Posts Tagged ‘Slightly Foxed’

Terms and Conditions

December 7, 2016

Or should I say term and conditions…

40 weeks came and went on Sunday – and the baby is now officially overdue. I think I would be feeling more relaxed about this had the past few weeks not been a bit of a rollercoaster.

Firstly, this whole waiting around thing is new for me. Vita was a week early, which took us by surprise and also meant that I was expecting this one to be early too. It’s odd how vague ‘feelings about’ things can soon cement themselves into indelible fact in one’s head. After Vita’s lovely birth, thanks to hypnobirthing, we are doing the same thing again (although this time we’re hoping for the added plus of a home birth). When the hypnobirthing lady came over a few months’ ago for a refresher evening, she, somewhat mystically, asked me when the full moon was nearest the due date. Babies have a habit of coming around the full moon, she said. I raised an eyebrow. It’s because, she said, there’s so much energy around then. The husband’s eyebrow remained raised. The labour wards are always busiest around the full moon anyway, she said, noting the eyebrows and then changing tack. Of course, then I had to look up the lunar situation, and discovered that the full moon was a couple of weeks’ before the due date. Right, I decided, that’s when the baby will come. I stopped even thinking of the due date being 4th December, and instead it was fixed to arrive on 14th November.

The day came and went, and on the following Monday I went for a routine appointment with the midwife. I think I might be having a few mild contractions, I said. Probably just Braxton Hicks, but they have been going on most of the morning. I stopped myself from saying anything about the full moon. She prodded my tummy. Humm, she said. Either the baby has got extremely low down in your pelvis and labour’s about to kick in, or it might have turned sideways. Would you mind popping down to the hospital for a scan, um, now? Nothing serious? I asked. Oh no, I’m sure it’s fine. Should I bring my hospital bag? Oh no, don’t worry, it’s just to check the position’s right.

I called the husband on the way to the tube. Just popping in for a scan. It could all be about to happen, they just want to check the position’s ok. What shall I do about the builders? he asked. I should say here that we have been getting cupboards put into our bedroom (so that when I spend most of the forthcoming nights in the bedroom, not asleep, it will be a nicer environment), and the building work ended up dragging on and on… None of us wanted them to be around during the home birth – least of all the builders, who looked increasingly pale every time they saw me. I don’t know, I said, you’re the architect.

At the hospital, the scan was done straight away. Thanks, I said – it’s amazing of you to squeeze me in like this. The doctor was unsmiling and had tattoos all up her arm. On went the cold jelly and up came the picture of the little one. The baby is transverse, she said. You are now a high-risk pregnancy. You cannot leave the hospital. If your waters break, the cord could be prolapse and you wouldn’t get here in time to save the baby. You must stay in the hospital until Sunday, when you will be 39 weeks, and then we will give you an emergency C-section. This was on Monday afternoon.

It was not a good moment. And the next few days weren’t good either. The first night was spent in the waiting room, as there was no space on the ward. (Presumably because of the full moon.) The antenatal ward, once I got there, is not a fun place to spend time. Aside from the fact that you are confined to a windowless purple-curtained cubicle, all day and night you listen to people doing one of the following things: arguing with their partner loudly; snoring loudly; watching telly loudly; or, worst of all, going into labour extremely loudly. Try to enjoy the rest, the husband said, as I grumbled tearfully on the phone to him after the second night of listening to labour screams going on from 3 to 8 a.m. He was running around manically trying to deal with his work, the builders (who had been dismissed then re-summoned), the washing machine, and ferrying Vita about.

Anyway, in the end, the clever baby managed to turn back into the right position all by itself. The doctors’ plan changed daily, as the baby slowly wriggled itself around, and by Friday I was released, and told we were back on for the home birth. No C-section, no induction, no turning by the midwife, no forced breaking of the waters, but back to the sanctuary of our living room and plan A. HOORAY!

Which brings me, at last, to books. For this was ten days ago, and – when not looking after Vita – I have been doing rather a lot of sitting around waiting, trying not to think about the baby not being here yet. The real worry is that if it is too late, I will have to be induced, and then I will have to go back to the wretched antenatal ward. And also, weirdly, the contractions have a habit of suddenly ramping up and then disappearing again, so that last week, early in the morning, the midwives arrived, the birth pool was semi-inflated, and Vita’s granny summoned to collect her, only for everything to return to ‘normal’ a couple of hours later.

So I have been in need of a good book: one that’s easy for my extremely distracted brain to dip into, and that will hold my attention. Having also finished all my work, this was to be the first book I would be reading entirely for pleasure for quite some time.

