The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham

This beautiful Slightly Foxed edition has been on my shelf for a few years, and I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to read The Real Mrs Miniver by Ysenda Maxtone Graham (originally published in 2001, and a SF Edition in 2013). I do remember that I accidentally gave the SF team the wrong address for my review copy, very embarrassingly, and bought my own after my rather unpleasant ex-landlords never forwarded anything to the address I gave them. OH WELL. I finally picked it up, and wolfed it down in a few days.

If the name Ysenda Maxtone Graham rings a bell, it might be because her oral history of girls’ boarding schools – Terms and Conditions – was a bit of a hit a couple of years ago, and deservedly. What you might not know is that she is Jan Struther’s granddaughter, though she was born some years after Struther died. The family connection is the perfect rationale behind this insightful, slightly gossipy, and largely unscholarly examination of Jan Struther’s life and career.

When I say unscholarly, I mean there are none of the apparatus of your Hermione-Lee-style biography: no footnotes, no index, no appendices. No anecdote is referenced and, in much the same delightful way as Terms and Conditions, it feels more like a friend telling you everything they know on a topic, vague anecdotes and all, than a biographer carefully weighing the evidence. I mean it all as a compliment.

I suspect most of you know who Mrs Miniver is, even if you haven’t read the book or watched the film (and I recommend heartily that you do both). She was the British everywoman (well, upper-middle-class everywoman) whose tales of everyday events – going to the dentist; hosting a tea party – became a bestseller when collected from the newspaper into a handy edition. And she then became Greer Garson, noble British housewife facing war – and one very over-the-top angry Nazi in her kitchen – in the film that apparently helped persuade the American people to join WW2. Even though the initial book was published before war was declared.

And Jan Struther (real name Joyce Anstruther, later Joyce Maxtone Graham), of course, was the woman who created her.

Joyce went out of Printing House Square and walked along Upper Thames Street, thinking of all the ‘M’-words she could. Every one she thought of was either too long or too short, or a real name, or didn’t sound like a name at all. Then she noticed a man carrying a bundle of skins out of one of the furriers’ warehouses, and this set her thinking about the heraldic names for fur which her father had taught her. Vair and counter-vair, potent and counter-potent, ermine and erminois… and what was the other one? It was on the tip of her tongue for several minutes. Then she remembered it. She went straight back to Printing House Square.

“What about calling her ‘Mrs Miniver’?”

That’s a pretty good example of the sort way Maxtone Graham approaches the biography – the account doesn’t have any sort of referencing, and we are taken into Struther’s mind almost as though we were reading a novel. It does occasionally mean I wanted to take her anecdotes with a pinch of salt, but it made them nonetheless interesting to read.

Unlike most Slightly Foxed Editions, The Real Mrs Miniver isn’t a memoir – and it doesn’t focus on only part of the subject’s life. We see Struther from cradle to grave, though Maxtone Graham wisely focuses on the story surrounding Mrs Miniver and her various incarnations. The title is something of a misnomer because, despite being inextricably linked in the public consciousness, Struther was really very different from Miniver – not least in her marriage. Where the Minivers were the perfect couple, Struther’s marriage started off joyfully and became strained. The other focus of this biography is the dwindling marriage, and the love affair Struther started next with a younger refugee escaping the Nazis.

I found anything connected with Mrs Miniver fascinating – from the origins of the columns to the whirlwind surrounding the film (and the welcome way in which Greer Garson took on the mantle of ‘the real Mrs Miniver’). Struther lived in America for several years during the war, and reading about her publicity tours and radio appearances was so interesting. And, truth be told, Struther didn’t achieve much else, career-wise. We don’t hear much about her hymn-writing (‘Lord of all Hopefulness’ is still very familiar to many of us, I’m sure) but do see how she struggled to follow up on a success that was due to serendipity perhaps as much as purpose or even talent.

Maxtone Graham writes sensitively and rather movingly about Struther’s romantic strife, writing block, and a period of mental breakdown. The whole book is crafted brilliantly because Maxtone Graham is such a good storyteller – not adhering to the usual forms of biographies, but creating her own unique and inspired version. I’m glad I finally got around to reading it, and it’s made me want to dash back to Mrs Miniver – both book and film.

Marrying Out – Harold Carlton

You know that I love Slightly Foxed Editions – I don’t shut up about it – and the latest one I read is up there with my favourites now. I pretty much read it all in one setting. It’s Marrying Out (2001) by Harold Carlton, originally published as The Most Handsome Sons in the World!, a memoir about the fall-out in a Jewish family when one of the sons wants to ‘marry out’.

