The Real Mrs Miniver: A Biography

The Real Mrs Miniver: A Biography

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by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
     
 

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In 1937 the Court Page of the London Times began publishing a series of articles featuring a charming, upper-middle class English housewife named Mrs Miniver. The articles depicted an idyllically happy family with three children, a house in London, and a country cottage called Starlings.

Two years later, Mrs Miniver was published in book form. While some

Overview

In 1937 the Court Page of the London Times began publishing a series of articles featuring a charming, upper-middle class English housewife named Mrs Miniver. The articles depicted an idyllically happy family with three children, a house in London, and a country cottage called Starlings.

Two years later, Mrs Miniver was published in book form. While some critics derided the book as sentimental, many readers embraced it as a symbol of an increasingly endangered English way of life, and it went on to become the #1 bestseller in America. The Hollywood film, released in 1942 with Greer Garson in the title role, won five Oscars, including Best Picture, and did so much to promote the American war effort in Europe that even Josef Goebbels recognized it as an exemplary piece of propaganda.

But who was the real Mrs Miniver? The articles were produced by Joyce Maxtone Graham, who wrote under the name Jan Struther and seemed to resemble her heroine: She was upper-middle class, and lived in a gracious, comfortable home with her husband and three children. After the war broke out, she served as an unofficial ambassador from Great Britain to the U.S.

In truth, however, Jan Struther was not at all like the conventional Mrs Miniver. It wasn't merely that she didn't like tea--to the amazement of everyone in America--but her real life was neither simple nor saintly. Her marriage was ending, and she was secretly in love with a Jewish refugee from Nazi Austria.

Written by Jan Struther's granddaughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham, The Real Mrs Miniver is a complex and fascinating biography. While the Hollywood version remains a powerful and inspirational movie, this book offers brilliant insights into the true impact of war upon real people's lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Nothing better sums up Joyce Maxtone Graham than the image of her sitting naked on Abraham Lincoln's bed in the White House in 1943, writing letters, first to her lover, a Jewish refugee in New York, and then to her husband, a British soldier in a POW camp in Italy. Ysenda Graham-Joyce's granddaughter-pulls together countless small moments, crafting a rich and absorbing portrait of the woman who (under the pen name Jan Struther) created the beloved fictional British housewife, Mrs. Miniver. On the surface the two women appeared so similar-with three children, an ideal husband, a delightful life in London, and weekends and summers in the country-that even Joyce's friends and relatives confused them. But far from being a happy housewife, Joyce felt trapped in her marriage and so constrained by the duties of motherhood that she hired "relief nannies" to work on the nanny's day off. Late in life her mood swings became so severe she spent time in a psychiatric hospital. As depicted by Graham, Joyce was a bundle of contradictions: a nonbeliever who wrote beloved Christian hymns, a talented writer who squandered opportunities to write screenplays, a television show and her autobiography, and a woman whose moral compass, though strongly tuned to social wrongs, sometimes failed to guide her in her own life. Graham, born nine years after her grandmother's death at age 52 (in 1952), has done a tremendous job of blending excerpts from Joyce's poetry and prose with scenes from a life that was endlessly fascinating, if not always happy. B&w photos. (Nov.) Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
A granddaughter brings alive the woman who created Mrs. Miniver, the perfect wife and mother who affirmed British values on the eve of WWII.

Making adroit use of quotes from the author’s letters, autobiography, and other writings, Graham creates a sensitive and full-rounded portrait of a woman whose temperament and interests were often at odds with her milieu. Born in 1901 to parents who later divorced, Joyce Anstruther went to school with the future Queen Mother and was raised like other proper little girls. But her mother, who also wrote, encouraged Joyce in early authorial efforts, published under the pseudonym Jan Struther. In 1923, she married Tony Maxtone Graham, the son of a Scottish laird. They were initially happy and had three children but drifted apart as Tony took up golf while Joyce contributed poems and articles to Punch and other publications. In 1936, she found a new outlet, writing twice a month in the London Times about a fictional middle-aged upper-class wife and mother. Mrs. Miniver, unlike her creator, was happily married, but the columns avoided complacency thanks to sharp insights and vivid metaphors (a rickety old car was "at best a reluctant and treacherous ally, and of late . . . more or less openly, our enemy"), and it struck a chord with English readers. Working with refugees after war broke out, Joyce fell in love with an intellectual young Austrian Jew, Dolf Placzek, and followed him to New York when he got a visa in 1940, ostensibly at the behest of her American publisher. Graham then relates how the collected volume of Mrs. Miniver columns became a bestseller and later a movie, rallying support for war-torn Britain. Jan (as she had called herself eversince she arrived in America) enjoyed the fame, but after her divorce and marriage to Dolf, she became severely depressed and unable to write. She died in 1953.

