I must confess to not having heard of Mrs Miniver – real or otherwise – before reading this biography by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I suspect you are rather better informed than I am, but in case you’re similarly ignorant, Mrs Miniver was a fictional character made famous by a very successful wartime film. She first appeared in a column in the Court Page of The Times in the late 1930s, and these articles were collected and published as a book, on which the film was based. Mrs Miniver was a terribly English upper-middle class lady, happily married with three darling children. Her bravery in the face of adversary tugged at the heartstrings of the Americans to such an extent that apparently Winston Churchill said she did more than a flotilla of battleships for the Allied Cause, encouraging America to abandon her Isolationist policy.
For Easter 1938 Mrs Miniver and Clem [her husband] went off to Cornwall. The following week a friend rang Joyce and said, ‘Oh, you’re back, are you? Cornwall must have been heavenly. I wish I’d been there.’ ‘So do I,’ said Joyce.
Joyce grew quite fed up with it. She said:
I felt rather like a ventriloquist whose doll has suddenly struck up an independent conversation with the audience.
It is easy to see how such a conflation of identity could occur – Joyce, like Mrs Miniver, was married with three children, lived in Chelsea, had a weekend cottage in Kent and holidayed at the family pile in Scotland. But, as Joyce’s granddaughter Ysenda Maxtone Graham shows in her compelling, minutely observed biography, the real Mrs Miniver was far more complex, intriguing and flawed than her literary creation.
What made Joyce’s Mrs Miniver column such a success was her talent for observing the universal in the minutiae of everyday life. For instance, here she is on a father and child walking together:
Toby trotted off to the pond with Clem, his feet beating crotchets against his father’s minims.
Or on rear-view mirrors:
She wondered why it had never occurred to her before that you cannot successfully navigate the future unless you keep always framed beside it a small, clear image of the past.
You can see why, with the horrific feeling of impending doom in Europe, the British public might want to cling to someone with such a domestic, nice life, and who finds such pleasure in its mundanities. You can also see why some critics, like E.M. Forster, were driven a bit mad by this woman, who was, in his words, ‘so amusing, clever, observant, broadminded, shrewd, demure, Bohemian, happily-married, triply-childrened, public-spirited and at all times such a lady.’
Mrs Miniver was not, however, Joyce Maxtone Graham. Joyce, for one thing, was no longer happily married. Indeed, as Ysenda puts it, Joyce ‘decided to write about a woman who was as happy as she had once been.’
This implies that Joyce was aware of her current unhappiness and chose to seek refuge in her past, rather than looking towards a brighter future. I suppose it’s a form of nostalgia, of basking in rose-tinted memories.
But, in a fascinating twist, as Joyce wrote about these halcyon days, her view of them altered. She realised that ‘she didn’t want to be that type of person ever again’. As Ysenda writes:
It was almost as if the creation of ‘Mrs Miniver’ was a way of writing the exquisiteness out of herself … Joyce, privately, was beginning to see it as a cage to which she was ready to say good riddance.
So writing is at first a means for Joyce to recapture the past, then it becomes a means of surgery – of cauterising this side of herself, separating her present self from her past self and enabling her to move on to the future. Evidently, in her capable hands, the pen is powerful tool.
It was largely thanks to Mrs Miniver that Joyce embarked on the next stage of her life, living quite independently in America. Her American publishers wanted Joyce to come over for publicity for the publication of Mrs Miniver, the book. The government, suggests Ysenda, thought this might be rather good propaganda for the British cause. Added to which, Joyce’s sister-in-law lived in New York and urged Joyce’s husband to send over the children, with or without Joyce, to take refuge from the bombing. Moreover, Joyce’s lover – Dolf, an Austrian Jewish refugee – had gone to New York, leaving them both heartbroken. This was her chance to be reunited with him, to enjoy some success as a writer, and for freedom and independence, rather than enduring her stale marriage and the endless round of ‘country house visits and golfing weekends’ which she had grown to despise.
While Churchill saw how vital Joyce’s Mrs Miniver tour of the States was for the war effort, others, including Joyce herself, were less sure of her clean conscience. Her friend Sheridan Russell wrote to her:
I am disappointed in you, that you should be running to your lover at this terrible moment for your country.
On the way to Liverpool, she bumped into Vera Brittain and asked, relieved, ‘Are you going to America with your children?’
‘No,’ Vera Brittain answered. ‘I’m only seeing them off.’
Joyce’s heart sank, again, with feelings of pity and guilt.
Once in America she dropped the name ‘Joyce’ altogether and became known by her penname Jan. She continued her affair with Dolf and went on a series of Mrs Miniver lecture tours which were wildly successful, drawing thousands of attendees. She appeared on the radio. She started to correspond with Eleanor Roosevelt. The film came out and was a roaring success. Life was good, thanks to the success of Mrs Miniver. And yet at this stage of her life, Jan could not be less like her creation. She was a freewheeling tomboy, travelling on her own, sleeping with her lover, not at all the upper-middle-class English housewife.
