By tradition, ‘What did you do in the war?’ is a question children address to Daddy, not to Mummy.
By tradition, ‘What did you do in the war?’ is a question children address to Daddy, not to Mummy. In this ambitious, humane and absorbing book Virginia Nicholson moves Mummy firmly to the centre of the stage as she chronicles, largely in their own words, the lives of British women during the second world war. It is dedicated to one of them, her own mother, Anne Popham, later Anne Olivier Bell, who as a young woman suffered agonising wartime loss but went on to marry and become one of the great editors of her time through her work on the diaries of her husband’s aunt (and Nicholson’s great-aunt) Virginia Woolf. Nicholson sees her as typical. ‘Along with an entire generation she awoke to her own post-war potential.’
The thesis is not exactly a surprise, but the range and the detail of this account are a revelation. Between 1939 and 1949, Nicholson argues, women’s lives, their expectations of themselves and society’s view of them were transformed. Anne Popham’s is one of around 50 stories she has chosen as threads for her tapestry. Using memoirs, diaries and correspondence, published and unpublished, and interviewing as many survivors as she could find, she tracks them through the decade; her research has been phenomenally thorough and her narrative control is equally impressive. Some of her characters will be familiar to students of women’s writing of the period — Nella Last, Helen Forrester, Joan Wyndham, Frances Partridge — but many are not; and in a way the more obscure and unassuming her sources are, the more impressive and moving their accounts.
All over the country, across class and income divisions, women, many of them very young, who until 1939 had never questioned the conventions that ruled their lives and limited their ambitions, found themselves required to take on new and often terrifying responsibilities. Reared to be wives and mothers, they rose to the challenge, becoming, as Nicholson documents, wireless operators, code-breakers, truck-drivers, welders, pilots and secret agents. They were often astonishingly brave, stoical and resourceful; ‘Grin and bear it’ was their watchword when things went wrong, and they even managed to keep up appearances. Two girls working in London during the Blitz took pride in never allowing an air raid to expose them in their curlers; and ‘bright red lipstick did wonders to pull one’s face together’ wrote a hard-pressed nurse caught up in Dunkirk.
Of course women also bore the brunt of hardship on the home front. Perhaps those who endured the bombing, worked in the factories and looked after the children while worrying desperately about their husbands, brothers and sons, who mended worn-out clothes, queued for hours and produced meals with inadequate rations (I just remember my own grandmother’s ‘eggless, milkless, butterless’ cake) were as heroic as the nurses, Wrens and Fanys who at least had uniforms, comrades and excitement.
Perhaps; but then there was Mike, a radio operator who had to run outside and vomit after hearing a German pilot burn to death, and Naina, for whom the triumph of D-Day meant hour after hour scrubbing excrement from the bodies of wounded, traumatised men, or Frances, who was lowered head-first down a bomb crater to help a dying man, or Joy, a nurse just out of her teens whose first flight took her to Belsen to care for the skeletal survivors.
The war changed everything, and in some ways for the good: half of all the women in domestic service left it, never to return; upper-class women learned to boil their own eggs; the superiority of the male sex stopped being taken for granted (and the divorce rate soared). But Nicholson is too honest a historian to fudge the fact that after the war most British women wanted a rest, a quiet life and a comfortable home more than they wanted the new freedoms they had begun to explore. It was to take another 20 years, she suggests, before women’s lives really changed.
This is the third book in which Virginia Nicholson has demonstrated her belief that story and biography can be combined, that ‘the personal and idiosyncratic reveal more about the past than the generic and comprehensive’. Inevitably, such books have something of the anthology about them, and for all their sweep and boldness can lack depth. But as a way of rescuing human feeling and individual experience from the fossilisation of time and received opinion this book could not be better. I shall try to ensure my granddaughters read it.