Tag Archives: Mrs Miniver

Themed review: novels from the Home Front in WW2

One might expect wartime fiction to provide comfort, escapism, even propaganda. Many no doubt did. However the four novels featured here written and set in Britain during the war also took the opportunity to reveal something new and different about the human condition and to record some of their bizarre and unusual experiences. 

Setting novels on the Home Front of the Second World War

Setting novels in wartime brings the writer many opportunities. Unexpected locations, events, characters and relationships arise in wartime. Motives can be unclear. Characters, especially heroines and heroes, are often required to find resources within themselves that they did not know they had. 

For me, the ultimate war novel will probably always be Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. The protagonists face some dreadful and nonsensical situations, meet officers who are completely out of their depth, and try to survive however they can. Much of the novel points up the craziness of the war. It was set on a Mediterranean island in the Second World War, but not published until 1961. 

In the Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

1st Edition

This novel is a thriller, set in war-time London, centred on the Regents Park area. Stella is approached by the mysterious and rather malevolent Harrison at an open air concert. He appears to know things about her lover Robert, questioning his commitment to the war effort. Allegiances to people and countries of birth are under suspicion. The description of an air raid is vivid and exciting. And this passage about the presence of the dead in London is moving.

Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence – not as today’s dead but as yesterday’s living – felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected – for death cannot be so sudden as all that. Absent from the routine which had been life, they stamped upon that routine their absence – not knowing who the dead were you could not know which might be the staircase somebody for the first time was not mounting this morning, or at which street corner the newsvendor missed a face, or which trains and buses in the homegoing rush were this evening lighter by one passenger. (p91-2)

Elizabeth Bowen wrote most of the novel during the war, but apparently found it hard to complete and it was not published until 1948.

In the Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen (1948). You can find the full post here.

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson

This novel considers a formerly wealthy landed family confronting the changes of the 20th century. The story includes their energetic efforts to resist the advancing demands of the war, for example, to take in evacuees. And is it possible that the peacock is signalling to enemy aircraft?

It is both a social commentary and a thriller set against the background of the first months of the war.

A Footman for the Peacock by Rachel Ferguson (1940) reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow Books (2016). My comments on this novel on Bookword can be found here.

Night Shift by Inez Holden 

Night Shift is a novella first published in 1941. The episodes are framed as six night shifts in a factory in East London during the Blitz. The workers, mostly women, make surveillance cameras for aircraft. There is little story, but the people who work, supervise, or relax in the canteen reveal their separate lives as they work together. Each person is given a name or nickname, and they interact in a way that demonstrates a sense of community, but they are not connected to their important work. They are strangely isolated on their night shifts. The novella strongly conveys the daily interactions of Londoners, the inconveniences of Blitz damage, the noise, the concerns about women’s wages and the sense of so many individuals being involved in these events.

Reading it one felt it was a record of a strange and unusual time. The novella has been republished with Inez Holden’s wartime diaries so in a sense that impression is justified.

Blitz Writing: Night Shift & It was Different at the Time by Inez Holden (1941/5), published by Handheld Press 2019. The second half of this book is extracts from her diaries. Thanks to Heavenali and JacquiWine’s Journal for drawing my attention to this volume.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

It is a bit of a stretch to call this a wartime novel. To begin with although the characters are fictional it is more a collection of articles from The Times about everyday middle class life in pre-war Britain. And secondly it hardly features the war. But it has the reputation of a wartime novel largely because of the famous film which can be seen as propaganda. The character of Mrs Miniver was considered very successful and Churchill claimed it contributed to the entry of the USA into the war.

There is a comforting feeling about Mrs Miniver despite the looming violence. Perhaps the pieces were gathered together and published as war began to remind people of what could be lost.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther was published in 1939 and by Virago (1989). My thoughts about it on Bookword can be found here

And you might be interested in The Love-Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War by Lara Feigel (2013), published by Bloomsbury. This book explores the varied effects of war upon the following writers: Elizabeth Bowen, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel, Henry Yorke (Green) and Graham Greene.

