Magazine article The Spectator

Made Famous by Soppiness

Magazine article The Spectator

Made Famous by Soppiness

Article excerpt

Made famous by soppiness David Hughes THE REAL MRS MINIVER by Ysenda Maxtone Graham John Murray, L17.99, pp. 314, ISBN 0719555418

Ysenda is the clever and capable grand-daughter of the woman who wrote the articles for the Times which grew into the wartime film Mrs Miniver, namely Joyce Anstruther, telescoped into the pen-name Jan Struther, also known as Mrs Anthony Maxtone Graham. The author has inherited the looks and gifts of a granny whose father, dressing for dinner alone every night, `knew that clarity and simplicity of expression are the outward signs of a writer's inward integrity'. Miss Maxtone Graham wastes no time; her biography is composed of quick perceptions briskly expressed. Her grandmother has taught her to suck eggs, especially those of sentimentality and charm. As a writer she stands at this moment where her forebear remained for good, `on the foothills of fame'.

It was that globe-trotting adventurer Peter Fleming, husband of Celia Johnson, who called Mrs Miniver into being; was he presaging forth the similar values of Brief Encounter? In 1936, cooling his heels on home ground as a Times leader writer, he ventilated his boredom by suggesting that Jan Struther now and then enliven the Court page with 'a light and feminine touch'. Harking back to her happiness as a young wife, she created an alter (or former) ego who had 'a remarkable gift for expressing small universal truths'. Apart from these columns which were indirectly to shoot her into stardom, she wrote 60 fourth leaders for the newspaper between 1938 and 1940, a number of hymns that stir you to the slops, lots of verse as weak as Patience Strong but stronger in wit, while indulging in plenty of domestic jokes that are so much like any other family's that they never pall. A superior one was making a class statement by dressing up as a parlourmaid at her own dinner-party and serving her husband potatoes. When he didn't notice, she sat on his knee and kissed him.

Her letters are riddled with literary larks. On a pre-war drive home through France the motor car is stuck in mud in bad visibility and shouted at by a cross native while stuck behind pigs, halted by a fallen tree athwart the road, and punctured. `Our delay was due to bog, fog, frog, hog and log, and if only I could make out that the puncture was due to a loose cog,' she wrote to a friend, `my happiness would be complete.' Such stories touch off surges of fellow-feeling, if not love. Without a flicker of faith she wrote those hymns - her `Lord of all hopefulness' still brings in royalties - only after penning rude limericks to drain off her levity in advance. …

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