Jul 13, 2011

Millions Like Us By Virginia Nicholson

Millions Like Us By Virginia Nicholson

As Virginia Nicholson explains in the author’s note, the goal of Millions Like Us: Women’s Lives in War and Peace 1939-1949 is to recount “not only what [women] did in the war, but what the war did to them and how it changed their subsequent lives and relationships.” To do this, Nicholson focuses on the lives of women from all walks of life: some came of age during the war years; others were middle aged mothers worried about soldier sons. Some were privileged and well-off; others were no strangers no hard work. Some joined the FANNYs or worked in munitions factories; others struggled with housekeeping and childrearing at a time of increasing shortages. Some were to become well known diarists or memoirists, such as Nella Last, Vera Hodgson, Helen Forrester; others remained anonymous. Some lost loved ones and experienced terrible grief; others found the war years the most exciting time of their lives.

The range of experiences portrayed is exactly what gives Millions Like Us its greatest strength: there is no typical experience; no example put forward as a representative of wartime women. Instead, what we see is a group of human beings as diverse as any other reacting to momentous historical events in the myriad ways human beings are bound to react. And the sheer humanity of their emotions and reactions is something that frequently surprised these women themselves. The stereotype of the caring woman who craved domestic bliss and wanted no involvement at all in public affairs had a real hold on the minds of those brought up between the war to live up to this ideal, and as such many women did not expect to find themselves wanting entirely different things.

At one point Nicholson quotes from Virginia Woolf’s essay “Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid”, in which she links peace with femininity and “the maternal instinct”, and says:
It may even seem surprising to hear Virginia Woolf, a childless feminist, refer to the material instinct as ‘women’s glory’. But one has to remember that seventy years ago in Britain the attributes she ascribes as being innate among men and women would have been entirely accepted – indeed taken for granted – not only by the vast majority of the population but also by her intellectual readers. And if the pre-war iconography of the maternal angel endures even for Virginia Wolf in Bloomsbury, how much more so for Clara Milburn in the Midlands, Nella Last in Barrow, the Noble family in Lewisham, the Chadwyck-Healeys in their Somerset gentlemen’s residence? Looked at in the light of Woolf’s dissection, women’s experiences of, and writings about, the Blitz illustrate an extreme moment in history – a moment when the weaponless woman was completely at the mercy of men. But perhaps it was a moment, too, when women revealed how far the pre-war stereotype fell short. The men did not surrender their guns, and Woolf’s hope that she mind would triumph was perhaps overly optimistic. But, in 1940 and ’41, in fear of their lives, women demonstrated that they were cleverer, braver, angrier, more articulate, more enterprising, more robust and altogether more complex than even they themselves had ever guessed.
This is quite an important point throughout Millions Like Us: as much as these women were breaking away from their foremothers’ restrictive moulds, expectations of what constituted proper feminine behaviour had a real bearing on their lives. Therefore, moving away from traditional roles often involved being prepared not only to defy convention, but also to revise their self-perception and their very sense of identity.

Another thing I found particularly interesting was the fact that Millions Like Us focuses not only on the war years, but also on what came afterwards. What happened when all the women who had spent the war working outside the home were told to return to the domestic sphere? What happened when the possibilities that seemed to be opening up were suddenly snatched away?

Millions Like Us shows that the conflicting accounts of exhausted women who wanted nothing more than to return home and of women feeling entrapped in domesticity once they had had a taste of the wider world are actually both true. As tempting as it is to privilege one or the other to make a particular political point, no experience can be read as representative of what women “really” wanted – they were individuals, and as such they wanted both.

Still, privileging one narrative over another is by no means only something we do in retrospect. The war years were followed by a retreat into tradition as a backlash against imminent change, and women who did want something other than marriage and children were once again made to feel selfish and unnatural. To make matters worse, 1945-9 was also a time of delayed emotional breakdowns for many women, as the terrible things they had witnessed or endured finally caught up with them.

But Millions Like Us is not just an analysis of what this decade meant in terms of gender roles: it’s also an excellent nonfiction narrative, and it’s full of memorable episodes. For example, there’s a story about a distressed soldier who received a telegram from his wife, who he hadn’t seen in two years, saying the baby had been born and everyone was okay. It took until the next letter for the clarification to come: the baby was his new little brother, born to his widowed mother. There are also many stories that made me realise for the first time the real implications of the silk stockings wartime shortage one hears so much about. At a time when both trousers for women and bare legs were socially prohibited, a lack of stockings represented a real conundrum. Women who worked in offices, for example, were threatened with dismissal if they failed to conform to increasingly unrealistic dress codes. The solutions they found included a sort of make up applied to the legs to simulate stockings – and of course, suffering terribly from the cold in wintertime.

