Before Mrs Miniver

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Many is the letter I might have written if I had not first made a list of the letters I intended to write.

Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it is almost impossible to stop.

With such thoughts Jan Struther first found fame, in the polished little essays she wrote for the Spectator, the New Statesman and Punch in the 1920s and ’30s. It was not until 1937 that she created her imaginary middle-class housewife Mrs Miniver for The Times, having been invited to brighten up its Court page by Peter Fleming, brother of Ian. He asked her to write about ‘an ordinary woman doing ordinary things, a woman like yourself ’, knowing perfectly well that she was far from ordinary. And when her Mrs Miniver pieces were turned into a fanciful film that won five Oscars, Jan Struther’s journalistic career was effectively drowned in Blitz-spirit sentiment.

We may still come across that wartime film, starring the elegant Greer Garson, on a Sunday afternoon. But readers of Slightly Foxed Edition No. 21, The Real Mrs Miniver, by Jan Struther’s granddaughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham, know that Garson’s elegant character was nothing like the mischievously witty author, who preferred wearing dungarees to a cocktail frock.

Try Anything Twice is a collection of her earlier work, first published in 1938. When Virago reprinted it in 1990 I was captivated. The journalistic essay is an almost period form now (only Katharine Whitehorn still practises it) but Jan Struther’s aperçus retain their point and sparkle across the century. In the title essay, she characteristically turns on its head the old axiom ‘try anything once’, suggesting that some things take years to try – ‘such as marital fidelity and keeping a diary’ – while others, such as infidelity and leaving off keeping the diary, ‘are the work o

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About the contributor

Valerie Grove was once, like Jan, a mother with small children underfoot while writing for newspapers. Now a grandmother, she is reissuing her biography of Laurie Lee for his centenary this summer.

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