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Maxtone Graham, Ysenda (May) 1962-

MAXTONE GRAHAM, Ysenda (May) 1962-

PERSONAL: Born December 31, 1962, in Sandwich, Kent, England; daughter of Robert Mungo and Claudia (Tannent) Maxtone Graham; married Michael James Smith (a lawyer), August 14, 1993; children: Toby Robert, Charles Mungo, Francis James. Education: Attended Girton College, Cambridge.

ADDRESSES: Agent—1 Avalon Rd., London SW6 2EX, England.

CAREER: Journalist.

AWARDS, HONORS: Whitbread Biography Award shortlist, 2002, for The Real Mrs. Miniver.

WRITINGS:

The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England Today, Hodder and Stoughton (London, England), 1993.

The Real Mrs. Miniver: Jan Struther's Story, John Murray (London, England), 2001, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to publications, including Sunday Telegraph, Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Church Times, and Tatler. Express on Sunday, columnist.

SIDELIGHTS: Ysenda Maxtone Graham's The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England Today is a lighthearted look at the political, financial, pastoral, and theological problems of the British Anglican church. She comments on the perpetually frantic pace in the life of its clergy—whose vocation includes many duties while at the same time has become difficult to define in the modern age. Her book also makes observations regarding church members' tastes in food and drink, interior decorations, humor, and music. D. W. Johnson noted in the Times Literary Supplement that "just as dog-owners come in time to look like their dogs, so she finds that a vicar's house and church begin to resemble each other, with secular junk in the church and religious junk in the vicarage. … The author's judgements on individual clergy are black and white. 'Sinister' and 'self-righteous' are labels she hangs around the necks of two identifiable unfortunates. On the other hand, her assaults upon some well-known preachers are a joy to read."

Jonathan Keates wrote in the London Observer that Maxtone Graham is "up-beat in her overall assessment of ecclesiastical staying power. … Her approach is that of a fidgety, funny snooper, neat handed with generalisations … and a brilliant encapsulator, with her witty ABC of modern Anglican usage and her reasons for finding clerical niceness annoying or vice-versa."

Maxtone Graham's The Real Mrs. Miniver: Jan Struther's Story is a biography of her grandmother, a woman whose fictional character was portrayed on screen by actress Greer Garson. Jan Struther was the pen name of Joyce Anstruther, writer of stories, poems, and hymns, who in 1923 married broker Tony Maxtone Graham. The couple and their three children lived in Chelsea, but after a decade, their marriage and his business began to fail, and in 1936, they moved to a more modest dwelling and modified their lifestyle.

When Peter Fleming of the London Times asked Struther to be a contributor, she agreed: Beginning in 1937 she wrote a newspaper column about everyday life from the point of view of her fictional Mrs. Miniver. The last of the columns, in the form of inspirational letters, appeared as Europe headed toward world war. The popular articles that were collected and published in 1939 as Mrs. Miniver, provided relief, following as they did the news of increasingly troubled times. But not everyone loved the upper-class woman with the ideal life: a loving husband, perfect children, and household help. Some reviewers, including E. M. Forster, were incensed by the snobbery represented there. In fact, the author's life and marriage, which had so closely resembled that of Mrs. Miniver, was now a far cry from the ideal it had once been.

By the time Mrs. Miniver was published, the war in Europe had grown more intense. Struther now met and fell in love with Adolf Placzek, a poor Jewish refugee from Vienna, who soon obtained a visa to travel to the United States. The U.S. edition of Mrs. Miniver had been selected by the Book of the Month Club, and so she had an excuse to follow Placzek and to promote her book. The British government encouraged her to go: it was seeking U.S. support for the war effort, and saw a lecture tour by Struther as a chance to promote British interests. Strother took her two youngest children and headed for New York, the home of her husband's sister. Although she tried to distance herself from her character, Struther was Mrs. Miniver to Americans, and it is reported that President Franklin D. Roosevelt attributed America's timely entry into the war on the fictional embodiment of British values.

Struther sold film rights to her book for $32,000, and the film went on to gross $9 million. She complained about her cut, as well as teh fact that Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc. (MGM) retained all rights to revision. Since the character, not the stories, was what they really wanted, her name was changed from Caroline to Kay Miniver, and the film was produced as a war movie set in a village in Kent. There, class differences and small-town tensions are eradicated by a common cause—to defeat the enemy. Director William Wyler admitted to turning Mrs. Miniver into a propaganda film, and as such it was a huge success, exceeded at the time only by Gone with the Wind, and winning a total of five Academy awards. In England some critics noted the fake sets and mock-English touches; others were touched by the film.

Struther, suffering from increased depression, returned to England in 1945. Her marriage dissolved and she returned to the United States to wed her lover, but her literary career had ended. MGM made an unauthorized sequel, The Miniver Story, in 1950, and Struther sued and won a small sum. The film, which was a flop, ended with Mrs. Miniver dying of cancer, the same illness that killed Struther at the age of fifty-two, in 1953, nine years before her granddaughter was born. "Maxtone Graham writes with a sympathy which never becomes over-indulgent," noted Times Literary Supplement critic Miranda Seymour about this biography of her unknown grandmother.

A Contemporary Review contributor found The Real Mrs. Miniver "well-written and sympathetic." Spectator reviewer David Hughes called author Maxtone Graham "clever and capable. … This is a tragic tale full of fun, a biography sized to its subject. Jan Struther had charm in oodles, but she inundates you with it, she dunks you in the syrup of her wayward manners, and forces you to bask in the reflected glory of her eccentricity. … She's thoroughly irritating, but the book isn't."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Contemporary Review, December, 2001, review of TheReal Mrs. Miniver: Jan Struther's Story, p. 383.

London Review of Books, April 25, 2002, David Reynolds, review of The Real Mrs. Miniver.

New Statesman & Society, October 1, 1993, Karen Armstrong, review of The Church Hesitant: A Portrait of the Church of England Today, p. 38.

Observer (London, England), October 17, 1993, Jonathan Keates, review of The Church Hesitant, p. 17.

Publishers Weekly, September 2, 2002, review of TheReal Mrs. Miniver, p. 63.

Spectator, November 24, 2001, David Hughes, review of The Real Mrs. Miniver, p. 51.

Times Literary Supplement, January 7, 1994, D. W. Johnson, review of The Church Hesitant, p. 24; January 11, 2002, Miranda Seymour, review of The Real Mrs. Miniver, p. 11.

Vogue, September, 2002, Reggie Nadelson, review of The Real Mrs. Miniver, p. 540.

ONLINE

Center for Progressive Christianity Web site,http://www.tcpc.org/ (October 17, 2002), Hugh Dawes, review of The Real Mrs. Miniver.

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