In 1937, Mass Observation was formed by an anthropologist to gauge public opinion about the abdication of England’s King Edward VIII. It soon grew into a decades-long study of British society, employing questionnaires and journals from more than 500 “average” people who bared souls and secrets in the process.
Nella Last was one of the ordinary British citizens who participated in the Mass Observation project. Beginning in August 1939, Nella faithfully recorded the details of her life, making diary entries almost daily. The sum of her journal from 1939 to 1945 contains more than a million words about wartime; Nella Last's Peace continues her diary through 1948, with contemporary and often surprising takes on the post-War world in which she lived.
Many of us imagine that with the end of war comes an immediate sense of reprieve, security, even joy. It is clear from Nella’s entry of 22 August 1945 that such optimistic thinking fails to consider not only the effects of trauma but also the inevitable changes that the war machine enabled. “Tonight I thought of the dreadful new bomb…” Nella writes, “…we will always live in the shadow of war now… no country will ever be safe, however big their armies and navies.”
Fear and loss are recurring topics in Nella’s diary. As the clearly-defined threats of war subside, an entire population finds itself adrift in the aftermath. There is no longer a foreign enemy to fight against nor a glorious cause to fight for; instead, Nella and others like her struggle with anxiety about the future and the emptiness of these transition years. Nella often seems to be naming the root cause of her anxiety and restlessness as her pen writes: “I want to feel I am helping, in however small a way. I want the laughter and fellowship of the war years,” and “People don’t feel that sense of hope and thankfulness now.”
For women, in particular, the end of war meant a future filled with memories of loved ones lost in battle or lifelong caretaker duties if their sons and husbands came home no longer whole. Nella was one of the lucky ones – both her sons survived their military service without significant damage. Still, like many of the women who aided the war effort by taking up work outside the home, Nella dreaded the return to domestic servitude. During a period in which her emotionally reserved husband shows his annoyance at her redecorating efforts by “barely speaking when spoken to, glancing at the changed walls pitifully like a ham actor,” Nella is struck by how much the past few years have changed her:
“I feel often I look at another tiresome stranger, wonder at my own weakness of attitude, which led me to be shut up like a dog… I feel it [outside work] has fostered something in me that would have been better not.”Nella Last never sought publication for her writing and probably never even considered herself a writer. Her diary proves, though, that she was a keen observer with the ability to chronicle in simple yet revealing prose the seemingly trivial details that are the fabric from which the greater story is woven. Her honest reports of marital spats and her own shortcomings are interspersed with accounts of creative rationing, the antics of neighborhood characters, and her unveiled opinion of the Americans (“America again has emerged unscathed, her people at home unaware there has been a war, except for a little rationing…”).
The editors of Nella Last's Peace, Patricia and Robert Malcolmson, have sifted through the thousands of pages penned by Nella in the post-War years to present this concise and compelling history. Here we are treated to an intimate look into the world of post-War Britain as it existed for the average citizen, the steady foundation that kept the country afloat without expectation of recognition or reward. Through her simple yet eloquent words, we come to know Nella as a compassionate woman, stronger than she realizes, and still frightened by all the little terrors that consume us all. More importantly, we are able to view those days and years as Nella and her contemporaries did, rather than through the fog of memory and film.
Nella Last's Peace is a fine example of what projects such as Mass Observation are capable of eliciting, and it is a valuable record of events and emotions that are often lost in the glare of boisterous historical events such as wars. In Nella’s words and concerns, we find a deeper source of societal momentum that should not be overlooked.