Nella's writings weren't exactly on my mind, Delafield and Bowen were, but when I saw this book in a second-hand shop in Charing Cross Road last October I didn't think twice. It contains excerpts from the diaries she kept from 1939 - 1965 as part of a Mass Observation project and is divided into two parts: War and Peace. At this point I've only read her writings from during the war as that is what interests me most but plan to go back for more soon.
Beginning her writings with the headline Housewife, 49 (her age) Nella describes her thoughts about a war which at first seems a million miles away from Barrow-in-Furness. Her eldest son Arthur is training to be a tax inspector while living in Manchester and his brother Cliff is about to be called into service. Her husband, Will, would appear to be one of the most frustrating stick-in-the-mud types you could ever meet.
'It's a good thing that my husband likes his bed and insists I go up when he does. I feel so over strung tonight I 'could fly' and know if left alone would have gone on sewing - silly to knock oneself up so early.'
Nella's writing must have been quite therapeutic as well as a documentary on life during wartime. Her voice is very much that of a woman frustrated by the confines of marriage. In many ways, the war provided an arena for her to utilize her organizational abilities and if she couldn't exude much in the way of control at home she could at the Red Cross canteen. Her discerning eye taking in every aspect from how much food 'the conchies' (conscientious objectors) got at mealtimes to the slipping standards of women in their dress...
'I could not help but think that many women are seizing the excuse of there 'being a war on' to give full rein to all the sloppy lazy streaks in their make-up. When the raids were on anything could be understood or forgiven - but WHY NOW? Surely it's best to try and keep on as usual and not let go and grow careless and untidy?'
One of the vignettes from the book that stood out for me is of one of the ladies helping out at the canteen and her expanding girth. The fact that her husband had been absent for over a year while she had a close friendship with a South African officer was cause for much speculation. Once she realized her changing shape was being sized up she announced a case of fibroids and wore her coat over her dress for the duration. The fact that there is a wire cage in the front room to sleep under, cracks in the walls from bomb blasts and food shortages to deal with were just part of life but if social mores were deviated from it would amount to endless conversation. Even the editors of her diaries note that the amount of gossip was extensive at times but if I'm honest it makes for some of the best reading.
Nella was extremely proud of her domestic skills and would clean alongside her cleaning lady. Even if her husband was a bore she still worked tirelessly to put on as grand a spread for him as she could at dinnertime....
'I opened a small tin of grapefruit and served it first and then the roast lamb, baked potatoes and brown gravy and lots of lovely sweet sprouts from the garden. Then jellied apple pie, warm and fragrant with custard sauce....Everything was perfection and I could have purred like a happy cat.'
For Nella at least, and perhaps many women, the war was a chance to shine. It was an equalizer for those who became head of their household and young ladies who worked at the Yard alongside the men in trade. I have to say that at times I did find Nella's 'high and mighty' opinions a bit tiresome but overall the glimpses into her life were very interesting and insightful - not to mention addictive. Like eating a bowl of chips it was hard to stop and one entry would easily cascade into the next and the tasks needing attention on my own homefront were neglected.
My favourite war diary from one of England's 'domestic soldiers' remains to be Vere Hodgson's No Eggs and Few Oranges for its blitz spirit and images of London but first-hand stories from this era are finite and all are priceless.