Nella Last’s War – Review of Published Diary

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


Tags: ,

4 Responses to “Nella Last’s War – Review of Published Diary”

  1. Philip Turner Says:

    Just wanted to let readers of this site know I put up two blog entries yesterday on the occasion of what would have been the 101st birthday of the late Edward Robb Ellis. Please see links below.


  2. Barbara McDowell Whitt Says:

    Cynthia, I found, as I’m sure you did, excerpts from Nella’s war diary on the BBC History site. She wrote, as you have said, with clarity and keen insight on topics that were not mundane. We are fortunate that she was one of the 500 British civilians who chose to participate in the Mass-Observation project.

    I admire your tenacity in pushing forward with your idea for establishing a National Diary Archive in the United States.


  3. cynthiamanuel Says:

    Actually, a friend gave me a copy of the diary as a present as she knows about the work I am doing to establish a diary archive. She also knows I keep a journal.

    Good to hear from you again. How is your writing going?

    I moved my bookstore (The Eclectic Reader) to a retail location and I am happily immersed in books, reading and writing, and special events. You can find the store on Facebook.


  4. Barbara McDowell Whitt Says:

    Cynthia, I have looked at The Eclectic Reader and read your comments on Facebook. You are so blessed to have your bookstore located next door to a coffee shop and near the mountains. Among my happiest days were those spent working in a small independently owned Christian bookstore in Kansas City. On many days I ran it alone. If I wasn’t helping a customer, putting a new display in the window, ordering books or unpacking new books, I read and read.

    As for my writing, I practice it when I make comments on blogs. And I continue to thoroughly enjoy posting the diary entries I wrote 50 years ago on my blog.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: