in Paris is perfunctory, while the author’s certainty that another war was the inevitable outcome, contrary to the views of Margaret MacMillan and other historians, is simply stated without documentation, let alone proof.
In general, though, this powerfully written, often moving work i s thoroughly worthwhile. I t makes excellent use of the printed sources as well as parts of the National Archives to shore up old conclusions with
WHIRLWIND AFFAIRS MILLIONS LIKE US: WOMEN’S LIVES
IN WAR AND PEACE 1939–1949
By Virginia Nicholson
(Viking 508pp £25)
MILLIONS LIKE US is the title of a film made in 1943 by Sidney Gilliat (later to be best known for his St Trinian’s films) and Frank Launder. Starring Patricia Roc and Eric Portman, it told the story of a wartime aircraft factory. Its propaganda purpose was to show both the vital contribution to the war effort made by women drafted to make aircraft components (the film ends with planes from Bomber Command flying overhead on yet another mission), and how women from very different social backgrounds learned to rub along together during wartime in a way that would have been unthinkable in their peacetime lives.
The t i t l e i s an appropr i a t e choice for Virg in i a Nicholson’s book, which essentially gives the same message as the film, though its canvas is much broader – and more nuanced. What Nicholson has done with great aplomb is tell the story of the Second World War through the optic of women’s lives. She has assembled a large cast. Some are young girls at the outbreak of war, eager for adventure and new challenges; others are housewives and mothers, wearied at the thought of the dangers and privations to come. This enables her not just to plot the usual narrative of women’s experiences of war as civilians – evacuation, rationing, make do and mend, Women’s Voluntary Service (WVS) work – but to weave into this the stories of women who served in more direct ways. The account of the evacuation of Dunkirk is told largely in the words of the nurses who tended the wounded men, while the war in the western desert is filtered through the accounts of Vera Lynn and Joyce Grenfell, who went out to entertain the troops. The tensions of DDay are brought alive by the testimony of Wrens and medical staff, and the halting words of a Queen Alexandra nurse evoke the horrors of Belsen concentration camp. Millions Like Us is a richly polyphonic story extraordinarily well told. Nicholson has used some memoirs that new insights. It is not another study of the familiar anti-war Union of Democratic Control publicists in A J P Taylor’s famous roll call of dissenting ‘troublemakers’. It focuses, more narrowly but with new intensity, on often humbler men and women who gave their energies, and sometimes their lives, to help to build a more civilised world. To order this book for £16, see LR bookshop on page 22
will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the Second World War. There are the published diaries of Nella Last, a frustrated Barrow-in-Furness housewife who kept her diaries – as did several of Nicholson’s sources – at the behest of Mass-Observation, the ‘people-watching’ organisation founded in 1937 which came into its own as an acute barometer of home front morale during the Second World War. Nicholson also fillets, among others, the wonderfully racy memoirs of Joan Wyndham, the flighty ar tist-model tur ned WAAF (member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force), the tragic wartime experiences of Helen Forrester, later a bestselling novelist, and the memoirs of the Bloomsbur y pacifist Frances Partr idge, the social scientist Phyllis Willmott, and Madeleine Henrey, a refugee from France. Intermixed with these eloquent sources, which are well known (although it would have been foolish to exclude them for that reason), is the account of the war of the author’s own mother, Anne Popham (who, as Anne Olivier Bell, would later edit the diaries of Virginia Woolf), as well as numerous other first-hand accounts – from interviews, diaries and letters of women whose stories have never been told.
And those stories are complex ones: sometimes underlining the experience of men, usually deviating sharply from it. While the war wrought monumental changes in the lives of most people, it proved a cul-de-sac for many, delaying their lives and their ambitions for six long years: for women there was little chance of establishing a home and having a baby during that time. Yet for many the war provided wider horizons in every sense. It proved to be a forcing house for maturity, endurance and a sense of purpose.
The war affected lives in many ways. It could be a ‘whirlwind’, sweeping up what Nicholson calls ‘the ‘demure, retir ing, unambitious woman of 1938’ and depositing her in a very different world of danger, duties and deprivations. It could bring her undreamed of opportunities to leave the safety – or claustrophobia – of home, or to quit a boring, repetitive job taken only to fill in time before marriage. It could bring her new responsibilities and unimagined competencies – decrypting codes at Bletchley Park, talking down an air crew, plotting enemy aircraft, working at anti-aircraft gun sites, deliver ing Spitfires, welding ship’s hulks, driving ambulances or operating behind enemy lines in Occupied France. It deprived some women of Tangee lipsticks and reliable knicker elastic while teaching others that the best cure for seasickness
LITERARY REVIEW May 2011