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.


verity said...

I loved this book, I think perhaps even more than Nella Last's war. Did you know that a third volume is coming out this year?

LizF said...

I read Nella Last's War and have this on my shelf although since I am reading Vere Hodgeson's Few Eggs and No Oranges at the moment it might be a while before I get to it.

Teresa said...

Nella Last's diaries (along with those of several other diarists) were quoted extensively in David Kynaston's Family Britain, which I read earlier this year. I loved the bits and pieces I saw there and want to read the both volumes of her diaries. They look terrific!

Anonymous said...

I love this book and am so glad you've discovered it! Both the Nella Last books are absorbing, thoughtful, occasionally irritating, but an honest portrait fo a life, and I wish they would publish the rest of them. She submitted her diaries to that great historical project (the name of which escapes me at the minute) until the end of her life.

Hannah Stoneham said...

This sounds like an absolute must. life writing and mass observation are two things that I am especially interested in and I am also fascinated by the period covered by mass observation -so I will get this on my next amazon order -

Thanks so much for a thoughtful and enticing review!


Anonymous said...

I have Nella Last's War in my to-be-read pile, but hadn't realized there was a sequel let alone a third volume coming out this year. Sounds wonderful!

Tara said...

I have Nella's Last War but haven't read it yet. This one sounds good too!

Eva said...

How interesting! This is my first visit to your blog, but I've popped you straight into my reader. :D Yay for fellow Jane-ites!

Kathy said...

This isn't a comment on this specific post, but I have a reading recommendation for you and I didn't know where else to put it. ;) Have you ever read The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins? I just finished it yesterday. It's so Victorian, I thought of you.

mary said...

I didn't enjoy this anything like as much as Nella's wartime diaries. And I did think the book jacket was really hackneyed and irritating ... it's northern, so the women must be scrubbing cobbles. In fact, Nella was a lower middle class wife of a small, cranky-minded businessman with their own semi-detached and even a car (that's partly why I got bored with this volume, those interminable runs in the car to the Lake District).
Do you think you would have liked Nella had you met her? I first encountered her diaries 'in the flesh' in the MO archive in Brighton and to start with, I felt totally charmed by her plucky wartime spirit ... and then she began to grate on me and I thought she might be one of those women who make you cross the road when you see them coming. Just a bit too chirpy and plucky-little-me ... Do think Victoria Wood did her brilliantly, though.

Vintage Reading said...

Verity, I'm reading them in the wrong order, but I loved Nella's Last Peace. I didn't know a third volume was coming out - can't wait!

Liz, do let me know what your think of the Hodgeson - I've not read it.

Teresa you must read it and let me know what you think.

Frisbee, I didn't know you'd posted about it - I'll search through your archives - if you pardon the expression!

Hannah, I'm getting very interested in life writing. Of course the Provincial Lady is a fictional diary, but I'm interested about where the boundaries lie.

Makedoandread, move it to the top of your tbr pile! I'd didn't know about the third vol either. I think Nella wrote enough for several volumes actually.

Tara, I'm reading them in the wrong order but can follow the events and people quite easily. Nella is a true writer.

Eva, hi, all Jane-ites welcome here!

Kathy, hi, no I've not read the Wilkie Collins. I read women writers almost exclusively, but I am aware that I need to examine my prejudices! I'm going to suggest WIW to my book group, thanks.

Mary, I do agree about the cliched image of a northern woman scrubbing a step. Can't say I ever got bored with it though. Yes, at times she does irritate - she preaches that women shouldn't leave it until their 30's to have a baby blah blah, but I wonder if that was an attitude of the day? I wonder how much is 'true' in Nella's diary and how much is 'true' in, say, Diary of a Provincial Lady? I liked VW in Housewife 49, too. I'm not keen on her as a comic, but admire her as an actress - she was good in Ballet Shoes, too.