Nella Last’s War

Posted by on March 23, 2012

Book cover: Nella Last's WarNella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

Subtitle: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49.

Mass Observation was a British project begun in 1937 to “create an anthropology of ourselves.” Part of the project involved a few hundred volunteers who kept diaries about their everyday lives and thoughts. One of these volunteers was Nella Last.

I first heard of Nella Last through a podcast of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. When she started writing her Mass Observation diary in 1937, she was a 39 year old housewife in Barrow-in-Furness, north of Liverpool, married to a joiner and shopfitter. Her older son, Arthur, was a trainee tax inspector in Manchester; Cliff, her younger son was waiting to be called up to the army.

When the war started, she joined the Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) and worked providing blankets, toys, and anything else that was needed by hospitals and evacuees, and food and drink to soldiers and sailors. Later, she also joined the Red Cross store, raising money for aid packages for POWs.

For the next thirty years, Nella Last kept her diary. Since then, it has been edited and released in three volumes. This book, the first one, covers the wartime years, from September 1939 to August 1945. In it, we learn what it felt like to be bombed night after night during the Blitz and the very real possibility of invasion; how she managed to make do with wartime rations; and the small but important pleasures of driving to the lake or parking by the water, stress-relieving pleasures that were temporarily denied during severe gasoline rationing. We see the everyday interactions and dramas at home, at the WVS, with friends, family and neighbors, and we worry with her when Cliff ships off to war. Through her eyes, we see the way society was changing in reaction to the experiences of the war. But we also see how she feels about life with her domineering husband and how things change between them as she gets more involved with matters outside the house.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in daily life, World War II, proto-feminism, and women coming into their own.

WorldCatPowell’s Books

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