Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self

Hester Vaizey is fascinated by the revelations of diaries from a wartime Mass-Observation project

April 15, 2010

It is not for nothing that many diaries come with small locks. Who could resist having a peek if a friend or lover left one lying around? Diaries make for such compelling reading because they show the world as seen through the eyes of the author.

But what more can we possibly learn about the Second World War from the wartime stories of nine ordinary men and women, you may well ask. Are their stories representative of wider experiences of the war? How do the day-to-day lives of this cast of characters relate to the broader conflict? Happily, James Hinton has thoughtful and convincing answers to these thorny questions.

And indeed, this book is so much more than nine stories. Hinton mines the exceptionally rich diaries written by volunteers contributing to a Mass-Observation project interested in ordinary people's lives during the war, and shows what wonderfully vivid sources diaries are. What better way to access subjective experiences than accounts from contemporaries, describing what they went through in their own words?

Most staggering, however, is how much just a handful of personal accounts can tell us. Accompanying the beautifully narrated tales of the diarists, Hinton's research contributes to a number of key debates on the social impact of the war. Central to his investigation is the long-established view that people became particularly good citizens during this period. In a general nostalgia for the alleged national unity of wartime Britain, Hinton argues, historians have failed to explore individuals' motives for their greater involvement in civic life. For Eleanor Humphries, we learn, her decision to take up voluntary work was driven more by a desire to avoid conscription than by patriotic fervour. For Nella Last, her involvement in the war effort offered an escape from her domineering husband. And Lillian Rogers, who went dancing in the afternoons without telling her husband, justified this secrecy on the basis that she was serving Mass-Observation's desire to know more about wartime leisure pursuits. These accounts thus reveal an unexplored dimension of civic participation.

War has long been seen as a catalyst for social change. Hinton's detailed analysis of these stories cautions us from attributing to the war changes that may well have occurred anyway. In spite of the upheavals, the diarists also demonstrate that entrenched views do not budge easily. Two factors are particularly striking in this regard: first, the notion that war swept away class boundaries is certainly called into question by the enduring and deep-rooted sense the diarists have of their position within society. Second, if the war offered women the chance to emancipate themselves from the structures of patriarchal control, it was an opportunity that many did not take. Six short years of war, however long they may have felt, did not reverse ingrained attitudes and structures.

Above all, Nine Wartime Lives shows that individual accounts cannot easily be categorised. Pre-empting the criticism that so few diaries cannot be representative of one let alone several social milieux, Hinton shows that even one person's story can be riven with contradictions and surprises. Take the case of Ernest van Someren, a chemist by profession and a Quaker by faith. He could find himself offering expert advice on improvements to naval gun mountings in the morning and then, after work, discussing the ethics of war resistance at a Peace Group meeting. In this and in other cases, this book shows how individuals made sense of and negotiated the situations in which they found themselves. It moves beyond post-structuralist thought, which rejects the idea that the self is an autonomous, individual identity, and argues instead that the self is socially constructed: Nine Wartime Lives shifts the focus "to the moment in which individuals make their own history".

Elegantly written and subtle in its analysis, this book will offer much to those interested in the social history of the war, those new to using personal sources, and more generally to those interested in existential questions about life.

Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self

By James Hinton

Oxford University Press 2pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199574667

Published 14 January 2010

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