The Diaries of Nella Last
'Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books...'
Welcome to A Narrative of their Own, where I discuss the work of 20th century women writers and their relevance to contemporary culture.
In 1937 Britain, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson set up the Mass Observation Archive in order to record the views of ordinary British people. Recruiting volunteer members of the British public, they requested that they simply diarise their day-to-day lives. What sounds a fairly mundane pastime became a unique insight into the lives of civilians during wartime.
One of the best known of these volunteer diarists was Nella Last, whose diary begins in September 1939 on the outbreak of the second world war.
Nella Last was a housewife and mother, married to a joiner and shop-fitter, William Last. Her youngest son Cliff was in the British Army and her eldest son, Arthur, being a Tax Inspector, was exempt from conscription. Both sons had left home, leaving Nella and her husband alone in their house in Barrow-in-Furniss. Because the town was known for its ship-building, it became a target for German bombing during the Blitz.
As this was a time of separated family members, the fear and dread of bombing raids on the home front, and the necessity of housewives like Nella to find ways of keeping things running smoothly at home, her diaries reflect both the personal and the political.
Interestingly, from the perspectives of women’s narratives reflecting the positions of women during the time they were writing are some of the personal reflections of Nella regarding her marriage and her anger at a woman’s position at the time.
Touchingly, she reflects on her passion for book writing:
‘Sunday 8 October 1939: Next to being a mother, I'd have loved to write books - that is if I had the brains and the time. I love to 'create' but turned to my home and cooking and find a lot of pleasure in making cakes etc. He [her son Cliff] seems to have got the idea that I'll go into pants! Funny how my menfolk hate women in pants. I do myself, but if necessary for work, would wear them.’1
Perhaps Nella’s ambition to write books was what drove her to volunteer for the role of diarist. Her reflections on the attitudes towards ‘a woman’s work’ were interesting:
‘Wednesday 15 January 1941: I gave Cliff a very big helping as he had to catch the train back [to his base] after lunch. He said 'If you ever have to work for a living, Mom, come and cook for the Army'. I said 'What do you mean - work for my living. I guess a married woman who brings up a family and makes a home, is working jolly hard for her living. And don't you ever forget it. And don't get the lordly male attitude that thinking wives are pets - and kept pets at that.'
Although she often reflects on her frustration at the position of women, she also worries that the new freedom the war brings may make it difficult for young women to settle for their fate later:
‘I feel this conscription of women will be a backward step, for it is taking the best, most formative years from a girl's life and giving her a taste of freedom that many crave for. Will they settle later to homes and children?’
The diaries also reflect her relationship with her husband, which she feels she should be ‘thankful for’ although she has found him to be stifling at times, with his lack of understanding that she should wish to ‘go anywhere without him’. She also honestly reflects on arguments the couple have, such as whether her son Cliff should stay safely at home or apply for overseas service. She feels (quite surprisingly given the dangers) that he should be encouraged to go overseas if this is to fulfil his own ambitions. Her exasperation here appears to be more directed at her husband, whom she sees as being resistant to new ideas.
‘He has never taught, cared for, tried to understand either of them - or ever thinks of writing to them - and is not always interested enough in their letters to listen if I read them. Cliff must live, and not shun Life and always be afraid of things and ideas.’
Showing her creative spark, Nella and her son Cliff developed a code between them in order for him to write letters back from the war. This was how she discovered that he had been posted to India.
As the war drew to an end, Nella began to reflect on her position returning to that of a housewife.
‘Thursday 10 May 1945: I love my home dearly but as a home rather than a house. The latter can make a prison and a penance if a woman makes too much of a fetish of cleaning. But I will not go back to the narrowness of my husband's 'I don't want anyone else's company but yours'.
Critics however have reflected on Nella’s worries about her position following the end of the war as relating not so much to the war coming to an end, but to a mysterious ‘illness’ Nella suffered, which was treated by a forward thinking GP, Dr Millar. As with all aspects of her life, Nella reflected on a period of sickness with seemingly no clear cause in her diary:
‘He [Dr Millar] used to talk and talk to me and ask all kinds of questions and one day he told me I had nothing whatever wrong with me, that considering the several operations and the amount of sick nursing and worries I'd had for my family, I was really a ‘remarkable woman’, mentally and physically’.
She goes on to relate a visit by Dr Millar at home, where he also turned on her husband William, asking:
‘Do you know the meaning of repression?…What would happen to a kettle if you put a cork in the spout and tied the lid down tight and yet kept it at boiling point?’
His ‘prescription’ for Nella was to go out and buy ‘a new dress and hat…and to get amongst friends more and to get over the silly idea that my husband couldn't eat a meal—even prepare it for himself—if I was not in on time’.
Nella’s own feelings about her marriage following Dr Millar’s ‘diagnosis’ are honestly and openly reflected in her diaries:
‘I looked at his placid blank face and marvelled at the way he had managed so to dominate me for all our married life, at how, to avoid hurting him, I had tried to keep him in a good mood.