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And so I came to pick up the beautiful object that is the latest hardback published by Slightly Foxed: Terms and Conditions by Ysenda Maxtone Graham. I know and love Ysenda’s writing from her Spectator columns and also from her very wonderful book The Real Mrs Miniver, which I wrote about here.

Her new book is all about girls’ boarding schools, from 1939 to 1979. Weirdly, I think this might be all the more interesting for readers who, like me, didn’t go to boarding school, for it is an astonishing anthropological study of a certain species, evident now as a grown woman who:

sleeps with the window wide open; feels homesick on Sunday evenings even though she is now at home; never touches cauliflower cheese; keeps an old address book in which most of the addresses have been there for so long that they don’t have postcodes; knows the Matins Collects by heart; fears unpopularity even among fully grown women in middle age; and still associates Friday with the smell of fish.

While of course there are moments of empathy, reading the book is more of a case of fascination with all the differences – there really was a time when girls woke up to find their hot water bottles had become blocks of ice, when they rebelliously – ravenously – tried to heat cans of baked beans over a candle flame in the dead of night, when they could choose between ‘cricket in the nets or dusting’ for their morning activity, and career prospects were known as ‘jobs’ in inverted commas because they were regarded as trivial, optional, and primarily a means to get a husband.

Ysenda has interviewed dozens of women about their boarding school experiences, and renders their stories largely verbatim, giving the book a documentary edge which makes it stranger than fiction. Listening to the stories in the words of these women makes you feel like you are there with Ysenda, having a cup of tea with them in their lovely kitchens, and hearing these treasure troves of memories which are solid gold to anyone with a curious bone in their bodies.

For instance, Maggie Fergusson recalls the snobbery of Mother Bridget, the headmistress of St Mary’s Ascot from 1956 to 1976. Ysenda reports that:

Mother Bridget … kicked off the first Latin lesson of the new 11-year-olds in 1976 with this ice-breaker: ‘Now, hands up any of you whose house is open to the public.’ ‘Quite a few hands did go up,’ remembers Maggie Fergusson, ‘and this started a chat about a few of the girls’ stately homes, before we started doing any Latin … When my eldest sister Kitty came to look round,’ Maggie said, ‘it was pretty clear that Mother Bridget didn’t think much of us as we actually lived in Ascot, which wasn’t really good enough. She was saying to my mother, “Well, I can’t promise that we have a place for your daughter …” when one of the mothers with a big country house came into the school and flung her arms round my mother, as they were cousins. That changed everything. Mother Bridget said she would take Kitty after all.’

I found myself entranced and gripped by the book, in spite of the fact that there is neither plot nor main character. Gosh it’s such a weird world, I kept on thinking, as the pages seemed to turn themselves. Ysenda is extremely clever at finding the crucially revealing detail time and again, laying it out with such grace and skill, and then – rather then telling us what to think – just letting it speak for itself.

For instance, in her chapter about ‘pashes’, Ysenda notes how romantic girls used to be:

‘Oh, yes, pashes,’ Sal’s sister Georgina Hammick said to me when I reminded her of those long-forgotten schoolgirl adorations. ‘I do remember. You wrote poems to their eyebrows.’

She doesn’t need to point out how far a cry from today’s schoolgirl sexting this is.

The past has rarely felt like such a different country as it does in this book – mostly because the attitude to girls’ education has changed so much. The happiest school seems to be Hanford because girls could bring their ponies and there were such things as ‘galloping matrons’ who took them riding. ‘The entry of all examinations is purely optional’, states one prospectus, as a positive. In fact, a complete lack of academic ambition or concern is shown to be the rule everywhere except for Cheltenham Ladies’ College, which gets its own chapter. This results in endless funny moments: ‘Miss Fleming taught History and didn’t know any,’ said Amanda Vesey. Or, when Ysenda asked a group of Old Girls from Hatherop Castle if there’d been a lab in those days, she receives nothing but a blank look:

‘A laboratory?’ I expanded … ‘Oh that kind of lab!’ one of them said. ‘I thought you meant a Labrador.’

Smiles, laughs, gasps, frowns … My face has been well and truly exercised by the observations and recollections woven together in this extraordinary book. (Perhaps a good warm up for the labour to come.) It has been a lifesaver for this weird hanging around time, and I highly recommend it as something to occupy oneself during the similarly weird Christmas period which fast approaches. The only thing is, I’m not sure if someone who did actually go to boarding school during this time would find it a pleasant trip down memory lane, or an unwelcome return to a banished nightmarish world. Are any of you boarding school Old Girls? If so, please will you read it and tell me what you think? Finally, it goes without saying that any other tips for distracting myself over the coming ten days from the looming threat of induction and return to the antenatal ward would also be most welcome.

