Try Anything Twice – Jan Struther, the real Mrs Miniver?

The front of this book proclaims it is by the author of “Mrs Miniver”, which will mean different things to different people. The original novel is very much along the lines of “Diary of a Provincial Lady” a brilliantly funny book if your reading tastes run to country life between the wars of the 20th century. “Mrs Miniver” is a far more earnest affair, with far fewer funny situations and characters. I mentioned it in a blog post in January 2011 (see under “Jan Struther” in my author column on the right>>) as it has been seen as a hugely significant novel in the USA during the early 1940s, influencing many towards involvement in the European war. Jan Struther herself undertook tours of various parts  of America to speak about her book and the British war effort. The famous film, Mrs Miniver, though loosely based on the book, captured a sense of brave little Britain, fighting on against the odds.

Her real name was Joyce Maxtone Graham, and it is certain that she lived a life far less settled than her  most famous character. Her granddaughter, Ysenda Maxtone Graham, has written a moving biography of her grandmother and it has been published by “Slightly Foxed”. The Real Mrs Miniver,  (no. 21, limited edition). In that she emerges as a very real person, with all the contradictions and confusions of a woman living in challenging times. She was a poet, some of whose poems appear as popular hymns to this day. She reviewed books and wrote articles, some brief and amusing, some snapshots of holidays and life which linger in the mind.

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It is these articles which form the basis of Try Anything Twice,  a collection of pieces that she wrote in the 1930s, but which have surprising links to today. The need to economise to meet all the bills suggests

“Whichever method is employed to stave off disaster…that intricate gymnastic exercise which consists of simultaneously pulling up one’s socks, drawing in one’s horns, and turning over a new leaf.”   

“Genius may write on the back of old envelopes, but mere talent requires the very best stationary money can buy”

“Giving a party is very like having a baby: its conception is more fun than its completion, and once you have begun it is almost impossible to stop.”       

It is a book of its time, yet, giving up newspapers on the basis that everyone hears important news anyway in order to save money and time seems oddly relevant. There are also some lovely pieces recording blissful holidays, and also some which discuss the mundane journeys which are regularly undertaken, yet are significant for the landmarks passed and memories evoked. This may be a book for the fan of women’s writing of the twentieth century, yet it has a haunting and sometimes very funny content for all readers.





War Rooms – and books

Silence from Northernreader for the last few days; have been down to London! A post Christmas break was called for, and the ultra organised Husband had booked train tickets and Travelodge in October. While not the height of luxury, it was definitely central. Buses and taxis got us around at varying levels of cost, and we discovered some interesting eateries/pubs. We enjoyed “Giraffe”, a chain of family friendly cafes which were very friendly.

Our main destination was “The Cabinet War Rooms”, a preserved series of rooms used by Churchill and his senior staff during World War Two. Husband had been there a few years ago, but a Churchill Museum has been added since then.  It is a fascinating place; full of the atmosphere of just what it was like to work (and nearly live) under London during the Blitz. Many recordings were made of the staff who worked there, even the bits and pieces of notes, abandoned sugar rations and phones were still on display. There were maps pinned up, phones all around , the beds made up ready for their on call occupants. The Churchill museum attached to the building is absorbing, with working interactive displays, recordings of speeches, photos, letters (including correspondence with Unity Mitford over the annexing of Austria). All very interesting stuff. Thankfully there is a very accessible cafe part of the way round.  It is a very good museum, for anyone with even a passing interest in twentieth century history.

Some book blogs I read have long mentioned the virtues of Virago Modern Classics. They are dominated by books written by women. Some of them are worthy, some of them (of the limited number that I have read) fascinating; covering the same sort of ground as Persephone books, with some overlap in authors.

One of their best known titles is Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther.

This probably would come under the title of a worthy book; not a great emphasis on the war (though there are chapters on getting the family’s allocation of gas masks and some letters on the blackout etc) It records family life of the time; the sort of family that employs staff and has two houses. Perhaps its significance is in its propaganda value as the basis for the film Mrs Miniver which is widely credited for altering public opinion in America regarding entering the Second World War. I have the dvd of the film which won awards so I may see a different side of this book.

I’m also half way through The Postmistress by Sarah Blake.

This is an excellent book, on a small town in America and the height of the London blitz. It is a sad, even harrowing book. It is, nevertheless excellent thus far. It is everywhere at the moment and very well worth picking up and trying. No lending it out until I’ve finished!