An accomplished biography of a minor writer made famous by her times.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781466870970
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
05/13/2014
Sold by:
Macmillan
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
320
Sales rank:
660,862
File size:
5 MB

Read an Excerpt

THE REAL MRS MINIVER


By YSENDA MAXTONE GRAHAM

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Ysenda Maxtone Graham
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0312308264


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 ail, who teach you things.'

From J.S's unfinished autobiography

`If 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.

Joyce spotted an advertisement in Victoria Street.

So ... Ap,' she said.

`Soap, Lamb.'

That was the way she learned to read. Lala never deliberately set out to teach heranything. But nor did she ever stop her from finding anything out.

They bought a length of hat ribbon at the Army and Navy Stores.

`Whom shall I put it down to, Madam?'

`Number one-oh-nine-four-one,' Lala said. `The Horrible Mrs Anstruther.'

And on they went for their walk, over the bridge in St James's Park, past the cowshed opposite the Horse Guards where you could buy a glass of milk for a penny, Joyce wondering all the while, but not asking, why her mother was described as `horrible' in the Army and Navy Stores. It was years before she realized that the word was `Honourable'.

They walked home the long way, through Strutton Ground where Lala picked up a bag of winkles for her tea. Street life held a fascination for Joyce which was to remain with her all her life. She loved seeing the naphtha flares, the shouting men, the scrap metal at A. Smellie, Ironmonger, the occasional drunk being arrested and taken to Rochester Row Police Station. If she saw a traffic accident - a horse which had slipped and got tangled up in the shafts, or a runaway horse with its van swaying behind - it made her afternoon. `Let me get this straight,' she wrote later. `I did not want disasters to happen, and I would have prevented them if I could, but if they were happening anyway I wanted to be there to see.'

In The Sanctuary, they passed the man who sold hot potatoes off a barrow.

`Well I never! Did you ever see a monkey dressed in leather,' said Lala.

`Oh, please may I have one?' said Joyce.

`I don't see why not,' said Lala. The Honourable Mrs Anstruther had no idea that her daughter's favourite treat was to eat a buttery barrow potato in bed, washed down with two mouthfuls of Lala's nightly pint of stout.

After this treat came the most anxious time of day for Joyce, when Lala went downstairs to have her supper with the servants in the kitchen, leaving Joyce tucked up in bed. Would Lala never come back upstairs? Had she `run away for a soldier' as she often said she might? No: there, at last, was the sound of her footsteps. Joyce now felt safe to drop off to sleep.

`A world without Lala was as monstrously inconceivable as a world without my parents or brother,' Joyce wrote later. `I used to read books, sometimes, about children whose mothers or fathers died, and I had bad dreams afterwards and woke up shivering and sweating. But no one ever bothered to write a book about a child whose nannie died or went away for no apparent reason, which was why I was so completely defenceless when it eventually happened to me.'

Joyce's mother, Eva, eldest daughter of the fourth Baron Sudeley, was not horrible, but she was odd. When she died in 1935, she left Joyce all her books. They included sixty-six cookery books and thirty-seven books on black magic. Joyce also found, in a drawer of the desk, a photograph of her mother's lifelong enemy Lady George Campbell, with pins stuck into the body. This confirmed Joyce's belief that her mother was a witch.

The sixty-six cookery books were a mystery, because the only cooking Eva ever did was on a silver chafing-dish brought to the table by a servant with all the ingredients prepared. The single piece of culinary advice she gave to Joyce on her marriage was not that of an active cook: `Always order a pint of cream a day. It can be used in everything.'

In her speech, Eva combined the two Edwardian fads of `g'-dropping (she liked pokin' about and pickin' up a bargain at a country auction and sellin' it at a profit to a London dealer) and `r'-rolling (saying `garage', `chauffeur' and `corridor' as if she were French).

She never once dressed or undressed herself without help from her lady's maid, or did her own hair. She insisted, throughout her life, that her stockings and shoes be put on before her drawers, which were lace-edged. At least three times a week the heel of a shoe tore the knicker lace, and it had to be mended by her maid.

The servants stayed, in spite of Eva's oddness: the young Joyce liked to spend time below stairs, listening to them talking, and learning to twist Bromo paper into a fan-shape with her fist. The impression she got from the servants was that with Mrs A. There Was Never a Dull Moment, while with Mr A. You Always Knew Where You Were. A bell rang.

`That's Her.'

`Oh, well. No peace for the wicked.' `And precious little for the good.' And upstairs the parlourmaid went.