More in the Shiny New Books review

Ella Minnow Pea – Mark Dunn (a blog post with a twist)

About 15 months ago, I got a gift from a lady at my book group: Ella Minnow Pea (2001) by Mark Dunn. Fast forward a bit, and I finally got around to it, and found it a surprisingly brilliant small book.

I did know Ella Minnow Pea‘s main, and most original, ‘gimmick’, if you will – that Mark Dunn gradually lost a, b, c, so on and so forth, throughout his book – and had thought that it was simply a witty structuring and a prolonging of a trick. It had a possibility of growing a touch dull or awkward (thought I) but was still worth trying out.

And, it turns out, my worry was wholly without basis.  Ella Minnow Pea is a fairly brilliant out-working of a good trick – but it is also dark and disturbing, on occasion, and not at all a throwaway, whimsical sort of book. I hadn’t thought it would turn out so dark…

Dunn’s story all occurs on an island known as Nollop, in honour of Mr. Nollop, famous for composing an important pangram – which you might know (follow this link.)  I don’t know if Nollop is fictitious or not – Wiki is willfully ignoring him, if not – but Nollop is akin to a god for folk on his island.  So much so, that Town Councillors await his laws from on high – although Nollop is, sadly, long lost to this mortal world.  His command is, (so Councillors say), shown by Nollop Island’s local bust of his body – or, particularly, wording put by a sculptor on it, of Mr. Nollop’s pangram.  As parts of its wording fall off, Councillors claim that it is a dictat from Mr. Nollop, that island inhabitants must drop that part of vocabulary – by mouth or by writing.  If inhabitants do not comply: a warning for a first infraction, whipping for an additional slip, and banishing from Nollop for a third.

At first, as ‘z’ falls from Nollop’s famous pangram, nobody thinks much about it.  It will not significantly adjust island inhabitants’ communication – for how much do folk say ‘z’ anyway?

As ‘q’ follows ‘z’, and ‘j’ follows ‘q’, things start to grow in difficulty – and angst among inhabitants, many of whom unwittingly infract Nollop’s laws, with postliminary warning, whipping – or having to sail away from Nollop for good.  Many Nollopians opt to abandon an unhappy island voluntarily…

Fourth to go is ‘d’, which brings with it appalling frustration.  Ella Minnow Pea all consists of writing from inhabitant to inhabitant, mum to child, aunt to young girl – scrawlings which Councillors scan for contraband words, but nothing apart from that, so this lady’s inclusion of painful or incautious topics won’t occasion Councillors burning or taking a communication:

My sweet Mittie, it is strange, so terribly strange how taxing it has become for me to speak, to write without these four illegal letters, but especially without the fourth.  I cannot see how, given the loss of one letter more, I will be able to remain among those I love, for surely I will misstep.  So I have chosen to stop talking, to stop writing altogether.
I found it a tiny bit difficult to work out who was who (or whom was whom, mayhap) always, but Ella Minnow Pea is primarily about a girl with that lmnop-sounding alias, maintaining a campaign against Nollop’s Councillors – trying (with similarly stubborn island folk) to craft a rival to Nollop’s pangram, which will (curiously) abolish Nollop Island’s Town Council’s dominant control of vocabulary.

It was surprisingly moving, actually. I think Dunn might aim for Ella Minnow Pea to imply an analogy with a Fascist nation, or any sort of dictatorship which bans individual autonomy. It was chilling, as inhabitants of Nollop lost rights, all books in Nollop’s library – burnt, straightaway, for invariably having ‘z’ – and, following from that, inhabitants lost all availability for articulation.

As I said at this post’s start – Ella Minnow Pea is surprisingly dark – but not gratuitously so at all.

Mark Dunn isn’t original in writing a book which avoids using a particular part of A-Z – in fact, a book using this cunning trick is known as a ‘lipogram‘ (Dunn’s book is, if you will, lipogrammatic) – but not many authors could discard so many words and still craft a story so brilliant, almost as though this linguistic loss had no ability to limit his writing or imagination.  Only Dunn could craft a book so moving and full of wisdom, with this handicap – thank you so much, Ruth, for giving it to Simon’s Book Gift Mountain.

And now, that twist – did you spot that this blog post – I think! – was built (apart from citations and quoting ‘Ella Minnow Pea‘ in full), without using any ‘e‘s at all…?  Not with Dunn’s brilliant cunning at doing so, although I must admit that it was oddly tiring!

Congratulations, if you did spot that!