Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I’ve been saving up Mrs Miniver for a long time. It is the book that supposedly convinced America to join the war, so heartwarming and uplifting was its central character and her wryly humorous observations on middle class British life. The film is a cult classic (though I haven’t seen it – I’ve been waiting to read the book first, obviously) and the name Mrs Miniver is a byword for the classic Keep Calm and Carry On British bulldog spirit. With so much to recommend it, with so much promise of brilliance in its pages, I suppose I’ve been storing it up. It’s important to know that you have unopened treasure somewhere in your bookcase, in my opinion. However, this week I’ve been packing up my books (sob) in preparation for yet another move, and as I know most of my books will be going on a one way trip to my mum’s attic for the time being, I didn’t want to consign Mrs Miniver to dusty oblivion without reading her first. And so I did. Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. But not quite in the way I had expected.

Mrs Miniver lives on a white stuccoed, leafy Chelsea square with her architect husband Clem and their children; Vin, who boards at Eton, Judy and little Toby. Life is a comfortable whirl of weekends in the country, dinner parties, shopping trips, happy family holidays in Scotland and afternoon tea in front of the fire with a new library book. This is a safe, comfortable existence where nothing of much consequence happens. Mrs Miniver’s life is not exciting or eventful; unlike The Provincial Lady, she does not have a career, she does not hobnob with literary types or go on speaking tours; she is merely an ordinary early 20th century (upper) middle class wife and mother with a house to run and letters to write. As such, the collected thoughts in this book – certainly not a novel, as this is a collection of newspaper columns and they are not necessarily linear – are marvellously inconsequential; from feelings on buying a new car to the horrors of having to have people you don’t like to dinner, from the pleasure of a day to yourself to the first smell of Spring in the air, Mrs Miniver celebrates the ordinary and gives it a weight of significance and meaning that explains exactly why this was such an important piece of wartime literature. Mrs Miniver’s reflections are a reminder of the beauty and wonder of everyday life, of what is truly precious and important, and of what freedom really means. The war does intrude, of course; Mrs Miniver describes going to get a gas mask fitted, trenches being dug in Kensington Gardens and her husband going away to fight, but above all of this is the attitude that life must go on, and must be enjoyed, as it is. Many of us may live small lives, with small pleasures and small dreams, but that doesn’t make our lives any the less important or precious or worthy of celebration. This essential truth is what Mrs Miniver is all about.

Jan Struther’s writing is wonderful; literary, intelligent, wry and insightful, she creates beautiful imagery and the sense of a warm, generous personality that infuses her words with irrepressible good humour and joie de vivre. She shares my love of London in August, of the drive up to Yorkshire, of fireworks and tea and new books to read. My favourite little tale had to be that of The Engagement Book, when Mrs Miniver pops to the shops to get a new diary. She is torn between an extravagant, brightly coloured diary with a fantastic price tag and a far more reasonably priced, perfectly nice one that will do the job just as well for half the cost. Wracked with indecision and guilt, Mrs Miniver chooses the cheaper one, and leaves the shop to catch her bus. Half way down the road, she runs straight back to the shop to get the more expensive diary, knowing she will regret her boring choice every day if she doesn’t. I loved that; an insignificant moment, perhaps, but one that perfectly sums up Mrs Miniver’s personality. Being quietly reckless is certainly something to applaud in my book!

Despite my enjoyment of Struther’s writing, however, I did have my misgivings. I do find these sorts of mid century books describing ‘ordinary’ life rather trying when the ‘ordinary’ life depicted involves having servants, no job, a son at Eton, a townhouse in Chelsea, a weekend cottage in Kent and friends with stately homes who invite you for shooting weekends. Of course, we can all relate to aspects of this life nonetheless; Mrs Miniver’s appreciation of the changing seasons and the delights of a cup of tea are no different to mine, and I have never been able to even dream of living in Chelsea, but Struther’s obliviousness to her privilege, masquerading Mrs Miniver’s life as the experience of a Regular Joe, did irritate me in places. It would have been nice to have her at least reference the fact that she realises how lucky she is.