`There's been some friction up there today,' Joyce heard the parlourmaid say on her return. The servants had only an inkling of what Joyce knew and felt deeply: that Mr and Mrs A. were, in fact, extremely unhappily married. Joyce had plenty of love as a child, but something essential was missing. She wrote about it later, in the beginning of an autobiography which never progressed beyond the age of fourteen.

`To make the complete emotional circuit which is the most important thing about family life,' she wrote, `a child's love should flow up to one of its parents, across to the other, and down to the child again, strengthened and enriched by their mental understanding. In my family this did not happen. My father adored my mother, but he did not understand her. She understood him pretty well but could not stand hair nor hide of him. Therefore there was a break in the circuit. The electrical force flashed back and forth between me and my mother, and flowed more steadily between me and my father: there were streaks of brilliant lightning, but much driving power was lost, and it was all a considerable strain. If I expressed my affection for him in front of her, I was dimly aware that it made her jealous; if I curled up with her on a sofa in front of him, I was conscious of a vague feeling of sadness emanating from the armchair on the other side of the fireplace. This particular conversation-piece must have occurred early in my life, because since the age of four or five I do not remember them ever sitting together in the same room, unless there was a luncheon or dinner party.'

The family's country house from 1904 till 1911 was Whitchurch House in Buckinghamshire, which had a long, French-pronounced corridor along the ground floor. Mrs A's den was at one end, with its sign on the door: `No admittance EVEN on business'. She did her writing there: short stories with a Boer War backdrop for Outlook and the Saturday Westminster Gazette, later published in book form.

Mr A's den was at the other end, and if you happened to look in he would probably be sharpening his pencil or a chisel. If there was nothing to sharpen, he would be mending something, and if there was nothing to mend he would be cleaning something, with his shirt-sleeves rolled up to the same level above each elbow. He carried on cleaning his golf clubs with emery paper regularly, long after he had given up the game.

His name was Henry Torrens Anstruther, and his love for his only daughter, and hers for him, was of the unspoken kind which must find outlets for expression in mutual unembarrassing delights such as heraldry, etymology and punctuation.

Things Harry taught me:

Knots and splices Carpentry Grammar Love of reference books, maps, luggage, stationery Handwriting Love of Scotland Not to dog-ear books

A Scot, he was Chief Liberal Whip and Member of Parliament for St Andrews, Fife until 1903 when he resigned on taking up the post of government representative on the Administrative Council of the Suez Canal Company. He was also a Justice of the Peace, an Alderman of the London County Council and a director of the North British Railway Company. But he could have earned his living, Joyce later wrote, and would have led a far happier life, as a jobbing carpenter.

When Eva married him, he was a promising Member of Parliament who seemed destined for the Cabinet. She was the pretty, witty Eva Hanbury-Tracy, aged twenty, brought up amid great wealth in London and at two large and grand country houses, Toddington in Gloucestershire and Gregynog in Wales. She could have made any match she chose.

`My mother had visions of herself,' Joyce wrote, `as a hostess of some famous London house, standing at the head of a long staircase, welcoming Cabinet Ministers and their wives to epoch-making parties and influencing the destiny of the nation by a diplomatic nod or the quick tap of a fan on a crucial forearm. When this plan went agley, she was terribly disappointed, and she just couldn't take it.'

In 1893, a year before Eva and Harry's first child Douglas was born, Lloyd's Bank filed a bankruptcy petition against Eva's father, and Lord Sudeley was virtually ruined. Though asset-rich, he suffered from what would now be called a cash-flow problem. `To put it briefly,' Joyce wrote, glossing over the true complications of the affair, `my grandfather Sudeley, who was incurably optimistic, embarked on a tremendous scheme of fruit-growing but failed to grasp the elementary botanical truth that the trees he had planted would take seven years to mature.'

Queen Victoria wept on hearing of the bankruptcy. Lord Sudeley's great-grandson, the present seventh Baron, has spent most of his life demonstrating, inside and outside Parliament, the unfairness of the treatment of the fourth Baron, and how he was cheated of his estate.

Eva's parents moved to Ormeley Lodge in Ham, which many would now consider one of the most covetable houses in Greater London: Queen Anne red brick with wings, high white gates, and topiary garden at the back. Lady Sudeley considered it `a villa'. But she carried on living quite grandly. Joyce remembered her grandmother Sudeley at Ormeley Lodge:

`If the unthinkable occurred, and Lizzie Haycock [the head housemaid] happened to meet my grandmother in a passage, with no nearby doorway in which to take cover, she would flatten herself against the wall, concealing her dustpan and brush behind her back as though they were a jemmy and a blow-lamp. My grandmother would nod and smile and Lizzie would murmur something inaudibly apologetic, ending; in "... m'lady", and stand with lowered eyes until Her Ladyship had passed by. They all did it. It was the way things were.'

