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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Book Review: Nella Last's War

I've wanted to read these diaries since I saw Victoria Wood's adaptation Housewife, 49 a few years ago. The diaries chronicle WWII as seen from the perspective of a middle-aged mother in Barrow-in-Furness. Nella Last suffered a nervous breakdown before the war but the renewed purpose she gets from various war-related activities separates her from her old self. She has a no-nonsense work ethic that permeates everything she undertakes but she still suffers from war fear and especially the fear that her youngest son, Cliff, will die when sent abroad. She becomes more than just a housewife and, even while the war wreaks damage everywhere, Nella's personal story is a revolutionary one.

It's easy to understand why these diaries are so compelling. Nella's voice is an everyday one in many respects but her attitude seems to contrast with some of the people around her. For instance, she wants to do everything she can and really isn't interested in getting involved with the 'politics' of which woman does what. This wins her short-term disapproval but long-term respect. She also refers to her marriage in stark terms, particularly towards the end of the war when she dreads going back to the existence where she stays in with her husband constantly. Much of the discourse I've read around WWII sees it as revolutionary for younger women, helping to set a new order for the years to come. However, Nella's story is one of an older woman grasping a fresh image of herself and her purpose. It's a very heartening book in that respect. She chronicles the good alongside the bad, the horror alongside her trips to a nearby tranquil lake. The voice that comes across is intelligent and thoughtful but rarely maudlin. There are some entries that are shocking, particularly the one where she admires Hitler for the killing of mentally ill people. Her argument is not one I'd accept today but I can see where she's coming from in the context of the day.

One thing that irritated me about this book was no fault of Nella's. Entries spanning over a year between the beginning of 1944 and May 1945 were lost when the Mass-Observation collection was moved. It interrupted the flow of the work and meant that a lot of domestic things we'd been following suddenly jump along a few paces. We don't get to read about Nella's first impressions of her daughter-in-law or how she reacted when her other son was injured and returned to her. However, the beauty of these diaries is that the gaps can be filled in because there is so much of Nella in her entries. I almost know how she would've reacted and, while it doesn't make up for it, it's a nice thing to be able to say after reading a book of diaries. I'm looking forward to reading the next collection that looks at Nella's life in the 50s.

The book contains some helpful explanatory notes at the end, including a list of people and a glossary. It also includes an afterword penned by Cliff Last which sheds light on Nella's later years and the lives of the main players in the diary. I'll leave you with Nella's final paragraph from her entry celebrating the end of the war in the early hours of 15th August 1945:

"I feel disappointed in my feelings. I feel no wild whoopee, just a quiet thankfulness and a feeling of 'flatness'. Dear God knows what I'd imagined it would be like. I think I'll take two aspirins and try and read myself to sleep." (p298)

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