Having said this, I did have a change of heart when I researched Struther’s life after reading the book. Her rose tinted view made sense when I realised that actually she was depicting an idealised version of the life she used to have. When she was writing these columns, which were originally published in The Times, her marriage was falling apart, her husband’s income was drastically reduced, and the lovely house in Chelsea had long been abandoned for something cheaper in a less upmarket neighbourhood. In Mrs Miniver, Jan Struther recreated the husband of her early marriage, before things went sour and he was still her funny, loving, treasured companion. She recreated the happy busy-ness of having a young family to shop and plan for, of being a loving, all absorbed unit, delighted in one another’s company, of having nothing to really worry about, and of never having to think about money. This book is so uplifting and charming, I think, because Jan Struther needed it to be. It is a memoriam to happier, simpler days that were thoughtlessly taken for granted; something everyone could relate to as the war boomed overhead.

‘Tea was already laid: there were honey sandwiches, brandy-snaps, and small ratafia biscuits; and there would, she knew, be crumpets. Three new library books lay virginally on the fender-stool, their bright paper wrappers unsullied by subscriber’s hand. the clock on the mantelpiece chimed, very softly and precisely, five times. A tug hooted from the river. A sudden breeze brought the sharp tang of a bonfire in at the window. The jigsaw was almost complete, but there was still one piece missing. And then, from the other end of the square, came the familiar sound of the Wednesday barrel-organ, playing, with a hundred apocryphal trills and arpeggios, the ‘Blue Danube’ waltz. And Mrs Miniver, with a little sigh of contentment, rang for tea.’

48 comments

  1. Lovely, Rachel! I have read this (but of course!) and really enjoyed it, but don’t remember much – except the feeling it gave me. I suppose Mrs. Miniver’s life was pretty normal amongst her readership, even if not the wider world – an idealised version, of course, but not too far out of the ordinary in its basics, as it would be now. I didn’t know that, about her marriage and financial situation at the time of writing. (Did you know she also wrote hymns? I think Lord of All Hopefulness is one of hers.)

    The film is great, but nothing like the book in terms of plot. As you know, the book was published before the war – but the film is set in the war; Mrs. Miniver facing Evil German Parachutist who wants to Kill All The Babies, etc.

    1. Thanks Simon! I thought while reading it that you had probably read and loved this – just your cup of tea! I suppose you’re right – though I assume that after the film came out, this would have had a pretty wide readership – and not many people would be able to relate to such a lifestyle. Yes, her personal life is very interesting – I want to get hold of her biography. I was quite sad after I read about her, as I had hoped she was as happy as Mrs Miniver, but I’m afraid to say she wasn’t at all really.

      I was shocked when I found out she wrote Lord of All Hopefulness – she was an atheist! I love that hymn!

      I’m looking forward to watching the film – even if it does take liberties. Evil German parachutists sound intriguing!!

  2. Somehow, I haven’t read this one yet! It sounds like a cozy comfort read for a rainy day.

    Thank you so much for your support, Rachel! I’m looking forward to living in England so very much but it is a little nerve wracking also. But mostly exciting, hooray!!🙂 I would love to share a London adventure with you🙂

    1. It certainly is just that Lucy – I’m sure you’ll love it!

      You are so welcome! As another transatlantic mover, I know how you feel – it’s scary, but you’ll find we’re not so different over here really. Our food is much better though🙂 All the universities have great induction programmes for foreign students so you will be well supported when you arrive, and when you want to come to London, just let me know!🙂 Good luck with all the preparations – student visas are the worst!

  3. “The Engagement Book” was my favorite vignette as well, and you are so right about the fact that most of us live small lives, but important ones each in their own way. I read this for the first time last summer and it left me wanting more stories. I was hesitant to read it as the movie “Mrs. Miniver” is one of my most favorite movies. Having finally read “Mrs. Miniver”, I think that each stands on its own merits. I do encourage you to watch it, perhaps with your mum. I own it, but, if it is being broadcast, I will watch it again and again. The one scene in “Downton Abbey”, where Violet gives the rose trophy to the village gardener, had many of us aghast as it was lifted straight from the movie, Mrs. Miniver (all was forgiven, of course, because I love “Downton Abbey”).

