A Domestic Tale as Wartime Propaganda: Mrs. Miniver (1939), Jan Struther


Mrs. Miniver was “more powerful to the war effort than the combined work of six military divisions.” Prime Minister Winston Churchill

What effect can a book made up of the vignettes of simple family life have on a world in conflict? Can descriptions of dentist visits, a mother/daughter shopping spree in search of the perfect doll, Christmas stocking treasures, the almost sacred responsibility of finding the right engagement planner, and feeling the joys of Spring, turn apathetic nations into a call to arms? Apparently, one did.

First published as a series of columns in The Times (of London), the Minivers are a fictional middle class family living an idyllic life in Kent. Mrs. Miniver details her life as a wife and mother to architect Clem and their three children Vin, Judy and Toby. Her days, though simple and common, are observed with a depth of wisdom and poignancy that grows as the world’s crises encroach into her life. Through all her normal activities she is aware her world is in that liminal time between the peace and stability of ordinary daily life and the upheaval of the war to come.

When Mrs. Miniver goes doll shopping with her 12 year-old daughter she wonders whether the “modern unbreakable dolls, which lasted for years, were more, or less, precious to their owners than the old china ones, whose expectation of life had been a matter of months.” On the day the family must give up their old car, she feels its loss deeply because she is a “fool about inanimate objects…She did not pretend to herself that cars had souls or even minds…No, but a car, nowadays, was such an integral part of one’s life… that it had acquired at least the status of a room in one’s house. To part from it, whatever its fault, was to lose a familiar piece of background.” As the car is driven away, she cannot bear to watch and turns on the bath tap, lathers up her ears and begins to sing at the top of her lungs.

Though her days are spent like any middle class wife and mother in child rearing, lunches, teas and weekend parties to ascribe to her a stereotypical superficiality or ignorance of the larger world, would be a mistake. And while many of her activities are light-hearted and relatable, as when she obsesses over the design and feel of a new engagement planner and purchases her second choice only to return minutes later for the one she really wants, or the annual New Year’s Eve fortune telling party where liquid lead is dropped in water to harden as the oracle device, Mrs. Miniver notices little things and ponders their power and worthiness.

But the world’s problems do encroach and she is forced to come to terms with their effect. When she takes her niece to Switzerland and the rumblings of war are apparent she experiences a moment of great universality when a little boy takes her hand to show her his rock collection, which makes her think of her own son and his “c’lection” of rocks.  She wonders at the ridiculous war talk, “when little boys in all countries collect stones, dodged cleaning their teeth, and hated cauliflower?”

As she passes a newsstand in her little village, she sees the word ‘JEWS’ plastered on the front page of the evening newspaper and winces. But she catches herself. She must not get to that point of not thinking about it. “To shrink from vicarious pain was the ultimate cowardice…it was a sin. Only by feeling it to the utmost, and by expressing it, could the rest of the world help to heal the injury which had caused it. Money, food, clothing, shelter—people could give all these and still it would not be enough: it would not absolve them from the duty of paying in full, also, the imponderable tribute of grief.”

As the prospect of war with Germany looms closer she and her family must be fitted for gas masks. And by the end of the book, the Minivers are living in their home in the country and fostering 7 children from London families to safeguard against the bombs.

The Film

miniver

The power of the book and the release of the film version in 1942 cannot be underestimated. When the book was published in the United States in 1940, it topped the bestseller list and Jan Struther was sent on a lecture tour throughout the country.  President Roosevelt thought the film so important he ordered it rushed to theaters all over the US. As with Churchill, he believed it struck a chord and hastened America’s involvement in the war.

I have to admit I am a big fan of the film. And while it is very different from the book, its impact has been a lasting one garnering awards and placement on best and favorite movie lists. In 2009, The Library of Congress added it to its film registry as being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant and will be preserved for all time.

Simple daily mundane routines. Family connections, community support and care for your neighbors. What the Allies fought for. What the Germans felt:

Mrs Miniver “shows the destiny of a family during the current war, and its refined powerful propagandistic tendency has up to now only been dreamed of. There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany; nevertheless the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” Joseph Goebbels

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My Edition:
Title: Mrs. Miniver
Author: Jan Struther
Publisher: Harcourt, Brace and Company
Device: Hardcover
Year: 1942
Pages: 298
Full plot summary

Challenges: Mount TBR, What’s in a Name, Classics Club

Rilla of Ingleside, L.M. Montgomery (1921)

My Edition:rilla
Title: Rilla of Ingleside
Author: L.M. Montgomery
Publisher: Bantam Books
Year: 1987, text of the original 1921 edition
Pages: 277
For a plot summary.

