An ordinary woman, rather like yourself.’ These were Peter Fleming’s words when he commissioned Jan Struther to write what became her ‘Mrs Miniver’ columns for the Times. Critics complained then, and have complained ever since, that Mrs Miniver is no ‘ordinary woman’. She rings the bell for tea, takes taxis everywhere, and has a second home in Kent.
As I read These Wonderful Rumours, the 1938-1945 diaries of a Derbyshire schoolteacher in her twenties called May Smith, I kept thinking, ‘Here is your perfect ordinary woman.’ And I was not being pejorative. Ordinary does not mean dull. It means unpretentious and normal.
Through the seven years covered by the diaries, May Smith takes hundreds of buses, has numerous coats fitted at Bracegirdles in Derby, reads volumes and volumes of fiction ranging from Jane Eyre to Maigret, plays countless games of tennis in her tennis dress, and decorates her classroom for Christmas seven times, standing on tiptoe on the desks. While Singapore and Tobruk fall, she spends the evening washing her hair, or knitting her mauve cardigan, or playing Lexicon by the fire with her mother.
I grew to love every single such detail. This is what it really must have been like to live through the war in Derbyshire on a teacher’s salary with no car. I was fascinated to hear what she got for Christmas: bath salts, covered hangers, a rolled-gold watch strap, a fruit knife, lavender water, a brush, mirror and comb set and a darning set. (It explains the paraphernalia you find lingering 60 years later in the dressing-table drawers of the elderly.)
I was heartbroken to read what all the children in her class (46 of them) got for Christmas 1940, in their over-excited and delighted state when the classroom was festooned with paper-chains and it was snowing outside and they’d played Hunt the Thimble. The boys got a drawing book and a rubber, and the girls got — a hankie. ‘They looked rather downcast at the sight of the hankie,’ May writes.
One can imagine publishers’ hearts sinking when they read, ‘I found these wartime diaries in the collection of my recently deceased mother and wonder whether by any chance.…’ No doubt they have a standard email reply to this kind of plea. But Virago has rightly seen these diaries (edited by May’s son Duncan) as publishable — though they could have done better with the title, which is drearily abstract. These diaries have narrative drive (will the house or school get bombed? Will May marry the Faithful Freddie, who takes her to ‘the flicks’ countless times followed by tea and a bus home? Or will she plump for the dull but adoring Doug, stationed in Ely, who always ends his letters ‘Take care of yourself’?) The diaries are also made publishable by May’s narrative voice, which can be withering, both about herself and about others.
She has caught A.A. Milne’s habit (‘a Useful Pot to Put Things In’) of using capital letters at the beginning of every word in a phrase when quoting someone else speaking in characteristic fashion: ‘My father remarked curtly No Wonder We’re Not Winning the War.’ ‘Dougie remarks that The Exercise Will Do Us Both Good.’ When a ball gets stuck in a tree at school, one boy suggests that ‘We Chop the Tree Down, Miss.’ It is a comic (at least, fairly comic) instrument of wryness — part of her small armoury of stylistic habits. She uses as many elegant variations as she can think of for ‘we went out’ (ventured forth, sallied forth, and so on), and refers to clothes as ‘unsightly creations’. Rather than being annoyed by them, I found these habits of English all part of the wartime fabric, and just as evocative as the events described. As May herself would say, ‘Praise be!’
As for insights into the war, there’s lots of predictable stuff about damp air-raid shelters, rare ‘luscious’ bars of chocolate, and rationed stockings. It hadn’t occurred to me before, though, that Christmas 1942 was the fourth Christmas of the already tediously long war. The family thought it was all nearly over, thanks to El Alamein. May’s father talked about getting the garage ready for the peace celebrations.