    This was such a heartfelt review, Rachel, and you know I will looking for my own treasure sitting upon the bookshelf.

    1. Thanks Penny – there is another volume of Mrs Miniver articles (or maybe just articles by Jan Struther, but I gather that she was basically Mrs Miniver) published by Virago – it’s out of print now but copies are cheaply available used – it’s called Try Anything Twice. I really want to watch the film now – I think it will be a rainy afternoon film for my mum and I, definitely! I shall look out for that scene you mention – that Julian Fellowes is a shameless plagiarist!

  4. I finally got round to buying the DVD last week, because I’ve only ever seen it once and it’s never on television (and not on YouTube either). I’ve always been tickled by London in August: the maids on holidays, so the charwoman comes to do their breakfast and they have the rest of their meals out … God forbid that Mrs M should have to boil a kettle. Think that’s why I’ve always loved the book – rose-tinted and aspirational! I know I would be just as charming as Mrs M if I owned her house.

    1. Yes I tried to find it online but no luck😦 I’ll have to buy it – but it is cheap! I know, I laughed at that – how hard is it to make a dinner, for goodness’ sake! Where women that useless then?! I think we all would be as charming if we had the house, the money, the servants and the free time. I love the idea of coming back from the shops to a warm and clean house, books and tea tray laid out ready. In my DREAMS!

  5. Mrs. Miniver is one of my go-to books when I just need a bit of quiet comfort. I love the way she writes about the small domestic routines and details of her (admittedly privileged) home life, and it gives me a frisson of delight to realize her house was the same house that Denis Mackail lived and set his “Greenery Street” characters in.

    It’s a little harder to find, but if you can snag a copy, her “Try Anything Twice” is very similar in tone.

    1. I can’t believe I left it unread for so long Kate – it’s going to be a go-to for me as well – I love some of her observations on life. Really? I didn’t know that about Greenery Street! That’s wonderful!

      Yes I’ve heard that – I’m going to try and get a copy.

      Lovely to see you around Kate – I wish you’d start blogging again! (hint hint!)

  6. Of course, I’ve heard of Mrs. Miniver but I never realized what a delightful book it is! I must read it soon. Thanks for the review.🙂

  7. Well, I tried reading this a few years ago. It was just a bit too slight to hold my interest. The character of Mrs. Miniver seemed so relentlessly trivial. Maybe I was just in the wrong mood.
    Now that said, the movie is wonderful! For me, this is one of those rare instances where the movie is better than the book.

    1. Oh Nancy! I think you should give her another try, definitely! It’s a rainy afternoon, cheer you up sort of book – don’t expect anything too profound and I’m sure you’ll fall in love with her!

      I really want to watch the film now – everyone seems to love it!

  8. What an interesting post. I didn’t know anything about Mrs. Miniver prior to this and it sounds fascinating. I particularly like your comment about how it reflects the small pleasures and dreams of a small life. That theme always resonates with me.

  9. Hi Rachel,

    I know you recommended this to me a while back and I did enjoy it, but after reading Nella Lasts diaries, I just found these stories a bit artificial and unrealistic (not that I was alive during the war!). To me they were definitely a poor second to Nella. The Nella diaries were just much more down to earth and truly portrayed a much harder ‘Keep calm and carry on’ war effort than in Mrs M. I in return, highly recommend them, but suggest you leave them a little while, so you don’t suffer as I have done, in comparing them too much! Good luck with the packing! Bon voyage! Try not to worry – it is the start of a new and magnificant chapter in your life!

    1. Hi Janey – glad you gave these a go but sorry you found them artificial. I do know what you mean – they’re very ‘bright and breezy’ and I know that’s not to everyone’s taste. I STILL haven’t read the Nella books but I do keep meaning to – I’ll get hold of them son. Thank you – I am doing my best to embrace the move and get excited about it – all change should be celebrated in my book!

  10. Now I REALLY want to read this. Hope packing isn’t too tiresome & you find a forgotten something amongst your belongings.

    1. I know you would love this Rachel! You must read it soon. Thank you – I already have come across quite a few things I forgot I had and I’ve only lived her for 10 months – not a good sign!!

