Nella Last’s War – Book Review of Published Diary
In 1937, Britain initiated an exceptional project: The “Mass-Observation.” It was created by Charles Madge, poet and journalist, and Tom Harrisson, anthropologist. The purpose was to “record the voice of the people.” Volunteers were asked to keep a Mass-Observation Diary. Nella Last became one of the 500 people who chose to participate. Her diary was outstanding for its quality of writing and depth.
This archive at the University of Sussex Library is proof of the value of journals written by ordinary people — exactly the archive I have envisioned for the US. Furthermore, they are sponsoring an ambitious project that has been going on since 1981 where hundreds of volunteers write in diaries and produce autobiographical material that will be included in this archive for research and teaching.
Nella Last’s War gives an intimate look at what it was like for a middle-aged woman and mother of two sons in the war to live through World War II. The writing is exceptionally good. Like most diaries, it is an “interweaving of her day-to-day life, inner thoughts, general observation and descriptions of contemporary life…” I admired her spunk and real inner strength in spite of her admission that she did not always feel inside what people saw on the exterior. I saw the beginnings of feminist thinking in her reactions to men. She was quite harsh on her husband. It appears she was the backbone of her marriage. I doubt he could have survived the war without her. Rightfully so, Nella railed against put-downs of women as silly and weak.
The supporting role of the citizens of England in the war is an extraordinary sub-plot of World War II. Nella Last’s ability to survive deprivations and tragedies, get by on less, and cling ferociously to what is good in life, was inspiring. Her dedication to doing something for the war effort and rallying others to do the same kept her from the depression that destroyed some.
Yet do not think she was an ardent supporter of the war. Her occasional political remarks revealed much criticism. Her expressions of feeling about the devastation of War, human and otherwise, the unfathomable waste of it all, were poignant in the face of the endlessness of War that we can see from the perspective of the future. How many wars have been fought since World War II.
I encourage all of you serious diarists to read published diaries from time to time. Although you should not compare your journals to an edited one that has been published it will still give you much food for thought. What is it about the diary you are reading that gives it meaning? What are the details that you find fascinating and what comes across as a bore? (Or do you suspect the editor removed all of those repetitions and silly and obsessive little details that most of us feel compelled to write…like the weather or when we got up or went to bed or what flowers are in bloom, etc. ) Does the diarist record great insights? (Yes, usually.) What seems to be missing? And how does all of this compare to your own journals? Are you motivated to change the style of your writing?
Reading someone else’s work inevitably leads me to reflect on the dual nature of our personalities – our public face and our private one. There is so much more going on inside each of us than we are ever able to reveal and yet remain socially viable. I think about this whenever I record an event in my journal and know that if I were to write an article about that same event for publication in a newspaper how much obfuscation of the truth would be necessary. That’s why I love writing in my journal. I can tell the whole truth…as I see it.
I have already ordered the second volume of Nella Last’s diary. Copies of Nella Last’s diaries may be ordered on Bookfinder.com