Friday, July 01, 2005

Mrs Miniver

I picked up a book in a charity shop recently. I love charity shops. I've bought some lovely things, and I willingly admit to buying some of my clothes there. I recently bought a stunning cerise and orange chiffon scarf/shawl, and two people have complimented me on it. It cost £1. At the moment I am wearing some grey, side-zipped combat sort of trousers which I bought for about £3. Well, that's not all I'm wearing, honestly.

It might be relevant that I frequent shops in Richmond, Twickenham, and Teddington. Perhaps the sort of garments and other items discarded in these areas are a little more upmarket.

Anyway, I buy far more books in charity shops than I do in proper bookshops. And today I bought a Virago publication, Mrs Miniver.

You probably remember the film with Greer Garson, one of those "keep your chin up" wartime epics. In fact, Mrs Miniver started off as a column in The Times. It was written by Jan Struther, who had done a bit of journalism, and who was the first of what I would term the domestic columnists, people like Phil Hogan; Zoe Heller; and Slack Dad. She drew heavily on life with her children, who lived a boarding school/London/Sussex holiday cottage life. The Mrs Miniver of the film was just a little more typical of the average Englishwoman. Unlike the film, the collected Miniver pieces in this book are mostly pre-war, and rarely deal directly with the issues of war.

Some of the articles are still very relevant to us. The descriptions of the children at various stages of life, or the way in which you catch your partner's eye during a dull event.

However, some of the content, such as going to shooting parties, and complaining about servants, can seem snobbish and rather divorced from reality, although the author was, apparently, rather left wing for a member of her class.

Jan Struther was really Joyce Anstruther. She also wrote the hymns Lord of all Faithfulness and When a Knight won his Spurs. I sang both of these as a small child, and until now I've never associated then with the black and white film of Mrs Miniver that used to be shown on Sunday afternoons.

I only mean the occasional Sunday afternoon, obviously; I'm not suggesting that the small corner of Cornwall where I grew up insisted on us getting a weekly televisual dose of Mrs Miniver. Although when I was a child I remember that the local councils decreed that no Cornish cinema was allowed to show The Life of Brian. I kid you not.

Actually, that seemed so far-fetched that I thought I should check it out, just in case I was mistaken, but I found this Guardian article which proves that it was banned in Cornwall, so there.

Anyway, Joyce's life wasn't quite like Mrs Miniver's. None of her immediate family were lost in the war. She lived briefly in New York. Her husband was a prisoner of war for 5 years, and when he was released they had grown apart, so she divorced and moved back to America where she married her second husband, who she had first become acquainted with in London in 1938, a Viennese refugee who had arrived in America with only 10 shillings, and who rose to become head of The Avery Archtectural University at Columbia University. She died of cancer in 1953, aged only 52.

This is a dated book, and you can't help but reflect that the life which Joyce, and Mrs Miniver, lived, was a world away from that lived by most people; we are talking of shooting parties; boarding schools; and invitations to sherry parties, when many of her contemporaries would actually have benefited from the price controls of wartime rationing.

We can identify a little more with modern columnists; they write of the inconvenience of traffic calming measures; air travel; behaviour in bars. We might be travelling in a seven year old Nissan Micra rather than a Mercedes; or standing in a queue to get to Benidorm rather than Mustique; or laughing at customers in The Dog and Duck rather than a West London gastro-pub, but equality has moved on a little.

However, this is still an interesting book.