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Authors: Ysenda Maxtone Graham

The Real Mrs Miniver

BOOK: The Real Mrs Miniver
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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue

Part One

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Part Two

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Part Three

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Epilogue

Acknowledgements

Further Reading

Index

Other books by the author

Copyright

 

To Michael

 

Like rays shed

    
By a spent star

The words of a dead

    
Poet are,

That through bleak space

    
Unchecked fly on,

Though heart, hand, face

    
To dust are gone;

And you who read

    
Shall only guess

What thorn-sharp need,

    
What loneliness,

What love, lust, dream,

    
Shudder or sigh

Lit the long beam

    
That meets your eye:

Nor guess you never

    
So well, so true,

Shall comfort ever

    
Reach from you

To me, an old

    
Black shrivelled sphere,

Who has been cold

    
This million year.

‘Dedication: to an Unknown Reader' from J.S's collection of poems

The Glass-Blower,
1940

Prologue

T
HIS WAS THE
programme at Radio City Music Hall in New York on the evening of 4 June 1942:

1. Music Hall Grand Organ

2. The Music Hall Symphony Orchestra

3. ‘At Ease!'

‘Bless 'Em All'

‘That's Sabotage'

‘Ladies in the Dark'

‘Two of a Kind'

‘You Can't Say No to a Soldier'

‘Finale' (danced by the entire company)

4. ‘Mrs Miniver'

     Directed by William Wyler

     Produced by Sidney Franklin

     Starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon

     Based on the novel by Jan Struther

     A Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Picture

The high-decibel music and high-kicking dancing were standard splendid fare at the ‘Showplace of the Nation'. But the film which held its première after the floor-show caused an unusual sensation. It was normal for audiences to emerge from the theatre blowing their noses: MGM were experts at activating the tear-ducts. But these tears were different. They were shed not just for the Minivers, whose wartime family tragedy the audience had just witnessed. They were shed, also, for the whole of homely civilization – village life, families, whistling milkmen, kindly old station-masters – that was being destroyed, at that very moment, by Hitler's war in Europe.

Mrs Miniver,
more than any film which had yet been made during the Second World War, brought the meaning of ‘a people's war' into the minds of Americans, millions of whom had been opposed to joining the war until forced to do so by the Japanese and the Germans in December 1941. Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, as Mr and Mrs Miniver, helped them to see what they were fighting for. No film had ever run for more than six weeks at Radio City Music Hall:
Mrs Miniver
ran for ten, breaking box-office records. (It had to be taken off to make way for
Bambi.
) Across the United States, across Canada, in Britain, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand and India, the story was the same. People queued round the block.

‘Propaganda Bureaus Are Struck Dumb With Envy' ran a headline in the Toronto
Globe.
Propagandists had been striving for years to make the war effort understood by the populations of the United States and Canada: and here, in a little family movie whose central plot was nothing more bellicose than a rose competition at a village flower show, that aim was achieved with little apparent effort. Winston Churchill (an uninhibited weeper during the sad bits of films) is said to have predicted that
Mrs Miniver
's contribution to defeating the Axis powers would be more powerful than a flotilla of battleships. President Roosevelt was so stirred by the film's closing sermon that he requested it to be dropped across Europe in leaflet form and broadcast to the world on Voice of America. Even the Nazi propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who loathed the film's hero and heroine, admitted that it was an exemplary piece of propaganda, which the German industry should emulate.

Mrs Miniver became synonymous in the public mind with all that was saintly and self-sacrificing in wartime womanhood. Chicago launched a ‘Name Chicago's Mrs Miniver' contest. The winner, smilingly photographed on the centre pages of the Chicago
Times,
was Mrs Leonard Youmans, of 5109 Kimbark, ‘who, in her patriotic accomplishments, typifies thousands of other stout-hearted local women in this war year of 1942! She has two sons, Donald and Clifford, in the Navy Air Force. Clifford was wounded on Atlantic duty and is convalescing in hospital. Mrs Youmans has a record of over 1,000 hours of service at the Chicago Servicemen's Center. She is a Travellers' Aid for troops in transit. She is chairman of the Home Hospitality committee of the Navy Mothers' Club of Chicago. And she does all her own housework besides!'

