Book Review by Sylvia D.: For our comfort reading session, I initially considered one of the books I had loved as a child but then discovered I had parted company with them at some stage, so I looked along my shelves and came across two books I’ve really enjoyed, E M Delafield’s Diary of a Provincial Lady and Mrs Miniver. On reflection I decided that Mrs Miniver was the more comforting of the two as, like others in the Group found, it is eminently dippable, and I prefer Mrs Miniver’s husband – he’s more of a character than the provincial lady’s!
Jan Struther (1901-1953) had been a writer for Punch magazine and caught the attention of Peter Fleming of The Times who, in 1937, asked her to write a series of columns about “an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself”.
Mrs Miniver doesn’t really strike one as an “ordinary sort of woman” as she lives in a leafy Chelsea square with a cook, a maid and a nanny for her two younger children, Judy and Toby. The eldest, Vin, has just started at Eton. Her husband, Clem, is a successful architect but plays an active role in family life. Every year they visit his sister and brother-in-law in Scotland for the grouse shooting but they also go hop picking as many London families did. They have a second home down in Kent which features frequently in the articles. The book contains 37 of these which appeared in The Times between 1937 and 1939.
The enjoyment from the novel comes from the pleasure Mrs Miniver experiences in just ordinary, everyday things, such as coming home from holiday,
‘She reached her doorstep. The key turned sweetly in the lock. That was the kind of thing one remembered about a house: not the size of the rooms or the colour of the walls, but the feel of door-handles and light-switches, the shape and texture of the banister-rail under one’s palm: minute tactual intimacies, whose resumption was the essence of coming home’.
This delight in the little things of life is a constant refrain whether it be the beauty of a bunch of flowers, the companionship of the windscreen wipers when driving home in the rain, helping her daughter choose a new doll or the pleasure in watching her children, particularly the youngest, Toby, a quiet serious child who has a collection of treasures and is at the age when one finds Christmas particularly exciting,
It began in the same way every year: the handle of her bedroom door being turned just loudly enough to wake her up, but softly enough not to count as waking her up on purpose; Toby glimmering like a moth in the dark doorway, clutching a knobbly Christmas stocking in one hand and holding up his pyjama trousers with the other. (He insisted upon pyjamas, but he had not yet outgrown his sleeping-suit figure).
“Toby! It’s only just after six. I did say not till seven.”
“But, Mummy, I can’t tell the time.” He was barefoot and shivering, and his eyes were like stars.’
Later a darker note creeps into the book as the threat of war draws ever nearer. One chapter tells the story of the whole family going to get their gas masks. As a historian I found it interesting to read the detail of how the masks were issued and what people thought about them,
‘Mrs. Adie [the cook] sitting up as straight as a ramrod under the fitter’s hands, betraying no signs of the apprehension which Mrs Miniver knew she must be feeling about her false fringe; Gladys’s [the maid] rueful giggle as her elaborate coiffure came out partially wrecked from the ordeal; the look of sudden in realization in Judy’s eyes just before her face was covered up; the back of Toby’s neck, the valley deeper then usual because his muscles were taut with distaste (he had a horror of rubber in any form);’
Even after Munich, Mrs Miniver felt that things could not quite go back to normal. She muses on how the family would have been split up if war had been declared and how the possibility that even if they weren’t killed or injured or their house destroyed by bombing they had still ‘found themselves looking at each other and at their cherished possessions, with new eyes.’
Shortly after war is declared the book finishes with a final chapter which takes the form of a letter to a friend. We learn that Clem is quartered in a girls’ school, manning an A A Battery and Mrs Miniver is down at the house in Kent with the two younger children and with seven evacuees whilst cook looks after the house in London. She recognises the need for people’s attitudes and feelings during the war to be recorded and she muses on the need for poems, articles, letters and ‘chance phrases’ to help ‘recapture the spirit of this tragic, marvellous, and eye-opening time: so that, having recaptured it, we can use it for better ends. We may not, of course, ever get the chance but if we do, and once more fail to act upon it, I feel pretty sure we shan’t be given another one.’
It is only when Mrs Miniver signs off the letter that Jan Struther allows her to reveal her first name – Caroline.
These Times columns are a comfort to read, not only because they are short and there aren’t many words on the page, but their content, whilst not challenging, is thought-provoking and frequently allows the reader to identify with Mrs Miniver. It allows one to appreciate that quiet and uneventful lives can be precious, that we can identify with her love of the changing seasons and her pleasure at being able to sit down with a good book. Above all, Jan Struther’s writing is a delight. Not only is she so accomplished at putting feelings into words but she does it with a warm sense of humour and vivid imagery, ‘It was a Wedgwood day, with white clouds delicately modelled in relief against a sky of pale pure blue’. In war time the book would have been a reminder of how satisfying ordinary everyday could be.
In 1942 the book was made into a patriotic and sentimental American film and supposedly helped to convince America to join the war.