Posts Tagged ‘Ysenda Maxtone Graham’

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.

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