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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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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 of a moment’. Along with her wit and wisdom, I like her enthusiasms – her longing for solitude in a crowded room, or for her children when they are out of sight; her zest for life (‘an accidental gift . . . impossible to acquire, and almost impossible, thank heaven, to lose’) and her love of words. She trapped words like butterflies: sesquipedalian, callipygian, macrocephalous – words that ‘make the dullest heart dance’. Being able always to find le mot juste, she is an effortless read. I like, too, the fact that she wrote from a domestic perspective, with small children about. Very few women writers before 1960 were acquainted with day-to-day family life, which colours everything (even if, like all women of her class, Jan hired cooks and nannies from Mrs Cattermole’s Domestic Agency). Jan’s nom de plume came from her birth-name, Joyce Anstruther – ‘J. Anstruther’ – though by marriage she was Mrs Anthony Maxtone Graham. In Mrs Miniver she had presented her alter ego as a contented mother of three, living in a Chelsea square (as she herself did, in Wellington Square), observing people’s foibles and recording small family crises, just before the Second World War. The keynote of the column was marital compatibility, but this picture was already a sham. In 1940 Jan took her two younger children to America, already in the grip of Miniver-mania and ready to adore her. She delivered three or four lectures per week in 47 states, appeared on radio panel-games, and wrote a patriotic ballad which Eleanor Roosevelt made her husband read on his next broadcast to the nation. In 1943, at the pinnacle of her fame, she stayed with the Roosevelts at the White House. She slept in Abraham Lincoln’s bed and pronounced the current president ‘a perfectly gorgeous man’. Meanwhile her husband Tony Maxtone Graham, serving with the Scots Guards, was a prisoner-of-war in Italy; when he came home the marriage was doomed. Jan had fallen in love with a tall, erudite Viennese refugee named Dolf Placzek whom she had met in London in 1938; he was thirteen years younger than her and a foot taller, but they embarked on a passionate affair. They married in 1948 and were happy together for the short time left to Jan, who died of breast cancer in 1952. The essays in Try Anything Twice belong to her charmed 1930s life, and I think my favourite is ‘– Of A Party’. ‘How perfect it is,’ she writes, ‘that first moment, when one of you says, “It’s about time we gave another party,” and suddenly the room is full of people, talking, laughing, drinking, the women all beautiful and the men witty. So rosy is the picture that you lose no time in setting the reality in train.’ Buying a complete sheet of stamps, in order to send out the invitations, is, she maintains, ‘one of the cheapest ways . . . of attaining the sensation of true lordliness’. And awaiting replies is the most agreeable time of all. ‘The lover, the party-giver and the free-lance journalist are the only people who feel a genuine interest in the postman’s knock.’ In a crescendo of agitation, she describes the day of the party, including the delivery of 250 obscenely large sausage rolls ‘designed for the jaws and maws of giants’ instead of the 100 delicate, Lilliputian sausage rolls ordered, and the hostess flopping exhausted on her bed just before the first ring of the door-bell, when her heart ‘swoops sickeningly downward’. ‘And suddenly the party breaks over you like a wave. You throw up your hands and drown.’ A faultless summary of the hostess’s lot. In ‘Snillocs’ she praises the instant friendships that spring up between fellow guests at a country-house weekend, when they slope off together to gossip about the hosts – ‘than which there is no more satisfying conversation in the world’. Perhaps for this reason, the ideal house-party is one where the hosts are suddenly called away. And surely, she reasons, it is the hosts who should write thank-you letters to their guests, who have so sportingly undergone this upheaval, this ordeal of packing and travelling, in order to be there? The obligatory thank-yous from guests, named after the oleaginous Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, could be called ‘Snillocs’. London, for Jan Struther, is like a subtle and expensive scent: it contains repellent ingredients (‘fogs, slums, dirt, pneumatic drills’), yet London-dwellers remain helplessly addicted. In ‘Paradise Lost’, she invokes a Mediterranean holiday, where life is blissful and brandy cheap. Here you may spy a farmhouse to let, also cheap – so why do you not take possession of it? ‘I found myself wondering why we had done nothing about that farm; asked no questions, made no effort at all; why one never does do anything; why one always goes back in the end to fogs and offices and wet Saturday nights in the King’s Road.’ Her most famous poem begins with the ironical line, ‘Now heaven be thanked, I am out of love again!’ All her life she wrote crisp, metropolitan lyrics full of memorable observations on love and loss, youth and age. Another, entitled ‘At a Dull Party’, begins ‘In fifty years at most I shall be dead’ and ends, ‘Then, Christ! what spendthrift folly brought me here – To breathe stale smoke, and drink, talk, think small beer?’ But outlasting her poems and her ‘perishable prose’ are her hymns. Jan was neither a churchgoer nor a believer, but her friend Canon Percy Dearmer asked her to produce something for his 1925 hymnal, Songs of Praise. Being with Canon Dearmer always lifted her spirits, and she found his faith infectious. So she contributed a dozen hymns, all quite inspired. ‘When a Knight Won His Spurs’ remainsa children’s favourite; ‘Lord of All Hopefulness, Lord of All Joy’ is sung movingly at weddings and memorial services; and one of her hymns rather sweetly thanks the Lord ‘for dogs with friendly faces’. Some may feel that her writing, being of its time, has a hint of entitlement to well-heeled privilege. But beneath the prose stylist’s phrases, Jan’s instincts were socialist. Unlike her husband’s Scottish family, she was quite unstuffy, less interested in forebears than in what she called her afterbears. She peppered her talk with four-letter words, which shocked those who expected her to be Miniverish. ‘There are few things more embarrassing than to hear people, often in front of the servants . . . dignify their hard-upness with the name of poverty,’ she writes; she was well aware of the slums behind her house. The children of ‘Pump Lane’ subsist on white bread and jam, yet are ‘ravishingly beautiful and unreasonably healthy’. (Compare the distaste Mrs Miniver expressed for Really Nice Children in Kensington Gardens, pushed in their sleek perambulators by nannies: ‘children who had rocking-horses and special furniture with rabbits on, and grandmothers with houses in the country’ – even though her own had all of these.) I cannot pretend that Jan Struther was ever the chirpy type, lookingon the bright side. She fell prey to profound depressions. She was familiar with the zeal for doing household chores that comes with writer’s block. But her perceptions are timelessly consoling, especially about the onset of middle-age (‘only yesterday one was making a mud-pie,’ she reflects, ‘and now a contemporary has become a Brigadier-General’) accompanied by the sudden appeal of gardening. In ‘The Real New Year’, she makes a convincing argument for moving Hogmanay to springtime. January is a wretched month of unpayable bills. Surely spring is the time for making resolutions. Seeing the first buds fills us with ‘irrational joy’, and we resolve ‘to write a poem, paint a picture, compose a symphony, found a business, plant a tree, build a summer-house, and re-paper the diningroom. . .’ Such thoughts that struck her eighty years ago might occur to any of us today.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 42 © Valerie Grove 2014


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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