The Raw Emotions of War in the Pages of a Housewife’s Diary

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Editor's Note:

Jennifer Ryan lives in the Washington, DC area with her husband and two children. Originally from Kent and then London, she was previously a nonfiction book editor. She joins Signature to discuss the role that WWII’s Mass-Observation Project had in inspiring her historical fiction novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

One momentous day, as I scanned the bookshop shelves for my beloved evacuee and other stories from the Second World War, I came across something as delectable as it was extraordinary, almost impossible to imagine. It was the Mass-Observation Project.

In August 1939, as war became less of an option and more of a reality, a group of sociologists and artists invited members of the British public to keep journals of their day-to-day experience of the war, and to send them in to a central repository. 485 people took it up at first, although the number grew to a few thousand as the war progressed, providing an unexpected wealth of personal experience when it happened, as it happened.

Probably the best known and the most treasured of these is a diary by 49-year-old housewife, Nella Last. Her writing is exquisite, but it is the depth and raw power of her feelings about the war and what is going on around her that makes her diary a powerful indictment of how women prevailed during the war years. As the war begins, Nella is getting over a breakdown, and has health problems that force her to rest every afternoon and take aspirin continually for headaches. But as she becomes involved with the Women’s Voluntary Service, heading up a canteen for the troops, making dollies for the hospital, knitting, sewing, keeping chickens, and helping women cope with the bombs and the grief, she regains her spirits and her health, giving up the afternoon rest and her aspirins.

One can also sense how the war shifted her relationship with her husband, as she begins to make her own decisions and get away from her narrow household existence to carry out enterprising and social help for the war effort. More and more often she doesn’t make it home in the middle of the day to make him lunch, unheard of at the beginning of the war.

By the end of the war, she acknowledges that her breakdowns and illnesses were the result of her husband’s way of never socializing or allowing her to socialize, and his insistence that the only company they needed was each other. Keeping him happy and preventing a fight, she had gone along with it. But she had come, through the war, to realize that she didn’t need to do this anymore. In her own words, she became determined that “No one would ever give me [a nervous breakdown] again.”

Cliff, her younger son who goes to war, is the main source of her love, her thoughts, and her worries. It’s heartrending when he is supposed to be coming home for Christmas but becomes sick and day by day she half-expects him to come through the door smiling, only to be disappointed.

It isn’t surprising that the first scene of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir that I wrote was that of a widow, Mrs. Tilling, watching her only son leave for war, struggling to accept the sad end of his childhood and the abrupt beginning of an overwhelming fear that he would be killed.

I was so moved by Nella’s diaries that I wanted to write a novel that in some way fictionalized her experience, making it more accessible for a larger audience. The novel captures how it might feel to be a woman alive during that incredible time. How we might have experienced marriage, and how the war might have changed the way we think ourselves and the institution of marriage. And it is this that I hoped to bring to life in The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.