  11. Oh R, what a lovely post. I didn’t know MM persuaded the US to join the war but what a nice story in regard to US affection for Blighty. Which, I must admit, I always enjoy from the perspective of living here under grey skies with a diet of Rich Tea, Digestives, and vanilla sponge cake. So to speak. With the occasional Hob Nob prompting disproportionate thrill.

    “Being quietly reckless is certainly something to applaud in my book!” – indeed! Have a Jammy Dodger R, have a Jammy Dodger! Or even three!

    “Life is a comfortable whirl of weekends in the country, dinner parties, shopping trips, happy family holidays in Scotland and afternoon tea in front of the fire with a new library book.”

    Such jolly fun! Well apart from a few differences. Weekend away = camping. Dinner party = a good Madras. Shopping trip = you do it but, as a chap, I decline on the basis of masculine predisposition and rights. Scotland? – love it but ditto Greece and France. Tea and a new library book – ditto!

    I jest of course but I do think these things – still – underlie the English psyche. And I agree with your observations about privilege and how, while MM & Co were having afternoon tea (followed later by silver plate dinner), millions were relying on just tea and slices of bread to keep them going in nine or ten hours of daily labour.

    Have a lovely day R, you’ve just made mine (under grey skies) a little sunnier.

    Caption: “I say! Is that the new Apple Power Mac being advertised?”
    “Darling, I do believe it is”.

    – Bop.

    1. Oh Bop, you do make me smile (and laugh!)!! I think there is a lot to be said for the British psyche being broadly the same – irrespective of class – but still, sometimes I do think a littlemore reality needs to be drip fed into these sorts of books, especially as there seems to be an overriding impression from those who aren’t British that ALL British people’s lives resemble either Mrs Miniver’s or Hugh Grant’s in one of his romantic comedy guises!

      The sun is out! Off to celebrate with tea and a shortbread biscuit in the garden! I am my own stereotype!

  12. Such effortless writing. Jan Struther herself was not all she seemed and the public were very disapproving of her. But she can’t have been anything but a loving generous person to have been able to write like this, can she? (Actually that’s probably wishful thinking on my part – lots of my favourite writers were real terrors but wrote tenderly and well).

    There are some similarly lovely war time stories in Rosamond Lehmann’s collection. They feel authentic, as these do. After all, there were plenty of women like Mrs M who had to adjust to the privations of rationing and so on and this shows that they did it very well.

    1. Yes it’s interesting Chrissy how different she was from her alter ego – though I do think she must have been a lovely person from the way she viewed and wrote about the world. Not knowing her personal circumstances fully, I am certainly not one to judge the decisions she made in her private life.

      I must read more Rosamond Lehmann – I believe it is currently a reading week for her on the blogosphere so perhaps I should take the hint and find some time this week!

  13. I have to say that the film is just the thing to watch on a rainy Saturday or Sunday and with the way things are going in your region you have your pick!
    Jan’s biography, read after Mrs Miniver, was quite jarring which then made me feel selfish. Who could possibly have tea and crumpet afternoons by the fire go on endlessly? You are to be commended for your ability to change and adapt, by the way, Rachel. You make it look easy but I have some idea of the planning, thought and hard work involved. A lesser person would have been happy to just plod along but not you! All the best with your move.

    1. Hahahahaha yes indeed – at this rate I’ll be spending my whole summer indoors watching films! Though it is sunny today so you never know – things might just be on the up!
      I want to to read her biography, Darlene – the one by her granddaughter looks absolutely fascinating. Oh thank you Darlene, you are so sweet! Moving around has just become part of what I do now – I quite like a change every year or so – keeps me on my toes! I am the Littlest Hobo! Thanks for the good wishes – mum has had my new room redecorated and recarpeted and it looks lovely so now the only dilemma is which IKEA bookcases to buy – I think I might finally have enough space to bring all my books out from the attic! Hurrah!

