Pulled from the Mass-Observation diaries of middle-aged housewife Nella Last, Nella Last’s War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49 is a stand-out account of English home front life as told from the perspective of a middle-aged housewife living with her husband in Barrow-in-Furness, a shipbuilding town in Lancashire. Beginning in September of 1939, Mrs. Last’s diaries paint an honest and compelling portrait of an ordinary homemaker finding her purpose and independence through volunteer work during WWII. Balancing her domestic duties with her work outside of the home provides both personal rewards and newly-realized frustrations as she contends with her husband’s contrary attitude, difficult co-workers, and other drastic inconveniences brought on by the war. Mrs. Last also wrestles with her constant worry over her two grown sons, particularly her youngest Cliff, who serves in the military.
From the real danger of the devastating nightly bombing raids, to the shifting social values and attitudes of men and women, to finding ways of getting by on rationed goods, Mrs. Last’s diaries capture a lot of the day-to-day struggles shared by millions of other households across in the country. Mrs. Last’s writing is spontaneous and lively, revealing how transformative her volunteer work was to her personally. And she isn’t hesitant about voicing her opinions, both on paper and in person. During an argument with her husband over their son Cliff possibly being sent abroad to fight, she writes:
Pent-up feelings and ‘wrongs’ rushed over me, and before I could get hold of myself again, I’d got in a few punches below the belt. If I knew my baby was going to his death, I’d not hold him back – even if I could. We must all play our own game as the cards are dealt, no trying to sneak aces from another. Cliff must LIVE – not shun life, and always be afraid of things and people and ideas, and be an old man before he has had the fire and endeavor of youth. I shook with rage, and felt a wonder that anyone but a timid girl could be so silly, childish and immature as my husband. I may be hard – but I’ve had to be, hard and resolute. Boys need a firm hand, as well as a ‘mother’s hand’.
Helicopter parents, take note.
Nella Last’s War is the first in a series of Mrs. Last’s published diaries. There’s Nella Last’s Peace, followed by Nella Last in the 1950s. After reading up on the reviews for the next two books, I may come back ‘round to Mrs. Last in the future. Out of the few historical accounts that I’ve read and written about for my blog, this one was the most humorous, engaging, and spirited of the bunch. It felt like the easiest thing, caring about this spunky lady who knitted soft toys to be sold for charity, ran a successful Red Cross charity shop, worked in a mobile canteen for soldiers, and welcomed the friends her son Cliff brought home with him and treated them like family. And don’t get me started on her culinary resourcefulness, one of the things I hope rubbed off on me while I was reading the book.