My Grandmothers and I

July 27, 2016

It strikes me as a surprisingly common, though little remarked upon, fact that one’s grandparents form two very different pairs.

I suppose this seems especially pronounced if I think of my daughter Vita’s grandparents – one side Jewish and the other side descended from the Fascist Oswald Mosley. I can see it too with my own grandparents – one grandmother fled Vienna as a child in the 1930s, whereas the other came to London from a family long-established in Plymouth. It seems astonishing that time and again two people can come together from such different backgrounds, thus giving their progeny two very diverse sets of grandparents. A walking book club member informs me this is due to the psychological inevitability of shunning one’s own background and seeking its opposite in one’s partner. I would be intrigued to see if you too, dear reader, have noticed this phenomenon.

My grandmothers and IDiana Holman-Hunt wrote brilliantly about her childhood in which she was parcelled between her grandparents in her very charming memoir My Grandmothers and I, beautifully published as a neat little paperback by Slightly Foxed. There is a stark contrast between life in the Freemans’ well-staffed comfortable country house, and the Bohemian squalor of the Kensington abode of ‘Grand’ – the extremely eccentric widow of the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman-Hunt.

Diana’s life with Grandmother Freeman seems relatively happy, if lonely. For friends, she has to turn to the servants, and ‘Cherub’ – the statue on the fountain – with whom she imagines flying across the gardens. When the servants club together and give her a teddy bear for her birthday, ordered especially from Selfridges, Diana’s affection for it is transformed from sweet to moving when we realise it’s not just because she has no real friends to play with but because her other presents are so inappropriate: her father, who is away in India, sends her a leopard skin, and her grandparents give her a string of pearls, whose beauty and value will turn out to be of help in years’ to come, but are far too sophisticated for a little girl to appreciate.

Life at the Freemans has certain quirky downsides – such as the torturous brace which Diana must wear to improve her posture, and the list of daily tasks which is pinned to her curtain every morning. We are also treated to Diana’s glimpses of the more adult world in which she inhabits – the butler is always drunk after lunch, and one of the maids gets pregnant. There is the added humour of the clash of her childish perspective and our adult understanding, such as when she writes about her uncle’s friends, the ‘jolies laides’ – she discusses them with the servant Fowler, who remarks, you can hardly ‘call her jolly and I doubt if she’s a lady’. The real sadness here, however, lies in Diana’s early understanding of the fact that she will only be appreciated if she is sufficiently entertaining, being urged to ‘utter’ and regale her grandparents with stories, or else be banished from their company.

When she’s sent off to stay with Grand, however, we realise how lucky Diana’s been. Though she immediately flings her terrible brace into the fire, she has entered a world where breakfast is usually a rotten egg, and where she has to sleep curled up on a tiny scratchy sofa – examples of Grand’s despising ‘Brother Ass’, the body, in favour of nourishing the mind.

Grand’s eccentricities are extraordinary. For instance, before bed, the maid lays out a complex trap of trip wires and bells, to catch any thieves after all the great works of art, and, Grand adds, to stop them being murdered in their beds. Terrified, Diana asks, then what?

‘You will spring out of bed and twirl this large wooden rattle, round and round, out of the window, and I will blow several short sharp blasts on that whistle tied to the end of my bed.’

Grand is horribly stingy, and Diana relates the horror of having tea at the Tate:

I always felt embarrassed with Grand asked the waitress for two cups and saucers and a jug of boiling water.

Grand would then produce her own bag of tea leaves and envelope of powdered milk. But her generosity to pavement artists is even more embarrassing:

If she spotted one, she would never pass him by, but would retire discreetly to a doorway, or press against the railings with her back turned to the passers-by. Then, to my confusion, she would lift her skirts to find the chammy-leather pouch of money which she wore concealed, suspended from her waist. Flushed with effort, she would at last approach the artist and hand him a piece of silver, saying ‘If you are ever desperate and need to earn a shilling, you can come and sweep the leaves out of my area and scrub my front door steps. My cook will give you a cup of soup. You need never starve, I am your friend.’

In showing her grandmothers’ many oddnesses, Diana Holman-Hunt is so good at capturing their exact manners and cadences of speech that this memoir of what must have been a very difficult childhood is transformed into a comic masterpiece. Moments of poignancy remain, however, such as when Diana’s train pulls into London and she sees a man standing beside her Grand, waiting to meet her:

‘That must be my Papa!’ I said, jumping up and down.