The original Mrs Miniver was a pre-war creation who first appeared on the Court Page of
The Times
on 6 October 1937. Once a fortnight for two years, a ‘Mrs Miniver' piece was published: ‘Mrs Miniver and the New Car', ‘Mrs Miniver and the New Engagement Book', ‘The Minivers on Hampstead Heath'. The articles were anonymous, signed ‘From a correspondent'. But there seemed no doubt that they must have been written by a contented, well-balanced, happily-married woman who longed to share her joy in life, and her peace of mind, with
Times
readers. The articles were all about the gentle pleasures of a modern upper-middle-class marriage. Their position at the top of the Court Page was reassuring: if His Majesty The King was holding a luncheon at Holyrood in the left-hand corner, and Mr and Mrs Miniver were attending the Highland Games in the right-hand corner, then surely civilization (in spite of the horrors going on in Spain and the threatening noises from Germany) must be safe.

When the articles were published in book form by Chatto & Windus in October 1939, the author's name was revealed: Jan Struther, the pseudonym of Joyce, née Anstruther, whose married name was Mrs Anthony Maxtone Graham, resident of Chelsea and mother of three. The book – an ideal Christmas present in its pink and grey slip-case – was loved by some readers and detested by others. The rightness, the relentless optimism and the exquisite sensitiveness of the heroine got on many British people's nerves. But when it was published in America in 1940, it became the Number One national bestseller. ‘Mrs Miniver will place a gentle hand on your elbow,' said the
New Yorker,
‘and bid you stop to observe something insignificant; and lo! it is not insignificant at all. That touch – the touch of Charles Lamb, even of Shakespeare in a minor mood – is one of the indefinable things that English men and English women are fighting and dying for at the moment.'

Jan Struther was my grandmother. But this is not a book about a dear old grandmama with whom I went to have scones for tea in the 1980s. I sometimes imagine the kind of grandmother she might have turned into, if she really had been the ‘Mrs Miniver' of her own creation. She would have been one of those paper-thin, white-haired Chelsea ladies who live in mansion flats off the King's Road, and who occasionally venture out in their tweeds and pearls to make the journey to Peter Jones on a number 11 or 22 bus. Her drawing room would have been a chintzy, scented haven of pot-pourri and lilies, with pink-and-white striped sofas and silver-framed photographs of her deceased husband in a kilt. She would have managed to keep on a loyal old retainer, who baked the scones and laid her tray for breakfast. We would have sat together by the fire (gas-flame, perhaps), and she would have talked about what the King's Road used to be like in the 1930s.

But Jan Struther never reached old age. She died at fifty-two, nine years before I was born. Even if she had survived till her eighties, she wouldn't have been that kind of grandmother at all. She would have lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in an untidy apartment strewn with open reference books and wood-shavings and long-playing records not put back into their sleeves. We would have sat by the air-conditioning unit drinking gin and tonic out of chipped glasses and talking about love and politics. Her venturings-out would have been to the drugstore for malted milk, or to the hardware store for carpentry tools.

During the height of
Mrs Miniver
's fame and success during the war, Jan toured America as an unofficial ambassadress for Britain, giving hundreds of lectures about Anglo-American relations to enchanted audiences. The public wanted to believe that she was the embodiment of her fictional creation, a sensible, calm, devoted wife and mother. She felt it was her wartime duty not to disappoint them. No one guessed – no one could possibly have guessed – that she was in fact living two parallel lives.

She foresaw the unreachableness of her dead self in the poem quoted at the beginning of this book. We can never know her. But she had a remarkable capacity for writing important things down. I hope in these chapters to throw some light on the thorn-sharp need, the loneliness, the love, lust, dreams, shudders and sighs which guided her path through her short life.

Part One

Chapter One

In my own private Revised version, the commandment would read: ‘Honour your father and your mother, your Nannie, your brother, your parents' cook and parlourmaid and housemaid and gardener and groom and chauffeur, and the man who comes to do odd jobs, and all the other people who take care of you and, above all, who teach you things.'

From J.S's unfinished autobiography

 

‘I
F
I
HAD
a face like that, I'd pawn it and lose the ticket.'

Joyce Anstruther, aged five in 1906, was having her gloves put on by her nannie inside the front door of 9 Little College Street, Westminster. She was screwing her face up: her two pet hates were whites of egg and woollen gloves. ‘Come on, Lamb,' said her nannie, whose name was Lucy Hudson, or ‘Lala'. ‘Quick's the word and sharp's the action. We're off to the Army and Navy Stores.'

‘But can we go for a picnic afterwards?'

‘Picnic? I'll give you picnic!'

Joyce was almost an only child. Her brother Douglas was twelve and away at boarding school. Her daytime companion was Lala. Nannie sayings would form the bedrock of her life's vocabulary.

BOOK: The Real Mrs Miniver
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