I have just stumbled upon a riveting book, Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49. This extraordinarily well-written record of a middle-aged housewife’s life in England during World War II is sometimes cheerful and funny, often very sad and dark, but always moving and compelling. Nella wrote her diary for The Mass-Observation Archive, founded in 1937 to conduct social research on everyday life in England. In addition to chronicling the routine, she describes the nerve-racking domestic changes galvanized by absent sons in the army, patriotism, enforced thrift, pluck,and bombs. I'm so happy I found this book, browsing at Amazon - the kind of book usually published by Persephone and Virago. Although I’m not familiar with the publisher, Profile Books, this version of the diaries (2006) was edited by Richard Broad, the TV director of a TV series about the home front during World War II, and Suzie Fleming, a historian of the women’s movement.
“Next to being a mother, I’d have loved to write books,” Nella writes. She obviously was a writer. She kept a diary until 1965.
Nella is not a Provincial Lady or Mrs. Tim, though her diary reads like a novel and is every bit as much a page-turner. She lives in Burrow, a small town heavily bombed during the war - and selflessly works for the WVS (Women’s Voluntary Service ), knitting blankets and sewing cot quilts, hospital gowns, and dolls. Although the women who work with her depend on her brightness and leadership, she is not a saint - she is often irritable and furious at selfish neighbors, who have the gall to ask her to look after their houses when they flee to the country, or ask her to shop for them - she refuses to do either, because she has enough to do. She has to queue up for groceries and look for bargains, buying cheap meat, which she uses in stews, and tinned fruit cocktail, which she saves for a special occasions. Her husband gardens and she keeps chickens.
Nella has an original voice and chronicles not only her domestic life and challenges, but the strain of forced optimism, her depression and anger. Her son, Cliff, begs her “not to change” after reading her diary, upset by her “hardness.” She is honest and venting in her diary a way she can't be in her family life.
We learn that her marriage has been oppressive, and that her anti-social husband had prevented her from going out alone, until her health collapse three years before. At the beginning of the war she develops a stutter and bumps appear on her nails. (These symptoms don't last.) Motherhood has been the main joy of her life. In some ways the war gives her freedom and independence she's never had before. She becomes a super-patriot: when Cliff, the younger son, takes leave from the army shortly after his sick leave, she rages, because she thinks he’s not doing his duty. And his friend, Jack, also a soldier, comes home on leave and mocks Churchill and expresses his doubts whether he knows what he is doing. Nella is furious, but when she next listens to Churchill, she isn’t inspired. She processes others’ opinions slowly and begins to understand the stress of the army on her sensitive son. And there are things we’re certainly shocked by: she agrees with Hitler “on one thing,” his gassing of the mentally ill, because she thinks they have no purpose. Her older son, Arthur, also in the military, hates Jews. She defends the Jews and Arthur admits he's prejudiced.
She has a very positive effect on people - but bitches in her diary.
And her black depressions are also very much a part of her story. I think this is what makes it very different from more upbeat, novelistic accounts. Here's an excerpt:
Monday, 22 January, 1940
I feel so useless tonight - always a sign of nervous tension with me. I feel as if my efforts were so tiny and feeble - so little to help all the trouble and pain in the world. I’ll have two aspirins tonight to try and sleep, for when I don’t it makes my wretched bones worse and makes the pain in my back unbearable. I sat quietly casting my knitting and feeling half-wild with nerves, when my little dog got up from where he was lying and peered up at me with his blinding old eyes, and then lay down on my feet, as if he knew I was unhappy.
Some residents of Burrow actually complain that its destruction is ignored by the media, while cities like Liverpool are in the news, which makes her laugh. This is a very unusual book - and there's a sequel called Nella Last's Peace.