Nella Last in the 1950s: The Further Diaries of Housewife, 49 by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors)

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Nella Last in the 1950s: The Further Diaries of Housewife, 49 by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors)
Buy Nella Last in the 1950s: The Further Diaries of Housewife, 49 from Amazon.co.uk

Buy Nella Last in the 1950s: The Further Diaries of Housewife, 49 from Amazon.com

Genre: History
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Trish Simpson-Davis
Reviewed by Trish Simpson-Davis
Summary: Third volume of Nella Last's writing for Mass Observation. Fascinating account of ordinary life in Barrow-in-Furness, but read the first two first!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: October 2010
Publisher: Profile Books Ltd
ISBN: 978-1846683503

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Nella Last wrote a regular diary for twenty-seven years. Two previous volumes, also edited by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, deal with the Second World War and immediate post-War years. Now this third book starts with selections from 1950 and covers four years of social change as Britain moves into the reign of Elizabeth II.

Nella wrote for Mass Observation, the first large-scale, social anthropological investigation into British behaviour and beliefs. Hundreds of volunteers provided data as 'subjective cameras', but Nella's observations are unusually detailed and cover such a long period that they provide a unique historical and personal perspective on the lived experience of that era.

I'd suggest reading the first two books before tackling this one. There are more events, more drama in her earlier life, simply because of the times through which she was living. The minutae of her war-time experiences remains fascinating for social historians. This third volume is somewhat different in that the focus is more on Nella's inner life. Where world events were reflected in her activities of daily life, such as her involvement with the WVS, now they emerge through her fears, as in the threat of nuclear war.

Nella's world inevitably narrows as she grows older. She no longer works shifts for the WVS, and has to settle for the occasional society of her fellow ex-volunteers. Will, her husband, has been forced through 'nerves' to retire from his small joinery business, so again she has diminished social contact with old customers and employees. Arthur, a son, has taken his family to Northern Ireland, while Cliff is established as a sculptor in Australia, leaving her to cope with Will's depression single-handed. His anxieties now impinge considerably on her daily domestic life, a background chorus to which Nella returns again and again.

What does emerge most strongly from this volume is Nella Last, the diarist, a woman with a rich inner life to compensate for her lack of personal freedom. Now Nella writes with the authority and fluency of long practice. Her prose has pace and balance with a steady Voice behind. It's worth remarking that the originals she sent in to MO must have been first drafts. She writes too much on a daily basis to have been making fair copies, and this was of course years before computers allowed the rest of us the luxury of infinite drafts. Nella's optimism about the scientific advances of her age make for salutary reading. How quaint, we say, because so many of those improvements are now obsolete: a glimpse of how future generations will see us, too.

As well as the selection of diary entries, useful appendices set Nella's diary in its historical context. As with previous volumes, I'd recommend this book to anyone needing a feel – or authentic detail – about the early 1950s.

Many thanks to the publishers for sending this book.

Suggestions for further reading:

Selections from Nella Last's diaries which have been previously published as Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace come highly recommended. From the fifties, I like Jennifer Worth's Shadows of the Workhouse and Farewell to the East End, about her experiences as a district nurse and midwife in London; also Hellfire and Herring by Christopher Rush and I'll Tell Me Ma: A Childhood Memoir by Brian Keenan.

Buy Nella Last in the 1950s: The Further Diaries of Housewife, 49 by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors) at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Nella Last in the 1950s: The Further Diaries of Housewife, 49 by Patricia Malcolmson and Robert Malcolmson (Editors) at Amazon.co.uk.


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