I know that I'm not the sweet woman I used to be but rather a frayed battered thing, with nerves kept in control by effort that at times became too much and nervous breakdowns were the result. No one would ever give me one again, no one.’
It occurred to me whilst reading the observations of Dr Millar that Nella’s symptoms (referred to by herself as ‘nervous breakdowns’) were likely due to not only a repressive home life, but the time in which she was suffering them. In middle-age, this would probably now be recognised as quite a normal period of change in a woman’s life.
Nella appears to have seen her GP’s interventions to be a turning point in her life. When she started keeping her diaries for the Mass Observation archive, she was still coming out of her period of breakdown. Reportedly, the MO directives were to interact with strangers and this seems to have inspired her. Keeping the diaries appears to have become an important part of her daily routine, whilst also joining the Women’s Voluntary Services to allow her to further find meaning and purpose outside of her family roles. It was here that she discovered and rediscovered her talents, and her diaries give further insight into this important work, at which she appears to have excelled.2
It appears that Nella’s voluntary work allowed her to lose herself in activity and being useful. She had wanted to ‘consider herself a soldier’ as long as her son Cliff was away fighting, and she appeared to find this solace within her voluntary work.
For women like Nella, the end of the war must have brought mixed feelings. Although it meant the safe return of loved ones, it also caused a potential cut-off of the new meaning she had found outside of the home.
‘I reflected tonight on the changes the war had brought. I always used to worry and flutter round when I saw my husband working up for a mood; but now I just say calmly, “Really dear, you should try and act as if you were a grown man and not a child of ten, and if you want to be awkward I shall go out—ALONE!”’
She clearly worried about the return of the illness for which Dr Millar had prescribed a more autonomous life, and her diaries are littered with examples of rows over the war years at her husband’s lack of support for her new-found vocations. She writes candidly of the couple’s decision to take separate bedrooms in 1941, where she appears to enjoy her alone-time in order to write in her diary and read with the lamp on when she woke in the night.
It appears from her playful way with words and her dedication to the recording of these diaries that there was more than the MO directive at play. Nella Last appears to have found her voice within these pages; as a woman thwarted by an unsatisfactory marriage and the repetitive putting down of her ideas. She expresses herself in a way that shows her desire to write and create, and her willingness to challenge old ideas.
Following the end of the war, when directed by the MO to ‘write, as the spirit moves you, on PEACE’, Nella responded:
‘Words have always fascinated me—take War, Strife, Kill; shout, mutter, cry or sing them however loud and they ‘finish abruptly’. Words like Love, Pity, Peace—no longer words, [but they] linger on the air, echoing and re-echoing’.
Nella’s desire to encourage her son to fulfil his dreams ended in his attending art school following the war and emigrating to Australia, where he became a known sculptor. Sadly, opaque references to Cliff’s homosexuality, and his mother’s wish that he settle down with a nice girl eventually, appear to have soured their close relationship, and Cliff gave a negative account of his childhood in a published interview following his mother’s death.
Nella continued to write in the diaries until February 1966, when she sent in her final entry aged 76, wondering whether any of her writing was ever read. She died two years later.
Her later writing during the 1950s and 60s reveals a dissatisfied Nella, increasingly struggling to find purpose. It appears, when reading them, that she drew her greatest satisfaction and fulfilment from motherhood and her participation in the voluntary work she undertook during WW2.
Nella Last’s War: A mother’s diary was first published in 1981 and republished in 2006 following a successful TV drama based on the diaries. The series, subtitled Housewife 49 in reference to Nella’s age at the outbreak of WW2, was dramatised by writer and comedian Victoria Wood, who also played the role of Nella Last.
Whilst the diaries show that motherhood and being a housewife were central to Nella’s identity, they also portray a woman engaged in the public sphere. Nella experiences financial struggles, takes part in activism and voluntary work, and her writing reflects a sense of isolation within the Labour-dominated shipbuilding town in which she lived. You get the sense from her writing and her reflections on life that a combination of motherhood, voluntary work, and these diaries allowed Nella a sense of purpose and fulfilment; something which was perhaps lacking within her marriage.
Though not formally educated, Nella’s writing is vivid, funny, sad, intensely personal, and often moving. Within feminist studies, her diaries could be said to show the realities of the ordinary woman's struggle for autonomy within a patriarchal society, reflected at a time when the war and world events allowed for a measure of emancipation, albeit limited to the current circumstances.
However, reading Nella Last’s own words, I’m not sure whether that would be her intention. Her diaries reveal a pocket of time in the ordinary life of a woman during extraordinary times. The way she wrote, diligently recording her thoughts and feelings, both personal and political, I think she was simply a woman of her time who longed to reach for more.
Nella Last, Nells Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzi Fleming (Falling Well Press, 1981).