Eva found her own finances considerably reduced. She was still comfortably well-off, but no longer a notable heiress. After 1903 her husband wasn't even an MP or Government minister any more. `My father was a methodical hard-working man,' Joyce wrote, `with a great eye for detail; he could draft a memorandum with meticulous care and he never composed an ambiguous sentence, but he was sometimes tactless - not out of any lack of consideration for other people's feelings but rather because he hadn't the sense of finesse which makes some people weigh all the subtleties of a situation before they open their lips. Moreover, he hated intrigue, which to my mother was like oxygen.'

Joyce had only one memory of her parents being nice to each other. Her father came home with a bad toothache one evening, and her mother got a bottle of Bunter's Nervine from the medicine cupboard and took it up to him. Joyce was tremendously pleased. `Perhaps things are going to be better from now on,' she thought. But they were not.

One day she went to tea with her friend Kathleen Gascoigne, and witnessed another episode she never forgot. Kathleen's mother was in the schoolroom with us; her father came in, had a mock quarrel with her (how different in undertones and overtones from a real one, and how gentle the ring of tin swords after the clang of genuine steel!) and ended up by picking her up in his arms and carrying her out of the room, talking and laughing. I was almost speechless with wonder, and made a mental note: other people's parents actually talk to each other, and make each other laugh.'

In the Housekeeper's Room at Ormeley Lodge, a book called `Confessions: an Album to Record Thoughts, Feelings, &c' was filled in one afternoon when Joyce was there. Favourite Qualities in a Man: `A jolly good-tempered old drunkard,' wrote Lizzie Haycock, the head housemaid. Pet Aversion: `Sunday in on a fine day,' wrote Alice Rivers, another housemaid. Which Characters in History do you Most Dislike? `Gentry,' wrote a between-maid called Annie McLeod. Here are Joyce's entries, at the age of seven:

Your favourite qualities in a man: conjuror Your favourite occupation: reading Idea of happiness: rolling down a muddy bank with your best dress on Idea of misery: when Douglas is away Pet aversion: meat and eating my dinner If not yourself, who would you be? A boy Favourite motto: Make hay while the sun shines and no rose without a thorn

That last motto was to prove apposite. The rose and the thorn were inextricably joined in her life.

Joyce played on her own for hours, under and in trees. She had prehensile toes, and she could whistle with two fingers. She invented an imaginary country of which she was king, and drew maps and plans of its coastlines and castles. Every now and then she asked Lala to play the extra pirate, or the Sheriff of Nottingham, or to be a weight on the other end of a see-saw. If Lala didn't feel like it she said `Oh, no, I've got a bone in my leg.'

One day, when Joyce was seven, she was sitting on the floor in the drawing-room when Lala was brought in to say goodbye. Joyce was absorbed in a jigsaw puzzle and gave her an absentminded hug. `Durnie', a former parlour-maid, was put in charge of her for a few weeks, and the weeks extended into months, and it dawned on her very gradually that Lala had retired, and was not coming back. `I was spared a deep wound,' Joyce wrote, `but I acquired an infection of uncertainty which took me many years to get over. My mother was spared a heart-rending scene, but she never afterwards had my wholehearted trust.'

Sleeplessness, which afflicted Joyce throughout her life, began now. She also started to develop many of the symptoms of the physically undernourished. `I was what was known as delicate and nervy, and I had mild St Vitus's Dance. The grown-ups called it, quite kindly, Joyce's "tricks", and it consisted of things like jerking my head, twitching my eyes and making clicking noises in my throat. I also had the habit of developing unexplained blotches and spots all over my body.' Joyce realized, later in life, that all these were nervous complaints, and had the same cause: allergy to parental discord. The nerve tonics, milk, cream, suet puddings, cod-liver oil and malt prescribed by the doctors alleviated but did not cure the problem.

Eva and Harry did not separate until years later, in 1915. A small entry appears in Harry's visitors' book: `8th October. Eva walked out of my house.' Suitable marriages like theirs, Joyce wrote, tended to be bolstered by circumstances. `When they rot internally the clinging ivy of social routine and feudal responsibility (which often had a hand in strangling them) keeps them standing, though the sap flows no more and the leaves wither. There is always the flower show coming on or the village bazaar which has to be opened; or a General Election is nearly due and One Has to Consider the Party.'

(Continues...)



Excerpted from THE REAL MRS MINIVER by YSENDA MAXTONE GRAHAM Copyright © 2001 by Ysenda Maxtone Graham
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the granddaughter of Jan Struther, and had access to many personal recollections and family papers in her research for The Real Mrs Miniver. She lives in London.

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The Real Mrs Miniver 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Reading Mrs Miniver led me to this terrific biography of its author -- and to rent the movie