 

“Before this war is over, every man and woman and child in Canada will feel it—you, Mary, will feel it—feel it to your heart’s core. You will weep tears of blood over it. The Piper has come—and he will pipe until every corner of the world has heard his awful and irresistible music. It will be years before the dance of death is over—years, Mary. And in those years millions of hearts will break.” Walter Blythe[i]

My Thoughts:

It has been a long time since I have had such confusing reactions toward a book.

Rilla of Ingleside is the last book in the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery. It is the intensely personal and intimate account of a Canadian village caught up in the anxiety and hardships brought on by WWI.

I was captivated by 15 year-old Rilla and her young “chums” as they changed and grew through the struggles and sacrifices the war brought to their daily lives. I was impressed at the way they stepped up to adult responsibilities at home and on the battlefield. I especially liked how her family and the town at large waited expectantly each day for the newspaper, their fear and elation at battles lost and won as they poured over the daily paper and discussed their fate and that of Europe.

Rilla did her part as organizer of the Junior Red Cross Society and as surrogate mother to Jims, the war-baby whose father was at the front. This was an interesting fact for me, as I was surprised at the casualness of the handover of an infant to a non-related 15 year old girl. Did this really happen? Need some research here!

A knowledge of the preceding books in the series is not necessary to richly experience Rilla of Ingleside. This is a stand-alone book full of well-drawn main characters, who portray an honorable citizenry doing ‘what it takes” to keep up their spirits, their Canadian ethics and the “home fires burning” against the terror and evil prevailing over Europe.

When the word had come that Jem must go she had her cry out among the pines in Rainbow Valley and then she had gone to her mother. “Mother, I want to do something. I’m only a girl—I can’t do anything to win the war—but I must do something to help at home.”

“Don’t you think you could organize a Junior Red Cross among the young girls,” said Mrs. Blythe?

“Well”—Rilla took the plunge—“I’ll try, mother—if you’ll tell me how to begin. I have been thinking it all over and I have decided that I must be as brave and heroic and unselfish as I can possible be.”[ii]

What so distressed me about the book, was the death of Anne Shirley. Not her actual death, of course, but the slow fade-out of the once vibrant, dramatic, sensitive and smart Anne who, to use an appropriate description, was basically MIA. In fact, I resented Susan with her emotional outbursts, her sensibility and the way she mobilized the family’s patriotism. Because that should have been Anne.

To be fair, Anne really faded out in books six and seven as her children grew and took over the main story lines. But it seems to me Montgomery could have tried harder in the last book to give Anne a better send off. Just because Anne became a wife and mother is no reason to restrict her to a life of retiring domesticity as the noble mother who suffers in silence as she sends her boys off to war. In modern parlance, she got hardly any air time in this book and it is shattering. This is Anne Shirley we are talking about. SHE would not have faded into the old tropes of sacrificial wifedom and motherhood!

Maybe Montgomery felt this series was only for young adults and as such thought they would not be interested in characters over the age of 20. But I will always regret my last experiences with Anne of Green Gables were actually with her ghost.

I was just taking relief from the intolerable realities in a dream, Gilbert—a dream that all our children were home again—and all small again—playing in Rainbow Valley. It is always so silent now—but I was imagining I heard clear voices and gay, childish sounds coming up as I used to. I could hear Jem’s whistle and Walter’s yodel, and the twins’ laughter, and for just a few blessed minutes I forgot about the guns on the western front, and had a little false, sweet happiness.[iii]

I read somewhere that this was the first book to give a Canadian perspective of everyday life during the war. In that respect, it is a valuable resource and for that reason I do not regret the time I spent in reading this book. I do not resent Montgomery, either for not giving me the book I wanted. That is not a good way to review a book. She had her reasons for treating Anne, er, Mrs. Blythe the way she did I am sure and I like Montgomery enough to keep on reading through her vast array of work.

Rilla, the Piper will pipe me ‘west’ tomorrow….And Rilla, I’m not afraid. When you hear the news, remember that. I’ve won my own freedom here—freedom from all fear….I am not afraid, Rilla-my-Rilla, and I am not sorry that I came. I’m satisfied. I’ll never write the poems I once dreamed of writing—but I’ve helped to make Canada safe for the poets of the future—for the workers of the future—ay, and the dreamers, too—It isn’t only the fate of the little sea-born island I love that is in the balance—nor of Canada nor of England. It’s the fate of mankind. That is what we are fighting for. And we shall win….For it isn’t only the living who are fighting—the dead are fighting too. Such an army cannot be defeated.[iv]

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[i] 33.
[ii] 53.
[iii] 171.
[iv] 192.