This is probably the fifth time I’ve read Jan Struther’s book, Mrs Miniver, and each time it takes me to the centre of a woman’s life. It’s set in England in the anxious months that lead up to the outbreak of World War II. That period and life on the home front during the war, has always fascinated me. I wasn’t born until 1944, but the war cast its shadows over my early childhood and it did for many people of my age.
Mrs Miniver began early in 1939 as a series of essays in The Times commissioned from Jan Struther by the editor, her friend Peter Fleming, to brighten up the Court Page of the newspaper. He wanted her to write about ‘an ordinary sort of woman who leads an ordinary sort of life – rather like yourself.’ These days we devour the stories of ordinary life with enthusiasm; women especially enjoy reading about other women’s lives and fortunately today there is plenty of choice. But the choices were more limited then so imagine what a delight it would have been to open the newspaper and read about the everyday life of woman who sounded just as though she could have been your friend or neighbour.
Jan Struther’s Mrs Miniver essays were published as a book in October 1939, just after the outbreak of war. The book travelled far and wide – it became an international best-seller, and Jan Struther then wrote a series of letters from Mrs Miniver about her wartime life. The character, her insight into what was happening, her wisdom and humour, conjured up a world that reminded people of what mattered to them, and what they were fighting to protect.
Churchill said that Mrs Miniver had done more for the war than a flotilla of battleships, and President Roosevelt told Jan Struther that her book had hastened America’s entry into the war.
So, apart from the fact that I love the book for itself, and for what it tells of daily life at the time, I love Mrs Miniver for it’s power and for what it says about popular fiction. I get very angry about the elitist attitudes to popular fiction. Well written examples of the genre are not only great stories they are influential. Popular novels can introduce us to the intimacy of other lives, and validate our own, and they are rich in insights into the social and cultural life of the times. It’s both a subtle and powerful form and Mrs Miniver is one of many examples that prove it works in ways that really matter.
Jan Struther’s writing is measured, reflective and deeply personal, each essay is a little work of art. Mrs Miniver is constantly being reprinted by Virago Modern Classics. Do try it and let me know what you think.