Ysenda Maxtone Graham, the poetry of Jan Struther, E. H. Shepard illustration

Hitting the Nail on the Head

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1. Jan Struther, the well-known and successful writer, lecturer, radio performer etc. (with a subdivision called Jan Struther, the much-too-little-known and really pretty terrific serious poet whose depth and brilliance will only really be appreciated by a discerning literary public after she is dead!)

That ‘item no. 1’ was the first on a list concocted by my grandmother Jan Struther in a letter to her brother Douglas in 1951. Jan was famous as the creator of Mrs Miniver, the Chelsea housewife (partly based on her) whose cheerful wifely and motherly common sense had enchanted readers of The Times in 1938–9, before being snapped up by MGM for the film based on the character, Mrs Miniver, in 1942.

When Jan wrote that letter, six years after the end of the war, Douglas was suffering from depression, a condition with which Jan was all too familiar. In order to cheer him up and show her empathy, she listed all the roles, public and private, that she was trying to juggle. Well, that hopeful prediction about being recognized as a ‘pretty terrific serious poet’ hasn’t happened, and she died 65 years ago. If you count hymns as poems, which I think I do, because George Herbert’s certainly are, the only poem for which Jan is famous is her hymn ‘Lord of all hopefulness’, written for Percy Dearmer’s Songs of Praise in 1930. It’s a top wedding and funeral choice, a fact that illustrates Jan’s ability to entwine happiness and sadness.

Jan would be surprised at the success of that hymn, as she wasn’t a churchgoer and thought she would only be remembered for Mrs Miniver. One of the roles she mentioned in that list to her brother was the expatriate Jan, now living in the USA, who longed to hear a peal of bells from an English church tower, ‘so long as she wouldn’t have to go to the service’.

I wish I could help her with her bid for Poets’ Corner but I

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About the contributor

Ysenda Maxtone Graham reviews books for The Times and the Daily Mail, and writes a monthly column in Country Life. Her next book, British Summertime Begins, about British childhood summers, will be published in 2020.

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