Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Mrs Miniver

I remember the first time I saw the film Mrs Miniver. It was Easter, the family were staying with Granny, and she had been talking about the village choir in one scene of the film, so we put it on.

I've loved the film ever since I first saw it - the understated nature of it, and the strength that all the characters have. The fact that it's a war film made when the outcome was not known or expected is one of the bravest things about it, and all through it the shining presence of Greer Garson carries one through even the darkest of scenes.

I had no idea until a few years ago that there was a book of the same name, and it was only a few months ago that I chanced to find it in a second hand shop.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther is a collection of small pieces that appeared in the Court page of The Times before the war. Other than the names of the characters, these pieces have nothing whatever to do with the film that Hollywood produced and which gave hope to millions of people trapped in a horrific war. The articles give snapshots of a life of wife and home-maker, a woman who loves her husband and children dearly and who sees the world for it's possibilities. She stores up anecdotes from her day, so that she can present her husband with a 'pocketful of pebbles' in the evening. The articles are small, but as a remark on life, and the general things one finds beautiful, they are perfectly formed.

Jan Struther, their creator, was seen by her legions of fans as a Mrs Miniver in the flesh. Happily married and with three children of her own, the articles were assumed to be autobiographical, however, the truth was rather more prosaic than that, and one that she strove to hide from the public.
Married to Antony Maxtone Graham, she was at first very much in love with her husband, but this soon dwindled into a comfortable, if boring, relationship. When, in 1939 she met Jewish refugee 'Dolf' Placzek and began a love affair with him that lasted the whole war, and beyond. During the war, whilst her husband was fighting (and became a prisoner of war), Jan moved to America with her two younger children and committed herself to extensive lecture tours.
In 1947, after trying one last time to do 'the right thing' and save her marriage, she and Tony were divorced and Jan married Dolf shortly after. (Ironically, at the same time, the 'other' Mrs Miniver - Greer Garson - was also divorcing her husband, the 11 year junior Richard Ney, who had played her son in the film.)

Jan Struther's life was never completely happy. Reading The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (Jan's granddaughter), it becomes clear that Jan's life was full of highs and lows. Growing up knowing her parents didn't love each other seems to have had a profound effect on the way she dealt with her own problems later on in life. To be merely happy was not enough, and she had to throw herself into each occupation, which inevitably led to exhaustion and dissatisfaction. She was never able to recapture the essence of what she had written in the Mrs Miniver articles.

She died at the age of 52, but left a lasting legacy in the form of a woman to whom common sense added to the spice of life. I don't particularly care if Jan's Mrs Miniver and the Hollywood version are not cast from the exact same mould: they both, in their different ways, have a lot to say about the world, and manage to lift the spirits.

I love both incarnations!


Cornflower said...

I loved both film and book, and I have the biography sitting here on the pile waiting for me to get to it (but I hope it doesn't break the spell!)

oxford-reader said...

I don't think the biography will break the spell, although I think it gives an altogether different picture of the author, whom one might percieve to be overly good from her writings.