs. Miniver - and had some mild bibliographic surprises on Googling the background. Mrs Miniver, you may well know, was a classic World War II tear-jerker with a strong propaganda element. What Went the Day Well? did in portraying rural working-class England and This Happy Breed did in portraying urban working-class England, Mrs. Miniver did for middle-class England.

What I didn't realise was that it was loosely based on a 1939 book of the same name, based in turn on a series of Times newspaper articles by "Jan Struther". They told from the viewpoint of the fictional Mrs. Caroline Miniver an account of the daily life of her middle-class family - she and her husband Clem, and their children Vin, Judy and Toby - in the pre-war years.  Partially autobiographical, the articles drew on the life of the author, Joyce Maxtone Graham (the pseudonym came from her birth name, Joyce Anstruther). They were immensely popular, though with a few dissenters:

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.
- Secretly in love with a refugee: Musings on chrysanthemums concealed a complicated life, The Telegraph, 21 Nov 2001.

Skimming the reviews of reviews, it seems that Forster's complaint was that Mrs Miniver purported to be a kind of classless Everyman, but actually hankered after the privilege and values of the upper class; and Lehmann's was that it was just so nauseatingly and relentlessly nice, a view echoed by a Times correspondent:

Sir, I too have been hoping for another article by Mrs. Miniver, but for quite a different reason from your other writers. I pay a tribute to her creator when I say that I always think of Mrs. Miniver as a real person, and I hate her with an immense hatred. She is always so smug, so right, such a marvellous manager, and things always go so well for her. Well, nothing goes on like that forever: something horrible must be going to happen to the lady soon, and I want to know her reactions.

I have no doubt that Clem will become an A.R.P. warden, Vin will join up, Mrs. M., assisted by her daughter, will cope in a wonderful manner with refractory billettees and run the hospital supply depot in the manner born, and Toby will join the Boy Scouts. It would be so much more helpful if Mrs. Miniver would tell us how she would be behave if her husband had an affair with a pretty A.R.P. worker, if her son refused to join up, and if some of the workers at the hospital rose up in revolt and told the lady exactly where she got off. I expect that she would cope with it all in a slightly hurt and surprised manner. No, I think the only thing for Mrs. Miniver is a direct hit from a bomb, and I am quite certain that within a month Clem would marry again a young and pretty, untidy woman, who never by any chance said or did the correct thing, and they would be enormously happy, and so should I.
Yours truly, MF Savory, 24 Arundel Court, Worthing.
- Letters, The Times, Oct 12, 1939

Despite such malcontents, the popularity continued with the bestselling book compilation, which was also, by all accounts, highly influential in ways more than mere popularity.

The columns were first published in book form in 1939, shortly after the outbreak of war. Struther stopped the regular newspaper columns that year, but wrote a series of letters from Mrs. Miniver, expanding on the character's wartime experiences. These were published in later editions.

The book became an enormous success, especially in the United States, where Struther went on a lecture tour shortly after the book's release.

The U.S. was still officially neutral, but as war with Nazi Germany intensified in Europe, the tribulations of the Miniver family engaged the sympathy of the American public sufficiently that President Franklin D. Roosevelt credited it for hastening America's involvement in the war. Winston Churchill is said to have claimed that it had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships. Churchill is further quoted by Bernard Wasserstein in his book, "Barbarism and Civilization," as saying that the book (and later the film) was worth "six divisions of war effort."

In 1942, when the film came out, Roosevelt ordered it rushed to theaters.
- Wikipedia, Mrs. Miniver, 20:50, 28 July 2011 revision

Struther was a versatile author. I've known the name Jan Struther from childhood, as the author of the hymn lytrics to Lord of All Hopefulness and When a Knight Won His Spurs, but for some reason always assumed it to be male Dutch name. Her works would normally be well in copyright, but by agreement with the Maxtone Graham family, the Collected Works of Jan Struther is online in a special Internet edition at Mary Mark Ockerbloom's extensive A Celebration of Women Writers site.

The online text of Mrs. Miniver, still very readable apart from its value as a period social document, has a good biographical intro reproduced from the Virago edition. She was a good poet too, both on serious and comic topics; I very much like her 1936 The Modern Struwwelpeter, which first appeared in Punch. It updates Heinrich Hoffman's 1845 book as a new set of cautionary rhymes including the story of Disobedient David, who fiddles with electric light and is driven away by demons, never to be seen again; Anthony, the Boy Who Knew Too Much, who gets an appropriate comeuppance for his spoilsport griping during a conjurer's act; and The Dreadful Story of Janet, who likes trying on clothes in shops so much that she gets to do it permanently...

For a more structured online biography, see the Orlando Project, and there a deal of background at Jan Struther's Mrs. Miniver Family Internet Edition, an official site by Struther's son Robert Maxtone Graham. Struther's grand-daughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham published a print biography, The Real Mrs Miniver, in 2001.

Struther got the name "Miniver", by the way, from the heraldic and ceremonial fur. A number of accounts tell the story: how James Fleming of The Times asked Struther to come up with a name beginning with "M", and how she wandered the streets looking for inspiration.

Just then I noticed a man carrying a big bundle of skins out of one of the furriers' warehouses. I wondered what kind of skins they were and what country they came from. Then I remembered that vair was one of the furs in heraldry, and I tried to see how many of the others I could recollect. There was vair and counter-vair and potent and counter-potent and ermine and erminois; and I had a sort of idea that there was another one whose name I couldn't remember for several minutes. When I luckily did remember it, I went straight back to Printing House Square and said to Mr. Fleming, "Look here, what about calling her 'Mrs. Miniver'?" He chewed the stem of his pipe sardonically and said : 'That's not half bad.' Knowing Mr. Fleming's genius for understatement, I took this to mean that he approved ..."

This anecdote appears in several places, usually in the context of expressing her general frustration at being identified with Mrs. Miniver. See The Truth about Mrs. Miniver (Jan Struther, English (1939) 2(12): 347-355); A Pocketful of Pebbles (Jan Struther, 1956); and Under the Reading Lamp: Jan Struther tells us about the origin of "Mrs Miniver" (WJ Hurlow, Ottawa Citizen, Sep 27, 1946).

- Ray

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