Mrs Miniver by Jan Struther

I’m back – after a few days away, due mainly to life getting in the way and specifically to idiots viewing our house.

Anyway, the only thing keeping me semi-sane at the moment is reading and I’m behind with blogposts. A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Mrs Miniver. It’s one of those books that just seems to have always been there, probably more because of the film than the book. Anyway I realised that I had never read the book, nor even seen the film although I’ve probably seen some clips from it.

The first thing that struck me when I read the blurb on the back of this Virago is that as Jan Struther was of Scottish heritage then this one would be fine for Peggy Ann’s Read Scotland 2014 Challenge. Her father was Henry Torrens Anstruther, an Edinburgh advocate and Liberal MP for St Andrews. Jan Struther was the pen name of Joyce Anstruther, she dropped the -An- of the surname as her mother was also a writer using the name Anstruther. Jan married Anthony Maxtone Graham which is of course another weel-kent Scottish surname.

‘Mrs Miniver’ was originally a column which was published in The Times, beginning shortly before the start of World War II. She was asked to write the column by Peter Fleming, brother of Ian Fleming, it’s funny how all those bookish people are linked one way or another. Jan Struther obviously based the Miniver family on her own. Mrs Miniver’s family is described as being middle class but I think upper middle is nearer the mark as in 1939 you had to be pretty well off to be able to afford a car and indeed a cottage in Kent as well as a house in Chelsea. Nowadays you would have to be a multi-millionaire to afford that life-style of course!

Having said that Mrs Miniver did write about things which everyone was experiencing, like getting gas masks and going out in a black-out for the first time (inky), driving to Scotland ( and I must say if you’ve never done that then it’s high time that you did), visiting Highland Games, at the end of which Mrs Miniver writes: The music began to quicken intolerably for the final steps: and Mrs Miniver saw the rest through a mist. For I defy anyone, she said in self-defence, to watch a sword-dance through to the end without developing a great-grandmother called Gillespie.

First published in book form in 1939 and later in film, which I believe is quite different from the book, but Churchill credited it with doing more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships. It’s a fun but informative read.

Henrietta Sees It Through by Joyce Dennys

This book is subtitled: More News from the Home Front 1942-45.

Obviously it’s a continuation of Henrietta’s War, and is every bit as good as that book. Joyce Dennys said that she didn’t know where Henrietta ended and she began. As Joyce was a doctor’s wife herself and living in the West Country she was really just embroidering her experiences, and as they were all so unusual in wartime she probably didn’t have to do too much embroidering.

In amongst the humour there is the odd bit of serious observation, sometimes explained by footnotes. One is about the up and coming White Paper which the government was preparing on the proposed formation of the NHS. In Henrietta’s April 19, 1944 letter to her friend Robert she tells him of a conversation about it which her husband has with his friend, Doctor Rival.

It makes you think, and I must admit that it makes me feel proud that whilst they were still busy fighting World War II they also had time and the inclination to set up the National Health Service. We were up to our eyeballs in debt, the financial debt to the Americans was only just payed off a few years ago, it took us about 60 years to do that. But they still managed to do it, and this crowd of politicians that we have in at the moment are doing their best to get rid of the NHS. Shame on them!

Anyway, back to the book. Spookily, the May 16th, 1945 letter to Robert reports that it is snowing, just as it was today in the west of England, so the weather wasn’t any better then. In this book Henrietta reveals herself to be a booklover and when there is a Red Cross campaign for book donations she has a difficult time of it, which books can she part with? She gets out her copy of The Princess and Curdie, but then thinks again as she might need it for future grandchildren. She sometimes wakes in the night, in anguish over the books which she has lent to people over the years – never to see the people or books again! We probably all know how that feels!

I was really sorry when the book came to an end, especially as she doesn’t seem to have written anything else in a similar vein. I enjoyed being part of Henrietta’s world, but it struck me that in reality the end of the war was a brief joy for a lot of people, then after the celebrations they were bereft because they knew that everything was going to be changing and terrible as it may seem, the war was the best time of many peoples’ lives. They felt useful, they all had a common enemy and there was always so much going on, organising to be done and fund raising for Spitfires and such. Joyce Dennys seems to have captured the atmosphere of her times in an amusing way, which obviously went down well with Sketch readers during the long hostilities. Another hoot and a comfort read, perfect for when your brain feels more akin to spaghetti than grey matter!

Marling Hall by Angela Thirkell

This book was first published in 1942 and the attack on Pearl Harbor (7th Dec 1941) is mentioned towards the end of it. This sort of book would have been a perfect read for people in need of comfort books during that terrible time.

Marling Hall is set in Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barsetshire. Times are changing fast and Mr Marling fears that he won’t be able to hand his estate over to the younger generation. That way of life is disappearing. Lettice, the eldest daughter of the family, has been widowed by the war and has moved into the converted stables to live with her two young daughters.

Meanwhile Frances and Geoffrey Harvey, a brother and sister, have turned up in the village looking for a house to rent after having been bombed out of their London flat. They rent The Red House from Mrs Smith who takes a room just across the road and spends most of her time nicking everything out of her old home under the noses of the occupants. Her attitude was that since she owned the house then she could take whatever she wanted including the veggies which the tenants had grown and the eggs laid by their chickens – and worse! All through the book I just longed for Mrs Smith to get her come-uppance but it never happened. In my mind I’ve gripped her firmly by the neck and given her a good rattling but I’m still hopeful of her meeting her match in a later Thirkell book.

