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Pair – Ladies of Letters: The Real Mrs Miniver & 84, Charing Cross Road
No. 21, Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Real Mrs Miniver
No. 32 Helene Hanff, 84 Charing Cross Road
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    Pair – Ladies of Letters: The Real Mrs Miniver & 84, Charing Cross Road


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    The Real Mrs Miniver

    The exemplary middle-class housewife Mrs Miniver, created by Jan Struther, was said by Winston Churchill to have done more for the Allied cause in the Second World War than a flotilla of battleships. Everyone assumed that Mrs Miniver was a portrait of Jan herself but, as this vivid biography reveals, the reality was very different.

    It was in 1937 that Joyce Anstruther, a well-connected and sharply observant young woman who already wrote poems, hymns and comic sketches for Punch, was asked by Peter Fleming to help cheer up the Court pages of The Times with occasional pieces about a fictional character – ‘just an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life. Rather like yourself.’

    The Mrs Miniver pieces appeared every fortnight for two years and were collected in book form in October 1939. Soon Mrs Miniver became an important figure in wartime propaganda – the perfect British wife and mother, cheerful, stoical, happily married, longing to share her tranquil enjoyment of life with thousands of anxious readers. Joyce – or Jan Struther, as she called herself – toured America, flying the flag for ‘plucky little Britain’. In the public’s eyes she and Mrs Miniver – soon to be the heroine of a famous wartime film – were one. In fact Joyce’s once happy marriage to golf-loving Tony had run out of steam and she had begun an affair with a penniless Viennese Jewish poet and refugee called Dolf Placzek. While she was touring the US, giving uplifting speeches to rapt crowds of Americans, she and Dolf were having passionate secret meetings.

    Ysenda Maxtone Graham, Joyce’s granddaughter, draws a deeply understanding but unsentimental portrait of this contradictory woman, whose own creation ultimately forced her to lead a painful double life. It’s a poignant story, laced with sharp humour and unforgettably told.

    84, Charing Cross Road

    In the drab and traumatized post-war London of 1949, Marks & Co., second-hand and antiquarian booksellers at 84, Charing Cross Road, received an enquiry from a Miss Helene Hanff of New York City. It was not the kind of letter they were accustomed to receiving, and it was one that would make history.

    Miss Hanff described herself as ‘a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books’ which she was unable to satisfy as ‘all the things I want are impossible to get over here except in very expensive rare editions, or grimy, marked-up school copies’. She enclosed a list of her ‘most pressing problems’, one of which was a Latin Bible. Marks & Co.’s polite but formal reply regretted they were unable to supply the particular volume she described, but enquired if she would like them to send ‘a Latin New Testament, also a Greek New Testament, ordinary modern editions in cloth binding’.

    When she began writing to Marks & Co., Helene Hanff was in her early thirties, scraping a living as a freelance scriptwriter and journalist. Having dropped out of college, she had decided to take her education into her own hands, and this had already led her down some little-frequented literary pathways which, with the passage of time, became ever more esoteric.

    After a while, however, letters between the feisty, eccentric New York writer and the staff of the bookshop in Charing Cross Road began to encompass much more than books. Gradually the distant ‘FDP’ who first signed Marks & Co.’s letters emerged as ‘Frank Doel’, and ‘Faithfully Yours’ gave way to ‘With best wishes’, and eventually simply ‘Love Frank’. Soon the whole office was joining in, slipping in notes about their families, describing life in London, and thanking her for the food parcels she sent from New York.

    It was a correspondence that would last for twenty years. By the time Helene Hanff made it to London in 1971, Frank Doel was dead and London was a different place. She never made her fortune as a scriptwriter, but when she finally had the idea of making the letters into a book, it became a bestseller. It’s a gloriously heart-warming read, the account of a friendship – almost a love story – conducted through books that captures the essence of a slower, gentler era.

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