Nella Last was a 49-year-old housewife living in Barrow-in-Furness, a shipbuilding town, when England declared war on Germany in 1939. Her husband was a joiner; her sons were just leaving home, one to be a soldier. From rationing to volunteering with the Women’s Voluntary Service, through bombing raids and fear for her sons, Nella Last kept a thoughtful, detailed record of life on the home front.
Her account comes to us courtesy of the ominously titled Mass-Observation Archive, a national writing project that solicited diaries from civilians. Whether it’s because the diaries have been expertly edited (the entries in this volume represent only a portion of Last’s reams of writing) or because she was consciously writing for the understanding of strangers at Mass-Observation, Nella Last’s War reads much like a novel, albeit a quiet, domestic sort of novel. She didn’t have much formal education, but she has a way with words:
“[Her neighbor] says she prays God to strike Hitler dead. Cannot help thinking if God wanted to do that he would not have waited till Mrs. Helm asked him to do so.”
A thrifty cook and seamstress, Nella practices the domestic arts to an extreme that I thought existed only in Good Housekeeping, including actually warming her husband’s slippers by the fire. At some point in the not-too-distant past, Last has had a breakdown; exactly what it entailed, she never tells, but the lesson she’s taken away from it is that she must learn to stand up for herself. Both the War Office and her husband come in for a fair dose of criticism, and the husband seems mystified by her newly-discovered need to state her own opinions, sometimes IN CAPITAL LETTERS. “After all these peaceful years,” she writes, “I discover I’ve a militant suffragette streak in me, and I could shout loudly and break windows and do all kinds of things—kick policemen perhaps—anything to protest.”
Well, kicking policemen may be taking it a bit far. But after years of deferring to the criticism of her in-laws and husband, she finds validation in her war work—sewing blankets and dolls for evacuated children, staffing a soldiers’ canteen, raffling crafts, and eventually coordinating a thrift shop. Despite her house cracking on its foundation from nighttime bombing raids, she is the very model of “keep calm and carry on,” doing her best to provide for husband, sons, and strangers, and priding herself, when it was hard to come by a matched set of anything, on serving visiting soldiers a proper tea with matching silverware.
While I spent much of the book psychoanalyzing the author, it’s also full of curious details about everyday life during the war. I hadn’t realized that in addition to outdoors Anderson shelters, there were indoors Morrison shelters, like a chicken coop for your family, designed to withstand the collapse of a two-story house. Take a look, and imagine being shelved in there with your loved ones while the house is shaking.
The title is definitely one with a double meaning. Of course it’s a story of World War II, as experienced by one relatively insignificant civilian; but you can’t help notice that Last is also waging her own, personal war to find her own strengths and peace of mind. It’s very easy to extrapolate from her comments to larger issues of women moving into the work force (not to mention wearing pants!) and what life might be like for them after the war when all is supposed to go back to “normal.”
Last’s diaries were dramatized by Victoria Wood in the film Housewife, 49, which is well worth seeing if you enjoy the diary.
Check the WRL catalog for Nella Last’s War.