Thursday, 10 October 2013

Nella Last's War

Nella Last'sWar:  The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife, 49'.  The Trustees of the Mass Observation Project.

Just the title and the authorship need explanation I think!  To start with, Britain undertook to do some social research beginning in 1937.  The organisation was, and I guess is, called Mass Observation.  It stopped sometime in the 1950s but picked up again in the 1980s.

One of the initial projects involved asking about 500 volunteers to keep diaries and to submit them to the organisation periodically.  In addition to diaries there were specific questionnaires sent out and all sorts.  The variety of topics they asked people about is hilarious.

Anyhow, Nella Last was one of the volunteers and when she sent in her diary pages she identified herself by her age and occupation: 'Housewife, 49'.  This identifier was later used by actress, writer, etc., Victoria Wood, in a 2007 television drama based on Nella's diaries.  Which gives you a hint of how interesting they are. [If you've not run into Victoria Wood, you missed out.  She's a national treasure.]

I loved this book for many reasons:

  • It is a first hand account of a civilian's experience of WWII, including being bombed and living in shelters, rationing, etc.
  • Born in 1889, she would have been about my Grandma's age, but she was far more exuberant and determined than Grandma ever was - she reminded me quite a lot of my Mom.  
  • Hearing all the things she did (cook, clean, run a charity shop, run a canteen, organise a wartime sewing circle) between the ages of 49 and 56 reminds me how lazy I am.
  • She - even more than most women of her day apparently - was really good at being frugal.  She had a limited housekeeping allowance that remained the same all through the war.  
  • Through the diary, you see her attitude change and her confidence grow.  She stops being a doormat for her husband (who sounds a bit of a lump) and begins to appreciate her own worth. 
  • She was clever and creative and she made important contributions to her community just by doing what she loved to do:  cooking, crafting, recycling - and being very organised.
  • She talks about anything and everything in a down to earth way. Her husband worked for in a family owned business and they ran a car, which makes them fairly prosperous. People above her on the social ladder clearly turned to her competent and practical ways for aid just as much as those below.
  • She always served her husband a hot lunch, which he came home for.
  • She felt the most thrifty means to feed her family was to do what they called 'hotel meals', consisting of 'a soup, a savoury dish and a sweet'.  Of course soup can be made from yesterday's left overs; her savoury dishes tended to be casseroles made up of small bits she gathered.  The sweet was often something make shift involving gelatin, tinned fruit, evaporated milk or cream, if she didn't have the means to bake an actual cake.
  • She always hid her 'economies' until the war forced everyone to be more careful; then she discovered her frugal skills were much envied and her advice sought.
  • She clearly adored her two grown sons, but she wanted them both to live full and fulfilling lives, even if it meant they might not always be safe or near to her.
  • In short, she had stacks of character.

If any of these ideas interest you, can I suggest you put your hands on this book?  It isn't indexed as I'd like it to have been, but I found a link that includes some of my favourite quotes.  It doesn't include any of her funny recipes, but you'll get a flavour of the kind of person she was.

Family, friends, woman's role

In these extracts, Nella writes of moments in her family life during the war. She reveals her feelings towards her husband, her sons, her past life and her anger at the limitations that society imposed on women at this time.

Monday 25 September 1939: I've got a lot to be thankful for. Even the fact - which often used to stifle me - that my husband never went anywhere alone or let me go anywhere without him, has settled into a feeling of content.

Sunday 8 October 1939Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books - that is if I had the brains and the time. I love to 'create' but turned to my home and cooking and find a lot of pleasure in making cakes etc. He [her son Cliff] seems to have got the idea that I'll go into pants! Funny how my menfolk hate women in pants. I do myself, but if necessary for work, would wear them.
Wednesday 15 January 1941I gave Cliff a very big helping as he had to catch the train back [to his base] after lunch. He said 'If you ever have to work for a living, Mom, come and cook for the Army'. I said 'What do you mean - work for my living. I guess a married woman who brings up a family and makes a home, is working jolly hard for her living. And don't you ever forget it. And don't get the lordly male attitude that thinking wives are pets - and kept pets at that.'