The train guard dispels her excitement by revealing it is in fact the Station Master.

As the book progresses, and Diana grows up, the balance in tone shifts. The funny, mad and charming portrait – albeit with glimpses of terrible sadness and loneliness – is abandoned as Diana begins to see the growing desperation of her situation. There is a garish flash of an episode where her father visits, rescues her from school and takes her out on the town. She has nothing to wear but her confirmation dress. Next, we see Diana on her return from a year in Germany; her father – seemingly bankrupt – was unable to pay the Baronin with whom she stayed and sent her a note advising her to return to Grand and get a job. Grand, meanwhile, has lost her mind. Diana, ever resourceful, sells her pearls, sleeps on the cold attic floor, and attends secretarial school, with scarcely enough money to eat. As no one has paid for her to be presented and ‘come out’, she is shunned by her other relations, and it becomes clear there is no one who can look after her and she has no means of survival. Salvation comes eventually when Grandfather Freeman writes to tell her she must come and stay with him (Grandmother Freeman has died). When she returns to their Sussex home, Diana gets drunk and falls into bed.

This drunkenness seems to me to be such a sad, bleak ending. It is as though Diana longs to return to the naivete of that childhood world of imagination and innocence, playing with Cherub and the servants, but now – as an adult, with her place in the world shown to be so precarious – the only way she can return to this state of oblivion is getting blind drunk. Not that the ending detracts from the book, rather it saves it from being all charming nostalgia and eccentricity, tempering it with the bitter note of tough adult reality. Those who want to know what happened next might find this obituary in the Independent enlightening (and reassuring).

Emily’s Walking Book Club greatly enjoyed My Grandmothers and I. One walker said they would have loved to listen to it on the radio, read by someone like Maggie Smith, which we all think would be brilliant. So, does anyone know a radio producer who might be intrigued? If so, please please send them a copy.

Diana Holman Hunt

Here she is, looking extremely glam.

The Past is Myself

March 10, 2014

The Past is Myself is such an astonishing, thought-provoking, light-shedding, vitally important memoir that I feel I ought to have read it years ago. Why aren’t we given it at school? The Second World War is taught to death, and here is a book which gives a unique, fascinating and nuanced viewpoint. It ought to be a classic that we have all read, can all talk about, and yet it has only just found its way into my life.

Well, better late than never.

Christabel Bielenberg

Christabel Bielenberg was a bright young Anglo-Irish aristocrat, niece of press barons Lord Northcliffe and Lord Rothermere, who won a scholarship to Oxford, but went to Hamburg to train as a soprano. There, she fell in love with Peter Bielenberg, a handsome young German lawyer, who cut a fine figure on the dancefloor. They married in 1934 and settled in Germany, where they remained during the Second World War. What a time to be British, living in Germany! The Past is Myself is her account of these years.

Although, of course, Christabel Bielenberg was no longer British. On marrying Peter, she had swapped her British passport, ‘with its jovial lion and unicorn’, for a German one, ‘a nondescript brown booklet with a disdainful-looking eagle’. She can’t possibly write as a gung-ho patriotic Brit, because she has married a German, has become one and raises her sons in Germany. She has as many German friends, as she does British. She can hardly cheer on the Allies, when sheltering from an air raid on Berlin, which wreaks destruction on the city and destroys the homes of her friends.

Yet there are aspects of Bielenberg that are unmistakably British. She reflects, on the way to visiting her husband, who has been arrested and is in a concentration camp, that she doesn’t have a plan:

Although I had lived so long in Germany, where everything from a picnic to a coup d’etat had to be planned down to the smallest detail, I knew that I had remained an incurable compromiser, inclined to plunge into a situation, flap around, see what was cooking, hope for the best and, as often as not, with God’s help, come up smiling.

Bielenberg is caught between two warring nationalities; it gives her a rare perspective and yields a brilliant memoir.

On her excellent Desert Island Discs (which you can listen to here), Bielenberg says she wrote the book out of a feeling of duty, because she felt that very few people in England knew there was another Germany, that not everyone went mad for Hitler. It is fascinating – and of course very important – to learn about this other Germany, which opposed the regime.

She shows the many shades of resistance, and of Naziism. There are outright revolutionaries like Adam Von Trott, a great friend of the Bielenbergs’, who was hanged after trying to assassinate Hitler. Then there are also the quiet inhabitants of the Black Forest village, where she spends the later war years with her children. Kerner Sepp is the village clerk and cobbler, who types dilligently away under a portrait of Hitler, but when the secret police order him to put Bielenberg under house arrest, he informs her exactly what they said:

Anyway he told us that if we told you anything except that bit about house arrest we would be shot. The poor Lower Baker got a bad fright when he said that, but we talked it over after he left and decided it was none of his business who we told. Stupid lowlander! Anyway, that’s the way it is, and just don’t tell anyone we have told you, and if you want to go to Furtwangen or any place to do some shopping, just let us know.

