This is the true wartime diary of Nella Last written throughout the 2nd World War, and is absolutely fascinating. The Mass Observation Project asked for volunteers to write a diary to record their thoughts and, thankfully for us, Nella decided to take part. She is a woman suffering from nerves and depression with a domineering husband, yet the war develops her confidence and skills and she ends the book a very different woman from how she begins it. It is a fascinating process to read about. I cannot recommend this book highly enough and find myself telling friends all about Nella and have already lent my copy out; I think this book is one that will stay in my thoughts, as will Nella herself.

I very much like Nella; I was very touched by the proud way she spoke about her sons and I admired and envied their strong and loving relationship and that they seemed to genuinely care for each other – as Nella remarks, they like her as well as love her. I found it fascinating the way she changes throughout the war and becomes more assertive and confident, and I like how she enjoys being busy down the WRVS and the way her days have changed from how they used to be now she’s out lots more. I also found it interesting how her relationship with her husband changed as she became more able to speak out and disagree with him, and he then seemed to understand her better and respect her more after this. I found her quite an inspirational woman; she achieves far more than she thinks she can – at the start of the war she was very low and nervy and frightened and tearful, then as the war goes on she is sleeping through bombings and has a much more positive outlook on life. I love the way Nella has an idea of how to help and achieves this, and then looks for yet more ideas; she seems tireless in her positivity and her determination to contribute, but then it is so touching that she acknowledges in her writings that she may appear like this on the outside but on the inside she feels less positive and confident – it feels a privilege that the reader sees the inside struggle as well as the outward determination. I found it heartbreaking to see how downtrodden and submissive she was to her husband in the early days of the war and that she didn’t have any voice or power at all. I realise this was accepted as the norm in that time, and obviously Nella herself changed her relationship with her husband as the book progressed, but I found it so frustrating and sad to consider the way in which such an intelligent and motivated and modern-thinking woman had to subdue her opinions and spirit.

The diary itself is very interesting and fascinating, and I love reading from such an interesting period of time; it feels such a privilege to be able to read the account of an ordinary person at the time rather than just the news reports. The book also made me feel inspired to grow vegetables and to try and ‘make and mend’ as they had to during the war. This book also brings home to me, more than bare facts in a history book ever could, how long the war went on for and just what a huge impact it had on people’s lives and especially on important days such as Christmas Day or birthdays as Nella always remembered past special days and draws comparisons.

I found Nella’s thoughts about what life would be like in the future very interesting, particularly about the welfare state and the NHS and her hopes for how they will aid women’s lives; her thoughts about how women’s roles would be likely to change after the war and whether they’d be satisfied going back to ‘trivial’ housework after doing important war work; her worries about the economy, about education; and her thoughts about whether it would still be white people in charge after the war. It is fascinating to consider her predictions in light of how things did change after the war, and how accurate she was in many of her thoughts.

As I say, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it!

Nella Last's War
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