Saturday 24 January 1942
: Nella had a huge row with her husband, over whether their son Cliff should volunteer for overseas service. Her husband wants him to remain at home in a 'safe' job, whilst Nella wants him to fulfil himself. Her anger seems to be related to her exasperation at her husband's lack of imagination and resistance to new ideas.
In the early years of their marriage, times were hard and her husband's family was of little help. Nella was still angry at their patronising and arrogant behaviour towards her in those times.
He went on and on about Cliff being a fool and if he had remained a PT instructor, he might never have had to go. Nella replied Would you cling so tightly to Cliff that you would kill all that was fine in him as long as he stayed in England. What about honour and duty. He said 'You always did talk daft, I want my boy to be safe'.
Nella replied angrily
I thanked God I was a fool... and had tried to teach my lads to be fools and if he had been a bit more of a fool, he would have been more of a man. His boy, indeed. He has never taught, cared for, tried to understand either of them - or ever thinks of writing to them - and is not always interested enough in their letters to listen if I read them. Cliff must live, and not shun Life and always be afraid of things and ideas.
Cliff told his parents that he had let it be known that he was willing to go abroad. He was taken aback by his father's face with tear-filled eyes, crying 'I want you to be safe'.
Nella said
Safe for what? Till his soul dies in his body... and bitter inward thoughts turn his blood sour and torment him.

Death, freedom and marriage
Wednesday 21 March 1942: Cliff's best friend, George, was killed. On Cliff's return home, Nella Last quotes his words.
'I never knew death before, that dreadful nevermore feeling. So much has gone. I cannot linger around a bookshop. I never cared for anyone as much as George. We belonged. Our friendship was one of mutual likes and dislikes.'
Nella Last writes:
So dreadful to see distress one cannot do anything to help or comfort. Words are hollow and brittle things. I could only hold him [Cliff] closely. So much passing that was beautiful and good
Sunday 12 April 1942When I was a girl, it was considered very odd not to be married at 21 or 22, and my mother said 17 or 18 was the age most girls thought of marriage when she was young. Looking round friends and acquaintance's boys and girls, sons of 25 to 30 with no thought of marriage and girls who are going off to the Services and saying 'Oh we will wait till after the War to get married'.
I feel this conscription of women will be a backward step, for it is taking the best, most formative years from a girl's life and giving her a taste of freedom that many crave for. Will they settle later to homes and children?
Sunday 17 May 1942My wedding anniversary - 31 years ago. I was married in blue but as no make-up was worn then by a respectable girl, it robbed me of what colour I had. I can remember my huge dark eyes, blazing in my poor white face and my attempts to rub and pinch a bit of colour into my cheeks. My mother thought I was lovely, my husband thought I looked white and afraid.
Thursday 10 May 1945I love my home dearly but as a home rather than a house. The latter can make a prison and a penance if a woman makes too much of a fetish of cleaning. But I will not go back to the narrowness of my husband's 'I don't want anyone else's company but yours'.
I looked at his placid blank face and marvelled at the way he had managed so to dominate me for all our married life, at how, to avoid hurting him, I had tried to keep him in a good mood.
I know that I'm not the sweet woman I used to be but rather a frayed battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much and nervous breakdowns were the result. No one would ever give me one again, no one.
Monday 18 June 1945I can never go back to that harem existence that my husband thinks so desirable.


Carolyn said...

Wow. Sounds like a very interesting read indeed. Her husband sounds like he subjected her to terrible emotional abuse, but maybe he had a genuine problem with dependency. I think its very important not to judge or blame where mental illness may be an issue. Fortunately it sounds like she had the strength of character to cope and to not let this overwhelm her.

Shelley said...

Carolyn - I didn't think about that possibility, mainly as no one else in the diary seemed to ever comment on her husband's controlling nature. She struck me as being insightful enough that if this had been recognised she likely would have adjusted her thinking. It sounds more about the relative social expectations of men and women and how she learned to quit trying to keep others happy at the expense of her self.

Sandra said...

I am totally hooked and really hope to read this.

Beryl said...

I remember my mother, her mother, and some of her female cousins talking about how the War gave woman the freedom to do things they would never been allowed to do if all the men were home. Women with no talent for homemaking found themselves successful and happy building airplanes.

YONKS said...

I watched the television version. It was brilliant!