Thursday, December 6, 2012

Millions Like Us - Virginia Nicholson

The subtitle of this book is Women's Lives in War and Peace & that's exactly what it encompasses. Millions Like Us tells the stories of many women & how they lived through WWII & the years afterwards. Nicholson focuses on about a dozen women who we get to know well during the course of the book, including writer Naomi Mitchison, housewife & diarist Nella Last, 17 year old junior housemaid Jean McFadyen & debutante Patience Chadwyck-Healey. Their lives are revealed through interviews, letters & diaries as well as memoirs they wrote in later life.

The women worked in all the armed forces as ambulance drivers, nurses, clerks, telegraph operators & code breakers at Bletchley Park, at home & in all the theatres of war. There are women trying to run a home during the Blitz, helping others bombed out of their homes, working in the Land Army or Timber Corps or looking after evacuees. It would be impossible to tell even a fraction of the stories told so well in Millions Like Us & the voices of the women in the book are so important that I think it's better to let the women speak for themselves. These are just a few of the passages I marked as I read.

Mollie Panter-Downes wrote a weekly column in the New Yorker about the experiences of Britain at War. The imposition of the blackout & the closure of theatres was one of the first effects,

With, on the whole, astounding good humor and an obedience remarkable in an effete democracy, they have accepted a new troglodyte existence in which there are few places of entertainment, no good radio programs, little war news and little to do after dark except stay in the cave...'So we'll go no more a-roving so late into the night' has taken on a significance that Byron never intended.

Young women like 17 year old Cora Styles became quite matter of fact about the horrors of the Blitz,

When I went to work in the mornings you'd see piles of brick rubble, perhaps with an arm sticking out or a leg - I got so that blood, guts and what have you didn't have much effect on me. I knew a man who would go round with a  basket collecting the bits, trying to put them together. He picked up somebody's head and the eyes were open; it nearly landed him in the loony bin.

Not all the stories are as horrific. For many women, the war was an opportunity to get out of the rut that habit or class or their families had thrust them into. They were able to get an education, learn new skills & experience the excitement that responsibility & doing a worthwhile job can bring. For all the stories about young women being bullied in factories or forced to put up with the dirtiest jobs an irate farmer could devise, there are other stories about friendships & romances that changed their lives.

Isa Barker was a Land Girl in Scotland & found the social life & staging charity concerts more stimulating than the work,

We found out that we had a couple of beautiful singers; and there was one girl who was very adept with poetry recitations, and could make people laugh. And I had been in a tap dancing troupe for five or six years when I was younger... We didn't go to bed till about two in the morning because of people enjoying themselves. And on Saturday mornings you'd get up and think 'Och, we've got to lift manure.' Well, we could hardly lift the fork, never mind the fork with the manure on it!

The end of the war brought joy & relief. Marguerite Patten had been a domestic science demonstrator during the war & went on to become a well-known cookery writer. She remembers her joy when the war ended.

Victory! We couldn't, couldn't believe it  really had come. It was wonderful... The sheer joyousness of that day! I kissed more people that day than I kissed in my entire life. We danced and we sang... and of course we all got as near to Buckingham Palace as we possibly could. You can't exaggerate the joy of that day. And we could go home in the dark and not worry about an air raid! And people could leave their curtains undrawn!~No, the feeling of joy on that day was something to remember the whole of your life.

The end of the war didn't bring joy to everyone. It was hard to celebrate when your husband or son wasn't coming home. When the troops were demobilised & the prisoners of war were released, the men who came home had changed & the women they came back to had changed as well. Many marriages foundered & divorce rates increased. Many young women had become engaged to American GIs & set off to a whole new life in another country. Others had to leave jobs that they had enjoyed because the work was no longer there or the job was reserved for a returned serviceman.

The stress of adjustment to peace was severe. Especially as life didn't automatically change for the better. Rationing didn't end with the war & shortages of food, clothing, housing all made life difficult without the feeling of necessary sacrifice that came with the war effort. The final chapters of Millions Like Us are quite sober. News of the concentration camps & the dropping of the nuclear bombs on Japan shocked everyone. The new post-war world would take some getting used to. Millions Like Us is an absorbing book. Virginia Nicholson has done an excellent job of describing the war experiences of so many different women yet by the end of the book, the reader feels that we know them all intimately. The personal interviews are especially important as the generation who lived through WWII begins to disappear. It's all the more crucial that their experiences are not forgotten.


  1. Oooh. Sounds like a book that is *right* up my alley (so to speak) so thanks for the heads-up. I have seen it reviewed elsewhere positively so yours, added to the rest, definitely tips the title higher up the TBR pile. I love social history like this one so thanks for the review.

    1. It's a fascinating book so I hope you enjoy it.

  2. This sounds very appealing - I do like this type of social history where the individual stories come through.

    1. I agree, hearing the individual stories in their own words is wonderful.

  3. I read some raves about this a few months ago and ordered a copy right away -- which is naturally sitting on the TBR shelf. I'm watching The Land Girls series from the BBC so I think it will inspire me to read some more WWII books. I also have Few Eggs and No Oranges from Persephone and Nella Last's War. I've heard great things about both of them.

    1. Karen, I'd had this on the tbr shelves for over a year but I'm so glad I picked it up. It was just as good as VN's earlier books, wonderful social history. Few Eggs & Nella Last are also excellent, some of my favourite books about WWII.