Bielenberg is sympathetic towards the Germans; she understands how difficult it is to live under such an oppressive regime while maintaining any feeling of integrity. She also has an outsider’s curiosity about them. An old friend of her husband’s is a Nazi, but when her husband is arrested, this Nazi does what he can to protect him. Bielenberg wonders:

How was it though that Hitler had succeeded with some of the more intelligent ones, with those who still possessed personal integrity, unless he had provided something more, something which had made them long for his leadership to succeed, in spite of the ever more obvious viciousness of his regime? Would it have been that sense of national identity which he could conjure up with such mastery? That awareness of belonging somewhere, which in England just came naturally, but I believed among Germans to be a rare, almost unique phenomenon?

Bielenberg is often on the verge of discovering a penetrating truth, but then declines to pursue it. She suffixes these thoughts above with:

Never mind, I gave up. I was suddenly very tired.

There is a perennial feeling of exhaustion, which prevents her from probing too far. One particularly harrowing moment is in a train carriage, empty other than for an SS officer. She finds herself unable to avoid having a conversation with him, in which he confesses the horrors of his work:

Do you know what it means – to kill Jews, men, women and children as they stand in a semi-circle around the machine-guns? I belonged to what is called an Einsatzkommando, an extermination squad – so I know. What do you say when I tell you that a little boy, no older than my younger brother, before such a killing, stood there to attention and asked me “Do I stand straight enough, Uncle?”

The SS officer continues, but Bielenberg confesses:

During his story I had found it increasingly difficult to listen. I had eaten practically nothing all day and the cold in the carriage was intense. As I fought wave after wave of exhaustion, my head kept falling forward and only the most startling points of his story penetrated the fog of sleep.

While Bielenberg edges close to the full dark horror of what was going on in Germany at the time, the full extent of it is too much. She is too exhausted to investigate, discover or really understand. This is certainly frustrating, especially given our subsequent knowledge of the horrors. It shows the limitations of such a personal account, written without hindsight, but also points to some answers. How could the Germans claim not have known what was going on? Perhaps the answer is here: The horror was too much to bear.

Bielenberg shows how much strength and guile it took to survive under the Nazis, so what could she possibly do when told about how awful it was to exterminate Jews? It isn’t so much a case of turning a blind eye, as being physically incapable of seeing it without going mad.

There are moments that break through the exhaustion. She gives shelter to two Jews for a short while, even though a good friend warns her not to, given that she is already under suspicion. She feels acute hatred for a Nazi officer who slaps a prisoner:

I was shaking again, but this was different, this was cold deadly hatred such as I never hope to have for any human being in my life again. I hated her, every living bit of her, and the fact that she was a woman made this hatred if possible more intense, for I think it was mixed with impotent rage and deepest humiliation that I belonged to her sex.

But these small gestures of defiance are useless, and worse still is the knowledge that they are useless.

The Past is Myself is a memoir of survival, and suggests that it would have been impossible to survive without seeking refuge in the oblivion of exhaustion. It would have been too much to see that those Jews who left her house after sheltering there for a few days were then not only caught, but exterminated. Bielenberg shows why it was not just tempting, but essential to turn away from such awful truths.

Instead, she relishes the tiny moments which make life more bearable: a rare cup of real coffee, a feast of eggs and bacon, the relief and solidarity of discovering her neighbours aren’t Nazis, the lifeline of listening to the BBC – an offence punishable by death. Tiny pleasures which are blown out of all proportion, for they are all there is to weigh against the horrors of informers, and of friends being hanged. The knowledge of the Holocaust would have tipped the scales too far.

I urge everyone to read this book. It is available either as a rather ugly giant paperback, in which it is paired with her second volume of memoir, second-hand as an out-of-print paperback, or as this very beautiful purple, pocket-sized Slightly Foxed hardback. The latter is little dear, but this is one of those books you will want to re-read and pass on to others, so worth investing in a smart edition.

The Past is Myself by Christabel Bielenberg

The Real Mrs Miniver

March 25, 2013

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.

Jan StrutherThe creator of Mrs Miniver was Jan Struther – the penname of Joyce Maxtone Graham. Many readers equated Joyce with her creation, Mrs Miniver:

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.

Mrs Miniver film posterOnce 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.

The Real Mrs Miniver