Anne Chisholm

What did you do in the war, Mummy?

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.

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 Using memoirs, diaries and correspondence, published and unpublished, and interviewing as many survivors as she could find, she tracks them through the decade; her research has been phenomenally thorough and her narrative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.

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