Mrs Smith reminded me of Mapp from EF Benson’s Mapp and Lucia books as she also had a habit of waltzing into her old house uninvited. Lucy the younger Marling daughter is similar to Quaint Irene too, a sort of rumbustious adult tomboy. Unfortunately she used the ‘n’ word a couple of times when her father was trying to find an alternative word for ‘native’ – but it was 1942.

Again, it’s all ration books and clothing coupons and knitting for soldiers and romance, but not the soppy kind which I can’t be doing with at all. Miss Bunting, who seems to have been nursemaid to all the toffs of Barsetshire is in control of the situation.

I don’t seem to be able to get away from The Home Front at the moment. Bizarrely there’s something very comforting about books set in that time and let’s face it we’re in need of comfort reads at the moment for all sorts of reasons. We’re definitely living in interesting times!

This is another author whom I’m reading as part of my CPR Book Group Ceilidh which is about trying to breathe life back into neglected authors and books. This one wasn’t as funny as The Brandons but was still very enjoyable, Angela Thirkell deserves to be more widely read.

Feel free to nominate your own favourite neglected authors.

The Overlanders by Dora Birtles

I bought this book purely because it was published by Virago and it wasn’t till I got home and read the blurb on the back that I thought ‘Oh dearie me! This could be a mistake!’ But as usual for Viragos, it was a really enjoyable and informative read. This is another book on my 2011 Reading List.

It’s set in Australia, and that was what put me off in the beginning because yes – it’s too hot and too sunny! But I got over that even though in parts I almost felt that the red dust of Australia was lodged in my throat.

The Parsons family Ma, Pa and daughters Helen and Mary have built up a home and farm business in the Northern Territory but when a Japanese aeroplane drops a bomb nearby they decide it’s time to move on and head for a safer part of the country. They’re living in fear of a Japanese invasion.

The family joins up with Dan McAlpine to drive 1,000 cows and bullocks to Queensland. It’s a 1,600 mile journey on horseback and cart across a hostile landscape, searching for aboriginal waterholes along the way. The native Australian people are mainly written about with respect but it did infuriate me that they had to make do with the rib bones when the others were eating steaks!

First published in 1947, the book was written after the film of the same name. I’ve read and seen so much about World War II in the past but it’s always been about Europe or Egypt and it just hadn’t occurred to me that people in Australia were being bombed and living in fear too.

Coming Home by Rosamunde Pilcher

School for Love cover

It’s week 2 of the year so this is the second book which I’ve read from Katrina’s 2011 Reading List. It’s quite a chunkster at 785 pages and I was a bit worried that I wouldn’t get through it within the week but the dreich, freezing fog of yesterday meant that I spent a lot of the day reading, much longer than I had meant to actually.

Rosamunde Pilcher has set this book in her native Cornwall, although she has lived in Scotland for most of her life, since marrying a Scottish soldier at the end of World War II.

Anyway, I did enjoy this book, although I think that her book September is still my favourite one so far. Coming Home has such a lot going for it though. Ever since reading Rebecca in the year dot I’ve had a soft spot for books set in Cornwall.There’s also a sort of crazy comfort zone about books set during World War II for people brought up on stories told by parents with first hand experience of that time. Beginning in 1935 it’s the story of 14 year old Judith who is being left behind at a new boarding school as her mother is returning to Colombo to be with her husband and takes Jess, Judith’s 4 year old sister with her.

Aunt Louise has been given the job of looking after Judith during any school holidays but things don’t go to plan and it’s the Carey-Lewis’s of Nancherrow who become Judith’s surrogate family and her whole future is wrapped up with them and the people that she meets through them.

There are lots of familiar themes as Britain is at war and Pilcher goes into great detail about the rationing and wartime life which if you are about my age you will already have heard about from your parents. But there were things in it which were so familiar, like the smiling Border collie which sounded exactly like the one that I had in my childhood, except that our Candy actually laughed, truly!

In another part a merchant ship has a refit in the Brooklyn refit yard, New York. The same thing happened to my dad when he was in the Merchant Navy in the Atlantic Convoys during the war and he spent a wonderful 6 months in peacetime New York, having a good rest from being torpedoed by the Nazis. Well, it was a refit in New York, maybe not that specific yard. We even have a Dunkirk survivor and a Japanese POW camp survivor in the family just as in the book.

What we didn’t have though is the lovely Cornish house, Nancherrow, which is such an important character in the book, just like Rebecca’s Manderlay – which is acknowledged. But houses and the land in general play a large part in the story, which I think is the mark of Celtic literature.

There is a well flagged up incident in a cinema of the ‘something nasty in the woodshed variety’ and having led a sheltered life I have had no such experience. I’d like to think that if some dirty old man tried to take liberties with me I would have had the wit to bat his hand away and stand up shouting a rat has landed on my knee with the usherette’s torch trained on the assaillant I think it would have been obvious what had happened. I like to think that anyway but maybe I would have been frozen too.

So, I would recommend this one as a good read. However, I do think that it was written with an eye on it being made into a film – which I think it was, but I haven’t seen it. There is too much detail in it with not a lot of space left for the reader’s imagination as there is a lot of what I would regard as stage direction with a character’s every movement described.

On a really personal note, I couldn’t help noticing that every time a character wept – there is quite a lot of weeping – it was swiftly followed by them ‘lustily’ blowing their nose, and often not into a hanky. Once it was a towel, a sheet, a shirt tail and even curtains were considered but rejected, thankfully. Possibly nobody else would notice this, but as I waited nearly 10 years after getting married before starting a family and one of the reasons that I put it off so long was the fact that I can’t stand snotty nosed children, you’ll realise that I prefer a snot free zone. Thankfully my kids rarely had that problem or I might have had to take them back to the shop!

A good read, especially if you enjoy long books.