Thursday, 7 May 2009

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I've meant to read this for a while, mainly as a companion piece to The Provincial Lady in Wartime, but also because Alison Light devotes a chapter to the work in Forever England which whetted my appetite. Like the Provincial Lady books, originally serialised in Time and Tide, Mrs Miniver first appeared as a regular newspaper column , but in the rather more conservative Times. Jan Struther already had a reputation as a writer of comic journalism and poetry, and was commissioned to create short pieces describing the life of an ordinary mother and housewife like herself. Jan Struther is describe as "unconventional" in Valerie Grove's introduction to the Virago edition and Mrs Miniver is not really all that ordinary; as well as living in bohemian 1930s Chelsea and enjoying hop-picking as a recreation, she has an expansive, worldly wisdom about social encounters, child-rearing and household management, and a vitality that drives her to wring the last drops of benefit out of any encounter or experience that happens her way. Unfortunately Mrs Miniver's harmonious domestic life and admirable sagacity make her just a little annoying and really quite smug. Reading with the Provincial Lady in mind, her children are too perfect and rather predictable - never likely to be found on the back stairs eating cheese - her management of servants too exemplary, and her social ease lacking in self-doubt. However, as a period piece, as a possible exemplar for middle-class British women in the tense times around the beginning of the second World War, Mrs Miniver retains a fascination. Perhaps the perfection and unity of her family and her life were what was required to inspire and fortify her readers. Alison Light suggests that Mrs Miniver was a utopian vision for her readers; her ability to manage life lightly leaves her acres of time for thinking in solitude, for reading, for recalling her favourite poetry. I confess to feeling quite envious of the episode in which she sits on a bench for an hour, enjoying the activities in the park around her, apparently unharried by domestic or professional duties.

I can't be the first reader to notice that the opening of Mrs Miniver is a mirror image of that of Mrs Dalloway. Mrs Dalloway leaves her home to buy flowers and takes a plunge into the vitality of "life, London" on a June day. Mrs Miniver brings her autumn chrysanthemums into her house, closing the door on London and exulting not in the diversity of the city but the sensual and tactual (a favourite Struther word) beauties of her home and its familiar security. Alison Light points to the book's celebration of domestic privacy as a key attraction for its readers; Mrs Dalloway, both character and novel, are more concerned with connections with others. It would be too simplistic to read Mrs Miniver as a simple opposite of Mrs Dalloway, however, since Mrs M is also interested in the connections, the understandings she can make with other people, including those outside her class; her search for an emergency charwoman, leading her to Mrs Burchett, a woman with a zest for life to match her own, shows an expansive interest in others that dilutes the impact of her solitary tendencies. And Mrs Dalloway shares Mrs Miniver's interest in domestic elegance, in the social oil which makes a party go well.

I've never seen the film of Mrs Miniver, but will try to track it down. I was wondering if Mrs Miniver's personal charm operates better when she is made flesh by Greer Garson; but a quick look on Google Books suggest that the film had a very mixed reception among British cinema-goers, some of whom thoughtfully recorded their views for Mass-Observation. Alison Light relates some of the abuse heaped on the character by readers of The Times, including a wish that a bomb would drop on Mrs M and her husband run off with another woman. This reminds me greatly of some of the hatred that attaches to characters from The Archers, which in itself shows that the characters have achieved a life beyond their medium. Part of Struther's achievement is to create a recognisable, individual character who nevertheless is able to stand for important, symbolic aspects of the national character and its aspirations; despite her smugness, Mrs Miniver retains this power, and that makes her, and the work that produced her, sustain our interest.

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