The problem derives from "A Country House Visit", one of Jan Struther's newspaper articles featuring her character Mrs. Miniver. According to the story:

- "She saw every relationship as a pair of intersecting circles. It would seem at first glance that the more they overlapped the better the relationship; but this is not so. Beyond a certain point the law of diminishing returns sets in, and there are not enough private resources left on either side to enrich the life that is shared. Probably perfection is reached when the area of the two outer crescents, added together, is exactly equal to that of the leaf-shaped piece in the middle. On paper there must be some neat mathematical formula for arriving at this; in life, none."

- "It seems that certain mathematicians took this literary challenge literally, and Fadiman follows it with an excerpt from "Ingenious Mathematical Problems and Methods," by L. A. Graham, who had evidently posed the problem in a mathematics journal. Graham gives a solution by William W. Johnson of Cleveland for the general case of unequal circles. The analysis isn't difficult, but the resulting transcendental equation is messy and can’t be solved exactly. When the circles are of equal size, the equation is much simpler, but it still can be solved only approximately."

See also Venn diagram.