In The Real Mrs Miniver, Ysenda Maxtone Graham traces the life story of her English grandmother Joyce Maxtone Graham, née Anstruther, pen-name Jan Struther (1901-1953) — a fascinating and accomplished woman whom in fact the author never met. The book is well-researched, beautifully written and very engaging, probably owing as much to its lively and intelligent subject as to her grand-daughter’s individual writing talent.
Joyce Maxtone Graham, as Jan Struther, successfully published articles and verses in Punch before beginning the regular “Mrs Miniver” columns for the Court Page of the Times, which would establish her popularity and fame. Ysenda Maxtone Graham reveals the roller-coaster ride of Jan Struther’s life and career — the mental battles she fought to differentiate herself from her popular character “Mrs Miniver” and her attempts to juggle the pros and cons of her complex personality and situation: her privileged class upbringing, her once-happy marriage, her love for her children, her writing vocation, her poetic insight into life, and her almost uncontrollable passions.
It was the late 1930s, with war imminent between Britain and Germany. The “Mrs Miniver” stories were collected and published in 1939 as Mrs Miniver and the book took America in particular by storm. (See separate review on this website.) The British Government dispatched Joyce, now using the name Jan Struther, to the US for endless rounds of public talks and lectures as a special goodwill ambassador — a demanding role Jan long embraced. Hollywood commissioned its best talent to produce the box-office hit Mrs Miniver starring Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon. The movie swept the Oscars after its release in 1942 and, in polarising public opinion, helped persuade America to come to Britain’s aid in war-torn Europe.
Jan Struther was on first-name terms with Eleanor Roosevelt. At the height of her American fame the President and his wife invited the Englishwoman to stay for a weekend at the White House. For many years Jan also appeared as a celebrity panellist on US radio and TV shows.
But this biography is the story of the “real Mrs Miniver,” the girl who bonded with her nanny more than her mother, who went to school with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon (the future Queen and Queen Mother) and willingly married Scottish “laird” Tony Maxtone Graham — yet who was a smart, witty free spirit who took pleasure in life’s details, who swore and liked sex, and who chaffed at the shackles of her safe, privileged existence to the point where in New York she sought out and revelled in the companionship of the riff-raff in Hell’s Kitchen.
It is the story of a complex, talented poet who, though an intelligent atheist, wrote hymns which are still sung in Christian churches today.
It is the story of a woman who led a double life on both sides of the Atlantic, yet remained unable to reveal her secret as much because of her image as the happily married “Mrs Miniver” as for the sake of her children. By the time Jan divorced Tony and married her lover of many years, the Viennese immigrant Adolf Placzek, she had become a victim of depression. She died of a brain tumour at only 52 — nine years before her granddaughter Ysenda was born.
Which underlines the accomplishment of Ysenda Maxtone Graham in The Real Mrs Miniver. She has conducted thorough research (Adolf Placzek in particular cooperated), yet the writing is seamless. There is a helpful index but not a footnote in sight. Poems by Jan Struther that are very, very good introduce each chapter and conclude the biography in a way that might bring tears, or perhaps make one laugh.
The book surprises with its upward sweep to end on such a happy note, but it’s appropriate to the bright spark of the “real Mrs Miniver” who lit up the world around her during much of her lifetime. Jan’s talented grand-daughter Ysenda adds her own dramatic, effective touch in the final lines of the wonderfully structured Epilogue — light, understated, Struther-like. Just perfect.
SMSA Library Officer