- Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary, 1939-45 edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming
Falling Wall Press, 320 pp, £9.95, September 1981, ISBN 0 905046 15 3
In a storeroom at Sussex University lie the records of Mass-Observation, an organisation of anonymous people-watchers which in its heyday ran into much criticism. Some of its supporters made large claims for its methods and findings; respectable journals hailed a new form of social research, while others jeered; Evelyn Waugh complained of ‘pseudoscientific showmanship’. During World War Two a minute by an official in the Ministry of Home Security described Mass-Observation reports on blitz morale as ‘a most extraordinary mixture of fact, fiction and dangerous mischief’ emanating apparently from ‘the intelligentsia’ (see Living through the Blitz by Tom Harrisson, co-founder of the organisation).
Vol. 3 No. 21 · 19 November 1981
SIR: I noted E.S. Turner’s explicit hostility to the Mass-Observation project in his review of Nella Last’s War (LRB, 1 October), and his obvious (though less explicit) hostility to a woman’s view of history, which Nella Last’s War represents. He comments of her life, ‘little in the way of hard incident occurs,’ and attempts in his review to trivialise both what the experience of war was for housewives and the quality of Nella Last’s writing.
Perhaps he is simply outraged that a housewife should have written a book, and an important one at that. He certainly is preoccupied by the fact that she (once) refers to her husband as ‘that one’. This obviously so irritated E.S. Turner that he refers to it twice. I can only assume that he is ignorant of how common it is for women to discuss their husbands in disparaging terms – though it certainly is uncommon for this kind of women’s view to appear in a history book.
Nella Last’s book is unique, not only because it has been edited from over two million words, but because she has captured so honestly the experience of millions of housewives like herself. That includes the experience of a growing self-awareness, a questioning of her husband’s authority, and an increasing confidence that her own view of the world and of events is valid. It is striking that, as a whole, historians have served us so badly that for a long time we were misled into assuming that the current women’s movement began in the 1960s. Nella Last’s book is one indication that we have a distinguished history, and not just among the famous.
E.S. Turner gives no clearer evidence of his conviction that only his view of the world is valid than in his presumption that everyone (perhaps we should add ‘who matters’) would know what Zeppelins were. The existence of a generation born since the war and the massiveness of post-war immigration seem to have passed him by. He certainly has no sense that we have explained these and other terms in the book, not only for the benefit of ‘foreigners’ (his word), but for school and college use.
I feel I must add that I was struck by the overwhelming preponderance of male reviewers in the issue which carried Turner’s attack on women’s history. Is this a case of ‘Boys Will Be Boys’?