Six Women’s Lives in the Second World War
London: Constable, 2011
Soft cover. xi + 353pp. ISBN 978-1-84901-714-5. £8.99
Reviewed by Lesley Whitworth
University of Brighton
When first the suggestion was made of reviewing this book, the thought came immediately that it would make sense to look back at James Hinton’s Nine Wartime Lives : Mass-Observation And The Making Of The Modern Self from 2010. This proved to be prescient, for when the book arrived it became clear that Purcell’s work too is inspired and informed by Mass Observation (M-O). For those unfamiliar with this organisation, it was established in the UK in 1937 as an independent social research body, intended to generate ‘a science of ourselves’. Volunteer contributors were the mainstay of its case work, each responding to periodic questionnaires, and in some cases maintaining a diary (see the Mass Observation website). Purcell, and indeed Hinton, have selected from amongst this rich bank of biographical material, to shape new accounts of the war years from a UK perspective.
But the list does not end there. One might also recall, for instance, Gail Braybon and Penny Summerfield’s Out Of The Cage : Women's Experiences In Two World Wars (1987), which utilises M-O material amongst its varied sources. Then there is Dorothy Sheridan’s Wartime Women : An Anthology Of Women's Wartime Writing For Mass-Observation 1937-45 (1990). There is also the ubiquitous Nella Last, whose substantial M-O diaries have so far given rise to Nella Last's War : A Mother's Diary, 1939-45 (1981); Nella Last's Peace : The Post-war Diaries of Housewife 49 (2008); and Nella Last in the 1950s (2010).(1) Once the book was actually to hand therefore, one could not help but be conscious of this existing body of publication, and the question naturally arose, what does the author believe they are adding? I will return to this question.
Readers are entitled to feel surprised by the decision Purcell appears to have made, when faced with the dilemma of how to structure Domestic Soldiers : Six Women’s Lives in the Second World War. Faced with the rich personal testimony held in the Mass-Observation Archive at Sussex University, she has opted to write a broad historical account of World War Two, onto which she has grafted comparatively small fragments of her chosen subjects’ lives. This orientation is evident from the book’s Index, its End Notes, and its Bibliography, all of which are indicative of the author’s efforts to provide a firm backdrop to these women’s stories; an effort that might be said to have slightly overwhelmed the more personal, individual and revelatory portions of the text.
The feeling of struggling to ‘locate’ the women—both literally and metaphorically—was at its most acute in the earliest chapters. Here there was an overwhelming temptation to run ahead of the discussions of military tactics and the progress of campaigns, in order to look for them. In later chapters themed around familiar socio-cultural and political issues this tension reduced, but for this reader the frustration of not getting to know the women better remained a constant. With hindsight, a notebook to jot down salient features of their biographies would have been a helpful aide-memoire to ‘fix’ their different characters and identities, which were challenging to keep abreast of.
The text contains no illustrations, in contrast to Hinton’s book (which features some of the same women), where portraits of each have been included. Another useful addition might have been a map of the country showing where the women lived. If these locations had been overlaid with information about local levels of bomb damage, for example, this might have deepened readers’ understandings of the variable impacts of war, and the marked differences in the lived context of these lives.
The term ‘domestic soldiers’ appears to have been borrowed from Last, but the origins of the term are not closely examined, leaving a lingering doubt as to whether this term is one of those—like ‘fair shares’ and ‘make do and mend’—coined by the Ministry of Information to capture the imperatives of the period. Nor does the author explain the choice of these particular six ‘domestic soldiers’ out of all the possible contenders in the M-O archive.
This is not a book that engages critically with the women’s writing as an act of self-definition, as in Dorothy Sheridan, David Bloome, and Brian V. Street’s Writing Ourselves : Mass-Observation And Literacy Practices.(2) It is, however, one in which a hitherto unsuspected problem for M-O scholars reveals itself. Hinton’s book is structured quite differently, with dedicated chapters for each of the women allowing them, and themes relevant to their situations, to emerge more naturalistically. But comparison of Hinton and Purcell’s work reveals that some of the same women undoubtedly appear in both books. This fact is masked by the use of different names, so what is, or might be, the convention here? Does M-O ordinarily offer anonymity to its sources? Is one name real and another a pseudonym, or an invention of the author? Certainly Purcell provides no clues on this subject. This suggests that in the future there will be a need for caution among those working with such biographical accounts, especially where they draw on Mass-Observation sources.
This book is clearly intended for, and will be well received by, a broad, popular audience, as is evidenced by the positive reviews for Constable’s original 2010 edition reproduced in the book’s frontispiece and elsewhere. It will also function well as an introductory text on the UK Home Front for older school age pupils. As to that awkward question: I remain unsure as to the answer. Those of us with a research interest in housewives,(3) will surely wait and hope that Purcell follows this book with one that follows more closely the contours of her 2008 doctoral thesis, ‘Beyond home : housewives and the nation, private and public identities, 1939-49’.
(1) The first of these was edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming, and the second and third by Patricia and Robert Malcolmson. There has also been a television drama 'Housewife, 49', developed by actor Victoria Wood and shown on ITV in December 2006. The first book was re-published in 2006 under the title Nella Last's War : The Second World War Diaries of 'Housewife 49' to coincide with this broadcast.
(2) Cresskill, N.J.: Hampton Press, 2000.
(3) Lesley Whitworth, ‘The Housewives’ Committee of the Council of Industrial Design : A brief episode of domestic reconnoitring’, in E. Darling & L. Whitworth (eds), Women and the Making of Built Space in England, 1870-1950, Aldershot & Burlington: Ashgate, 2007.
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