Eventually, exhausted from the long high of success, depression struck, and Jan suffered terribly. It became clear that the war was coming to an end, and she knew she’d have to decide what to do: would she stay in America with her lover, or would she return to England to be with her husband, who had spent the last years suffering as a prisoner-of-war? This horrible impending decision was one cause of what she called ‘the Jungles’. There was also her worry of losing her skill as a writer, stepping down from fame, and missing her eldest son who had remained in England. The Jungles come back to haunt Jan throughout these pages of the book, an awful time which reaches its peak when she is sent to a ‘psychiatric sanatorium’.
It is these pages about depression that struck me as particularly powerful – the unrelenting dark side to what begins as such a light, enjoyable book. The early pages of The Real Mrs Miniver are filled with warmth and ring with laughter, as newly-wed Joyce invents jokes and limericks with her husband, and delights in the eccentricities of her family:
After nursery breakfast the children were allowed into the grown-ups’ dining-room to watch their grandpapa’s daily breakfast ceremony. First he ate his porridge standing up with his back to the wall – a tradition dating from the days when lairds used to stab one another in the back. Then he sliced the top off his soft-boiled egg and drank its liquid contents in one gulp, making a loud noise. Last, he threw his apple up into the air and caught it on the blade of his sgian-dubh.
At the end of the book this skill for picking out the revealing detail – a skill shared by Joyce/Jan and her granddaughter Ysenda – becomes very upsetting. Here Ysenda renders what Jan called the ‘loony-bin’:
It was like a boarding-school in that the corridors smelled of polish, the food was institutional (mushy spaghetti, and meatballs hard enough to play billiards with), friends tended to stick together in groups in the common rooms, there was a carpentry workshop in the grounds and a shop to buy snacks, and the tables were laid for breakfast immediately after the supper had been cleared … The evening sight of the laid breakfast tables was a torment for the residents: it signalled the changelessness of their mental states. The stage was set for another pointless day, just like the one which had nearly ended.
That detail of ‘the evening sight of the laid breakfast tables’ and what that meant to the patients is so awful. It is as though their whole endless, unchanging depression can be summed up in the inevitability of preparing for breakfast the night before. All the previous pages of seeing Jan filled with zest, high with success, busy and shining, act as a bright foil for this rock-bottom misery:
The first thing you did here, on waking up, was to take half a Seconal sleeping-pill, or ‘goof-ball’ and try to postpone consciousness. Then, when the Beethoven’s-Fifth-Symphony ‘ta-ta-ta-tum’ knock came to wake you up, you lit a cigarette in bed and smoked it, holding it between shaking fingers. Appetiteless, and with knees wobbling, you went to the dining-room and forced down cereal before going straight out to the corridor to smoke. Then, if your appointment on the couch was not till 11.30, there was a two-hour gap to fill.
Sleeping pills are ‘goof-balls’ and the knock is Beethoven’s Fifth. Ysenda cleverly embeds Joyce’s witty phrases in this awful scene, so that her keen humour echoes through her depression, reminding us of how far she has fallen.
Once again, it is writing which enables Jan’s progression. After various sessions on the couch where all she can do is cry, the doctor suggested that it might help to ‘unblock’ her if she tried to write down some of her thoughts. She sat down, beginning ‘This is an experiment’, and went on to write fifteen pages. When she read it out to the doctor, he said ‘I find that very moving’. She wrote:
I left his office and walked back to the Shop in a state of definite and recognizable euphoria – that state which in my experience you only get into (no, not only, but most often) when you are either in love or have just written something which you feel is good and genuine, especially if it has just ‘moved’ somebody else whose opinion you value, whether to tears or laugher. I found myself walking springily, and I thought of the rightness of all the old clichés, such as ‘walking on air’, ‘being in high spirits’, and ‘having a light heart’. I felt walking was far too prosaic a means of progression, and that it would have been more appropriate to my mood to go all the way from Wheelis’s office to the Shop turning cartwheels.
It’s thrilling to read this, the first sign of Jan’s depression beginning to lift. How telling that one of the first things she does is engage with language again – her curiosity is reawakened as she examines ‘the old clichés’, and literally wants to walk on air.
It ties in with what Margaret Drabble said about writing your future (see this post on The Millstone). Whereas Drabble said fiction could be a tool to shape the ‘frontiers and future of female experience’, here in The Real Mrs Miniver, we see writing shaping the future of the writer herself. Ironic, given that Joyce started off writing about her lost happy past, and that her future was so wildly different from the sensible life of Mrs Miniver.
This is a wonderful book, a beautiful synthesis of a grandmother and granddaughter’s prose, which picks out the telling details of a life, revelling in delightful moments of humour and squaring up to the tragic dark counterpart which follows. First published by John Murray ten years ago, The Real Mrs Miniver has just been brought out in a pleasing brightly-coloured pocket hardback by Slightly Foxed. Turning the crisp cream pages and marking my place with its smooth yellow ribbon greatly enhanced the pleasure of reading such perfectly chosen words.