Sunday 25 April 2010

Wartime Diaries

Thank you for your comments on Nella Last's Peace and for being kind enough not to point out that I'd got the apostrophe in the wrong place! Let's hope the much anticipated third volume has a less cliched cover. Caustic Cover Critic has a very good post on the way the 'Gorbals boys' images are edited for many social history book covers. I'm now reading Nella Last's War and Mary's comment about whether she was a truly likeable women has intrigued me. Certainly she had a kind heart, but does the fact that this is a diary necessarily mean that everything is true? Nella states that she wishes she was closer to her daughter-in-law but feels her daughter-in-law is jealous of her close relationship with her son. I couldn't help wondering whether Nella was a teensy bit jealous of her daughter-in-law!

What is in no doubt is her gift for writing. Nella reminded me a little of Jane Austen who remained unpublished for much of her life but never doubted her literary genius. To a certain extent, Nella did have an admiring audience for her writing. She was known for writing brilliant letters and when poor Jess had a complete nervous breakdown - what we would probably now call severe post-natal depression - she kept the doctor and matron in the hospital entertained with Nella's letters.

Nella writes with empathy of the unbearable strain that women were under with poverty, blackouts, food shortages and men going off to fight:

One woman I know - a big-made woman of about fifty-six who took on an air-raid warden job - has had a nervous breakdown. Her niece said she had always had a fear of the dark and, now she knew she would have to take her turn in the dark all winter, she has cracked up.
I want to read more about the blackouts so I've looked out The Provincial Lady in Wartime and I'm pretty sure there are some descriptions of the blackouts in Mary Wesley's The Camomile Lawn. Maybe somebody can remember?

Sunday 18 April 2010

Nella Last's Peace

Always I longed to write, but there was something missing. Only in my letter writing and MO have I found fulfilment of my girlhood yearning to write.
Browsing in Waterstone's biography section last weekend I picked up Nella Last's Peace, flicked through it, then became increasingly engrossed in Nella's diary entries and had to buy it. Nella Last was a housewife. One of many volunteers who kept a diary for the Mass Observation social organisation set up in 1937.

Nella embodies the 'make do and mend' austerity spirit. She writes about day-to-day life during the war and post-war years -the VJ (Victory in Japan) celebrations, managing her ration books, running a household, working for voluntary organisations and there are amusing anecdotes about her Siamese cat, Shan We, who accompanies her on picnics to the Lake District and her annoying neighbour, Mrs Atkinson, who constantly borrows her jam pan.

I've become increasingly interested in life writing. Nella was not a professional writer or an academic and yet her diary has literary qualities. Well-read, politically aware and finding fulfilment - and to a certain extent an escape from her mean-spirited husband - in her voluntary work and friendships with other women, Nella Last's diaries are an absorbing read.

Sunday 4 April 2010

Wigs on the Green

Reading Nancy Mitford makes me believe that writing comic novels is one of the most purely humanitarian endeavors civilization has ever come up with. Jane Smiley, 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel

Nancy Mitford wrote two of the finest comic novels in the English language. Sadly, Wigs on the Green isn't one of them. To be fair I wasn't really in the mood for farce when I picked this up preferring something weighty and substantial, but of course I wanted to read a Mitford novel that hasn't been available in this country since 1935.

The opening was unpromising but I hoped the old Mitford magic would take over and draw me in. Certainly, in the portrayal of Mrs Lace the Local Beauty who dresses as if every day is a fancy dress party, you can see the comic potential of a writer who would go on to create the brilliant The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949).

The novel begins with Noel Foster who is left a small legacy by his aunt. He asks his friend, Jasper Aspect, a penniless cad to join him in his hunt to marry an heiress. Jasper suggests they go to the village of Chalford in search of Eugenia Malmains, the wealthiest heiress in England. On the village green they are startled by the appearance of the tall blonde Eugenia, standing on a wash-tub, wearing a jumper made from a Union Jack and haranguing the locals into joining The Union Jackshirts. The farce is further complicated by a runaway bride and her friend, Poppy, who has left her husband.

The fanaticism of Eugenia Malmains, is of course, a portrayal of Unity Mitford and in the light of what happened to Unity and the political events that later unfolded it is easy to understand why Mitford would not allow the novel to be re-published in her lifetime. One for Mitford completists only I think.