Having wanted to read Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver for such a long time, I was thrilled when I found a copy of it in the wonderful Oxfam Bookshop in St Albans just before Christmas. First published in book form in 1939, Mrs Miniver is a collection of newspaper columns, originally published in The Times. The columns, and then the book and Academy Award-winning film which followed, was ‘an enormous success on both sides of the Atlantic’.
In Mrs Miniver, Struther gives a ‘startlingly unsentimental view of the loss of England’s innocence in the early days of the war’. Struther was asked to ‘create a character whose doings would enliven… an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life’. Thus, Mrs Caroline Miniver, married to a wealthy architect named Clem, and the mother of three children – Judy, Vin, and the ‘unfathomable’ Toby – who lives in a large house at a smart London address, was born.
The Virago edition which I read included an introduction by Valerie Grove. She writes that Struther ‘was not a novelist; she was happier making keen and accurate observations from everyday life – on a character she had met in the park, on the mysterious fish served for lunch in trains, on how to charm a small child into going to a concert.’ She goes on to write about Struther’s protagonist, commenting ‘nobody would fail to be charmed by Mrs Miniver, who embraces domesticity, parenthood and social life alike with such positive enthusiasm. Mundane things fill her with delight…’.
In Mrs Miniver, Struther is perceptive from the first. She writes: ‘… Mrs. Miniver suddenly understood why she was enjoying the forties so much better than she had enjoyed the thirties; it was the difference between August and October, between the heaviness of late summer and the sparkle of early autumn, between the ending of an old phase and the beginning of a fresh one.’ Struther is highly understanding of her protagonist, and gives her all sorts of little quirks and foibles. With regard to the days of the week, for instance, Mrs Miniver reflects: ‘Monday was definitely yellow, Thursday a dull indigo, Friday violet. About the others she didn’t feel so strongly.’
In her columns, Struther does not tell the story of something from beginning to end. Rather, she focuses upon snapshots and anecdotes; for instance, a weekend spent at the country house of rather more well-to-do friends, or a busy Christmas shopping trip in central London. She writes about the grisly discussions about hunting around the dinner table during the first scenario, and the noise which Mrs Miniver’s windscreen wipers make when she is driving back from Oxford Street in the second.
The structure of Mrs Miniver is relatively linear, but in quite a loose manner; one thing does not necessarily lead to another. Although not the main focus of the book at all, snippets of wartime life do creep in. Speeches from both the Far Right and Far Left are overheard one Sunday afternoon on Hampstead Heath; we learn about the family’s experience of picking up their gas masks; and Mrs Miniver signs herself up as an ambulance driver, to name but three examples.
Mrs Miniver is far from ordinary. Her family’s wealth means that as well as a main residence on a London square, they also have a large country residence named Starlings. The war, although in its early stages during these columns, does not affect Mrs Miniver as it would have some. Regardless, Mrs Miniver is amusing and to the point, often in a rather tongue-in-cheek manner.
Mrs Miniver feels like a fully-formed character very early on in the book; we get a real feel for who she is, what she thinks, and what she cares about. Mrs Miniver has been so well written and considered. In terms of plot, Mrs Miniver feels rather of its time, but the writing has quite a modern quality to it. It is a wonderful entry on the Virago Modern Classics list, and one which I highly recommend.