  14. I must have seen the film when I was a kid, but after reading the book (nine years ago! – time to read again) I don’t want to see it again. I wasn’t under the impression that she was writing her own life. I thought it was fiction like the Henrietta books by Joyce Dennys. Here is what I jotted down all those years ago:

    ‘Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther (pseudonym for Joyce Maxtone-Graham) 1940, 1942 A+ Fiction
    This book is a collection of articles written in The Times before and
    during WW II. This was a perfect book. I loved it, and I felt the words so personally. She could have been me talking. I realized that among my favorite writers, E.M. Delafield, Raffaela Barker, and Jan Struther were/are writers for newspapers, and that they write about home life. Each chapter was a little slice of Mrs Miniver’s daily life; about her children, her husband, her home. I loved reading all the homey details.
    I plan to buy an old copy of this book. It is one I will read over and over.’

    1. I’m interested to see the film and how they changed the social setting, though I’m also interested by the fact that you said you wouldn’t see it again, but would read the book. I think the book has a delightful charm that wouldn’t necessarily translate onto screen so well – it’s in the finely chosen phrases that she so captures the magic of the ordinary, after all.
      I’ve never heard of Rafaella Barker! I am off to see who she is!

  15. Like Nan, I saw the film ages ago. And quite recently I watched the DVD. I just loved it; there is something very uplifting about this film, as you say in your review of the book, it is about the all important small pleasures in life and the really big values that flow from them…

    I hope you can see the movie. I would be interested in your opinion.

    1. I’m going to get it on DVD Sue, and then I shall come back and tell you what I think! I am really interested to see how the story translates and whether the actress playing Mrs Miniver captures the spirit of the Mrs Miniver in the book. I hope so!

  16. on your recommendation i treated myself to mrs miniver and i am taking it with me for the weekend and i will let you know how i get on with it.

  17. I don’t think Struther was alone in using her fiction to make a difficult life more bearable. Lucy Maud Montgomery and Elizabeth Von Armin both used their fiction to mitigate challenging husbands and home lives. It makes reading the Anne of Green Gables books or Elizabeth and Her German Garden all the more poignant when you know the authors’ real lives were so different than the charming well-ordered wods they created. As for Struther failing to acknowledge her privileged position, I think it took WWII for a lot of upper-middle-class Britain to realize they were privileged.

    1. Absolutely not, Deb – thank you for reminding me of those examples. EvA is a classic example and someone I’ve always admired for being able to write with such joie de vivre despite having such a hard time of it with an abusive husband. And you are quite right, of course – the middle class’ obliviousness to the plight of London’s slum dwellers amazed me when I read about how shocked some women were by the state of the evacuees they received – how could they not have known about such poverty? Talk about ivory towers!

  18. EM Forster is also good on Edwardian British class conflict. Its quite shocking what happens to Leonard in Howards End – when, for example, one of the upper middle class twits feels its his right and privilege to beat him with the flat of a sword. The poor chap doesn’t defend himself, because (implicitly) society says it’s not his place to do so when thrashed by a superior.

    And in Remains of the Day (movie), Anthony Hopkins’ affections are thwarted and confined by his “station”, which is to serve a wealthy household. Its very British. Ishiguro is very good – interestingly – at understanding the subtle politics of domestic psychology. Read him a little – and there’s a curious cross over from the Japanese psyche to the British.

    Don’t let this distract from our lovely host and her post. Its an embellishment.

    1. Thank you Bop – always informative and helpful. And I will always happily recommend The Remains of the Day – such a magnificent film and a brilliant novel too.

      1. Not read it R but will some time. You remind me! Quite liked Artist of the Floating World and Never Let Me Go is beautiful. What I like about his writing is how spare and simple it is; how he evokes such passion but never overtly. Which strikes me as rather “Japanese”, in their cultural attitude towards emotional expression, which is also an aspect of the British psyche!

        – Bop

  19. i am still reading the book . i really like what i have read. it is going to join my forever book pile . they are books what i really enjoy reading over again.thank you for suggesting it.

  20. There is another lesser known title called A Pocketful of Pebbles, essays, poems and articles. Worth adding to the canon if you can find it somewhere like Abebooks.

  21. What a lovely and insightful review, I may just have to go and find a copy, this sounds like just the book I’ve been looking for to accompany my Christmas knitting!

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