Millions Like Us is comprehensive, detailed, gripping and wonderfully written. Singled Out and Among the Bohemians made me suspect as much, but this book really cements Nicholson’s position as my favourite writer of social history. Her belief that “the personal and idiosyncratic reveal more about the past than the generic and comprehensive” really shows in her work, and the result are stories that are as intimate as they are illuminating.

Interesting bits:
A Bristol woman working in an aircraft factory told herself that every rivet she hammered into a Spitfire was another nail in Hitler’s coffin; in one week she broke three hammers. In such reactions one can begin to see the breakdown and collapse of familiar models of womanhood. Tender-hearted passivity and stoicism had their limits; stress found outlets where it could.

At moments of the most terrible bombing, expressing love physically was an act of defiance against the ruptured bones, the crushed guts – the living urgency of sex a kind of triumph over the gory imperatives of war. The available evidence suggests that fear, loss and destruction seem (to some extent) to have precipitated the sexual liberation of both men and women. Compared to the years before the war, in 1939-45 more women were having sex both before marriage and with men other than their husbands, more of them were sing contraceptives, and women’s knowledge of the facts of life increased. The divorce rate also increased at this time.
(Have you posted about this book too? Let me know and I’ll be glad to link to you.)

14 comments:

  1. I didn't know that about the stockings and the bare legs. No wonder they used so much gravy browning and eye liner on their legs. I love the sound of this book. I like the idea of being able to immerse myself into the life of the women during WW2. Fab review.

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  2. Nice post Nymeth. Gah, I've got this and haven't managed to get to it (or Rebel Girls) yet. I'm going to a talk by her in Sept so hopefully I'll read it by then. I too am a big fan of Singled Out and Among the Bohemians (although I don't think I've finished that as I got distracted) and it's a revelation and inspiration to see what women went through during this period and their strength and resilience in trying to carve out their lives in their own way. As you say, there are more than one viewpoints and experiences and it's nice to see both sides of the story.

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  3. This sounds wonderful! Adding to my wish list, again...

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  4. You are so good at finding these little treasures. This sounds amazing! It is like all of my favorite WWII novels all wrapped up and summarized in one place. In a strange way, I'd say the modern (fictional, sort of) version of this would be "You Know When All the Men Are Gone" by Siobhan Fallon. Women definitely have a different, but equally as compelling, story to tell in times of war. Excellent review Ana.

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  5. Sounds fantastic, if only I could get my non-fiction reading together. Didn't know that about why they made up their legs to look like they were wearing stockings.

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  6. I really want to read this, but I have bought too much non-fiction lately and have slowed down on reading it. Once I catch-up a bit, this will be my next purchase!

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  7. I think it's interesting that the book explores what happened to these women after the war was over and they had to leave behind their jobs and opportunities to go back to their domestic lives. It was probably a really confusing and depressing time for them, and I imagine that it happened to a lot of women. There seem to be a lot of books that examine the social repercussions that various societal changes had on the populace, and it seems like you have explored a lot of them. I always read these reviews with wonder and interest. This seems like another book that I need to add to my list! Thanks for the very perceptive and interesting review, Anna!

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  8. This sounds like another fantastic book! I really need to read more nonfiction like this.

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  9. Whenever you post about Nicholson, I'm always very intrigued. Need to check out her stuff post-haste! And speaking of stocking rationing, were you aware of this project, in which a young British woman duplicates the clothing and fabric rationing of 1941? She unearthed some pretty interesting details about what was rationed, what wasn't, and the stringent rules & regs imposed on the fashion industry during that time. Worth a look!

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  10. This does sound good. I so admire the women (and now men) who stay behind when their loved ones go off to war. I think it was even harder back then because of the lack of communication. My mother told me that her brother was not allowed to tell them where he was during the war. He put a different middle initial in her name on letters he addressed to her spelling out where he was in hopes she would pick up on it.

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  11. I have the previous book she wrote about the lives of single women after the war had taken so many eligible men. It seems like this is a rich historical territory for her. I very much like the sound of this book.

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  12. This was an amazing review!!! The book sounds fantastic. Thank you :D

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  13. I can't imagine how difficult it must have been for some of these women to get a taste of freedom only to have it snatched away again, after the war was over. Having studied quite a lot about WWII I have never read a book that touches on this particular aspect of things. I will be adding this to my list.

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  14. *wants* this book sounds really fascinating! Thanks :)

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.