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Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I accidentally omitted this book when I wrote my recent post about fiction with titles in their titles: Books with Mrs or Miss in the title. In a rather pointless act of atonement I thought I would reread it and review it for the blog. And I was surprised that it was less about the Second World War than I had remembered. And just as charming as I remembered, a charm that captured readers and admirers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

The short pieces from The Times newspaper were collected together and first published as Mrs Miniver in 1939. At the time, Britain was experiencing the phoney war. And the US was still holding on to its neutrality. Famously Churchill claimed that this book had ‘done more for the allies than a flotilla of battleships’, and by FDR to have hastened the entry of the US into the war.

The short blog-like pieces collected together as Mrs Miniver were originally written for periodic publication in the newspaper, and were very popular from 1937-9. It is often said that in creating Mrs Miniver Jan Struther was celebrating the ordinary in life at least as she knew it in the years towards the end of the peace and at the start of the war. And indeed the heroine does frequently refer to her everyday life – a visit to the dentist, the first day of spring, taking the children to Hampstead Heath, visiting London Zoo, social engagements with her friends. This is the everyday life of a small section of British pre-war society, a very comfortably off section. The social life consists of dinner parties and weekends in country houses; the family lives in London and also owns a cottage in Kent large enough to take in seven evacuees as well as their three children. They employ a nannie, a cook and a maid as well as Mrs Downce who looks after their weekend cottage.

Mrs Miniver, or is it Jan Struther, is aware of her privilege. In a letter to The Times, included in the Virago edition and dated December 1939, she considers the plight of the war’s biggest casualty list:

– the small bookseller, the small upholsterer, the garage proprietor, the man who sells old prints, the woman who sells home-made cakes. … the world that we are going to build up out of the revolution has got to be a world in which this kind of distress doesn’t arise. (142-143)

And she adds that in the short-term ‘people are being forced to focus all their attention on wobbly stepping-stones in order to save themselves from drowning’. One can imagine that she might have supported Beveridge’s report in 1942 and the subsequent establishment of the Welfare State.

As it is, there is no bomb damage yet, no Blitz, no defeat before Dunkirk, no real war. Some of the earlier pieces refer to the war scare of 1938, now known as the Munich Crisis. She records the relief that everyone felt when they could continue as before.

In Mrs Miniver the people from the working classes only appear in long-suffering and comic parts, like Ealing comedy extras. The dour Scottish cook Mrs Adie, or the stranded cockney Mrs Downce, or the farmers they help with the hop harvest in the autumn of 1939.

Jan Struther had a positive outlook on life, and she found herself appreciating the spirit of cooperation and new learning in the first months of the war. In a piece entitled London in August Mrs Miniver sits down on a bench next to a woman who is having difficulties learning to tie a reef knot for her First Aid class. She offers her way of thinking about the knot. And when the First Aider has left she reflects as follows:

That is one great compensation for the fantastic way in which the events of our time are forcing us to live. … almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental of physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old. (111)

She writes about the cooperative spirit she observes everywhere and hopes that

afterwards, when all the horrors are over, we shall be able to conjure up again the feelings of these first few weeks, and somehow rebuild our peacetime world so as to preserve everything of war that is worth preserving? (123, letter to The Times, September 1939)

Jan Struther

Jan Struther went to the US at the outbreak of the war, and was popular on the lecture circuit because Mrs Miniver celebrated life before the war, and by implication what was to be lost. A sentimental propaganda film, an Oscar-winner, was made by MGM from an adaptation of the collection in 1942. It starred Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon and took the viewer into the war and to the deaths that resulted from it.

The common association of Mrs Miniver with the war and especially with the Blitz is very strong, thanks to that film. Even in 1989 the Virago cover picked up the theme of the Blitz (see above).

Jan Struther’s husband became a prisoner of war for many years and their marriage did not survive his return. She made a second happy marriage with Adolf Placzek. She also wrote several well-known hymns. She died of cancer in 1953.

Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther, the collection was first published in 1939. I read the Virago edition of 1989, which includes some additional letters and an Introduction by Valerie Grove. 145pp

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