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.’