Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Try Anything Twice by Jan Struther

I found this collection of Jan Struther's journalism considerably more engaging than her better-known Mrs Miniver. Written for a variety of inter-war journals, designed to amuse, these pieces must have piqued rueful self-awareness among Struther's readers as she delicately skewers middle-class pretension. Of course, she is not immune to this vice herself, and to the 21st-century eye some of her topics - second homes, boarding schools - smack of privilege. The essay "Pump Lane" is probably typical: the narrator enumerates the comical vices of her neighbours in the slum behind her elegant house, only to regret their departure to modern Council houses and the occupation of their cottages by Bohemians. The status quo may be annoying, and inconvenient, but its disruption provokes a conservative nostalgia. However, Struther the essayist is less smug than Mrs Miniver, and more open-minded; this comes across particularly in her travel pieces. My favourite piece in the book, "The Philosopher in the Pine Trees", is not only beautifully written, but evokes the beauty of a place, the generosity of strangers to travellers, and characterful, wise individuals with great irony; by the time Struther wrote about her journey and her inadvertant stay with her philosopher host, the pine wood and the house had disappeared into the Spanish Civil War. Possibly the book is most interesting as a document of what material would be amusing to the readers of the Spectator or the New Statesman at the time.

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