Friday, November 9, 2012

An Ordinary Housewife's Extraordinary Story

 Nella Last's War: The Second World War Diaries of Housewife, 49.
Edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. Profile Books. 2006.

I became intrigued by Nella Last when I saw "Housewife, 49," a 2008 British televison drama based on the book, Nella Last's War. Nella Last, a forty-nine-year old housewife who felt stifled by her marriage, gradually empowers herself through her work for the Women's Voluntary Service, a British wartime volunteer organization, and through keeping a diary for the "Mass Observation" project. The book is an edited collection of her diary entries for this project during World War II.

 Mass Observation was a social research program created by Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson in 1937 in an effort to help British people gain a greater understanding of themselves in everyday life. They recruited volunteers to "observe" their daily lives through the keeping of diaries which were submitted weekly to MO headquarters and through responding to periodic questionnaires called "Directives." It was thought these materials could be used to create "a science of ourselves." The project would increase understanding of the lives of "ordinary" citizens whose ideas were not often represented in public life. It also reflected a recognition of the value of studying individual subjective experience. Respondents were asked to write not only about their perceptions and experiences of public life and larger political events such as the war, but also about their own personal lives.

Nella Last was one of hundreds of volunteers who responded to this request. Her work was unusual in that she was the only observer who continued to keep a diary for longer than two years; indeed she continued to submit entries to MO for close to thirty years. Nella's diary also stood out because of the detail and length of her entries and the quality of her writing. Her diaries were the first of the MO documents to be published in book form. Nella Last's War was first published in 1981 by Falling Wall Press and then republished in 2006 by Profile Books. This first volume of the diaries, covering the years from 1939 to 1945 was edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. A second volume, Nella Last's Peace, was published in 2008 and a third, Nella Last in the 1950's, was published in 2010. The second and third volumes were both edited by Robert and Patricia Malcolmson.

Nella Last's War is framed by World War II, its first entries recording England going to war in September of 1939 and its last recording the end of the war in Europe in August of 1945. The "narrative drive" of the book, as the editors refer to it, is created through their selection of entries that record the progress of the war in the larger world, Nella's emotions and experiences as she lived through it, and, among other themes, Nella's growing assertiveness in her personal world. While the Nella of the diary is not timid and uncertain of herself as she is portrayed in "Housewife, 49," she does write about having had emotional problems--"breakdowns" as she refers to them-- as well as physical illnesses, and about having been under the care of a doctor. As the diary makes clear, Nella Last is a woman who has always known her own mind, but one who has not always allowed herself to speak honestly to whomever might dominate or coerce her, especially her husband and her husband's family. Her doctor had said, "Repression is deadly." She describes following his advice and learning to express what she really thinks and feels, both at home and at work with the Women's Voluntary Service. These changes in her, her growing sense of the importance of her contribution to the war effort, as well as the fact that she is not at home as much as she once was, occur much to the consternation of her husband, who bemoans the fact that she is no longer as "sweet" as she used to be. "Who wants a woman of fifty to be sweet, anyway?" she retorted. "And besides, I suit me a lot better!" (entry of 14 March , l940).

 In addition to being a compelling account of a British woman's experience during World War II, Nella Last's story makes a strong case for the importance of a woman's meaningful work outside the home, even if unpaid, to her self-esteem and sense of purpose. The Guardian describes Nella Last's War as "The whole post-war women's movement anticipated and rehearsed by a solitary pioneer on the most unlikely of stages." Nella wrote, in an entry on 4 October, 1940, "After all these peaceful years, I discover I've a militant suffragette streak in me, . . . ." Indeed, one may find in her diary a feminist critique of war, as well as of sex, marriage, motherhood and women's work both inside and outside the home. Nella's diary reveals a woman who was a unique combination of traditional wife, homemaker and mother; mystic, poet and dreamer; and feminist, longing for solitude and adventure and the chance to write. "Next to being a mother,"Nella wrote, "I'd have loved to write books" (entry of 8 October, 1939). Nella Last's War shows how a diary may function as an important outlet, not only for emotions but also for talents and abilities that have no other means of expression. Although she often says she is not "clever," Nella had the sensibility of a novelist and a facility with language. She was also a keen observer of human behavior. Of Nella Last's War one reviewer remarked: "Enough material to fill half-a-dozen novels" (Bookseller). In their Afterword to Nella Last's Peace, Patricia and Robert Malcolmson observe that Nella ". . .had always wanted to be a writer, and . . . MO allowed her to become one" (291).

After reading Nella Last's War, I was delighted to go on to Nella Last's Peace and Nella Last in the 1950's. Nella Last has become a kind of friend; she is certainly someone I would like to have had the pleasure of knowing and whose "company" I will miss. Her diaries are great reading and would appeal especially to those who, like myself, are dedicated diary or journal-keepers or who have an interest in women's experiences during World War II.
Guest poster, Roseanne Rini, Ph.D., has thirty-five years of experience teaching college English and Women's Studies and a special interest in women's diaries and memoirs. She is currently working on a memoir of her own about growing up Italian American. Roseanne is also an Editor for Story Circle Network. You can read her profile at and follow the links at for her 2011 blogs on journal and memoir writing.
 Bookmark and Share


  1. This is very interesting on a variety of levels--historically, sociologically, etc. Sounds like she really used her diary as an outlet and a way to approach personal growth. On my TBR list.

  2. Through our own writings we come to know ourselves. This does sound like an amazing read.

  3. This does sound like an extraordinary story. Women's personal growth changed so much during that time period. She sounds like someone who came into her own and liked it.

  4. It's on my list, too, Elizabeth.

    So true, Liza. Even writing fiction, you come to know more about yourself. And I think that's even more true when you're writing non-fiction.

    I hadn't thought of it that way, Laura. That makes me want to read the books even more.

  5. Thanks for the introduction to this fascinating story. Sometimes we think that women did more personal growth with the advent of feminism, but there was a lot in earlier years, too. Makes me think of the Suffragettes, as well as the strong pioneer women.

  6. I just shared this over at Story Circle's listserv. It sounds like an amazing set of books.

  7. I'm currently finishing up a lengthy manuscript evaluation for a developmental editing client who took on many challenges, including first person narration with a narrator that becomes unreliable due to psychotic breakdowns. With it ensconced in my mind while reading this, Nella Last has offered up a few tidbits for my client. Thanks, Roseanne!

  8. My mother came to the U.S. from Germany after the war. This sounds like a book I should read in preparation for telling Mom's story in what will be my fourth book in my "Dare to Dream" series.

  9. I agree Maryann. There are time periods when great change occurs. This was one of them.

    I think so,too, Dani. I shared it on SCN's Editorial Services Facebook page.

    Sounds like an intense book, Kathryn.

    I bet it would be, Heidi.

  10. What an intriguing story this must be! Diaries and journals give us license to bare our souls, vent our frustrations, and speak our peace. We can be who we are and expound on who we want to be. Wow! I'd really like to read this book. Thank you, Helen, for posting this review. :-)


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.