What Did You Do in the War, Mummy? by Mavis Nicholson

7th Oct 2010

What Did You Do In The War, Mummy Mavis Nicholson Dame Vera Lynne Book Cover

Nicholson’s brief may be rather narrow; in limiting the bulk of her subjects’ recollections to the period just before and during the Second World War we lose slightly the fascinating changes wrought on women’s lives in the 1950s through to the 90s, when this book was first published. However the scope of interviewees, from the glamour of the song-and-dance Windmill girls to the horror of the concentration camps, shows how wide ranging women’s lives were, and have always been.

The interviews are written in a similar fashion throughout, and it is a shame that certain local nuances that I am guessing would have been present in the original transcripts have been lost. Much of the subject’s individual characters do not come across; there are far too many ‘jolly’s and ‘marvellous’s, and I certainly do not know any women of my grandmother’s age who speak like that.

The stories, however, are as disparate as interviews from a cross section of society would be today. By not limiting herself to a certain class or background, Nicholson allows the reader so see the truth behind the propaganda of middle-class feminism; that women ‘won the right’ to work because of events like the war. They didn’t. Working-class women have always worked, straight from school in several of the subject’s cases, and what the war brought for many thousands of women was not a break from the drudgery of house and husband, but from a much earlier patriarchal oppression; the ridiculous ‘respectability’ of the original family unit, with the father at its head.

It is this hypocrisy within the publication that grates. In the introduction written by Nicholson, it is repeated several times how the war made women financially independent, how at the end with the return of the men from the battle field the women were made to feel diminished; they had done their bit, now back off to the kitchen sink with you! The stories collected in this book show this to simply not be true.

Although Nicholson acknowledges that: “The only release from [patriarchal] authority was to get married, which often meant changing one form of dependence for another,” there is a constant feeling throughout her introduction and the introductions to the individual histories that all women were financially liberated for the first time, could work for the first time, could be independent for the first time.

Compare this notion to the lives described by some of the women, notably Pat Parker and Christina Kirby, and you see how false this middle-class idea of the war as a time of ‘firsts’ for women is. Chirstina Kirby’s story of working driving lorries and tanks had to make me smile, Nicholson introduces the history with the stock ‘men think women can’t drive, how wrong they are!’ line, followed by a patronising and unnecessary description of Kirby, ‘five foot and a promise in her khaki socks,’ parking heavy-duty lorries. Kirby’s actual story begins with the following. “I’m not surprised that I loved driving all makes and types of vehicles in the Army. I used to drive a milk cart with three churns in the back from the time I was eight”. Classic.

I did really enjoy this book. Some of the women are truly remarkable, notably Odette Hallows, the British Spy caught and captured in France, then tortured and imprisoned at Ravensbruck concentration camp in Germany. Her imprisonment included two years in solitary confinement in a windowless cell and her stoicism and seemingly impossible ability to forgive stunned me.

Of course, reading books like this, it is hard not to wonder ‘what would I have done? How would I have coped?’ and in reading these stories one learns the answer; you go where you’re put, unless you volunteer for it, and you cope because you have to, with laughter and with pride in the day-to-day. Many of the women speak of being ‘ lost’ after the war, notably these are the women who lived and worked in units together, and shows the power of collectivism and how, really, we’re all supposed to live and work as one.

My favourite of the stories has to be that of Pat Parker, the lumberjill, who worked logging on estates throughout the North of England. She compared her life with that of the Land Girls, made famous in my lifetime at least through the excellent and highly-recommended book by Angela Huth , and explained how the lumberjills were looked down upon because they worked 9-5 jobs and weren’t as ‘famous’, showing me how little I know really about the options available to women during the war. It was also a pleasure to read so many stories that linked back to my home town of Scarborough, and the naval base there.

Often told with humour, a genuine pride and slight sadness, these stories are worth the telling. As a huge lover of oral history projects I would recommend this book whole heartedly. But ignore the ridiculous demeaning title (not all women are ‘mummies’ and are no less for not being so) and instead enjoy the fascinating, and often painful, histories within.

Originally published in 1995 by Chatto & Windus, What Did You Do in the War, Mummy? has just been re-issued by Seren, and is available from Amazon for £9.99.

Post by Jess Haigh


  • Jane Bradley says:

    Fab post, Jess, thanks! If this one happens to be in your Travelling Suitcase Library when it travels to my fair city I wouldn’t mind nabbing it. It is a concern that people still seem to see the legacy of WW2 as a time of ‘firsts,’ but like you say I’m sure it’s a class issue. For some it was a time of ‘firsts’, for others who’d already been working for years it was a time of change but maybe only of role or context. Hmmm…

  • Jess says:

    Cheers Jane, yes I agree it is a class issue. I will def bring this book down with me to LahnDahn, though may have to lend it to my Gran first. Best thing about books like this is they get you talking to your older relatives about their history. My Gran was a nurse in Bradford, I’m sure she has some equally fascinating stories to tell!.

  • wendy woollaston says:

    I lent my copy of this to someone and never saw it again! I thought I should look on the internet and see if I could replace it.
    The Neopolitan romance story is of my Mother & Father. My mother died in 2000.
    I had mixed feelings about the book as my mother relates the tale in a way I found irritating and I always feel that this sort of thing can sentimentalise the past.
    She was very much lucky to escape patriarchal oppression though would not have agreed putting her father on a massive pedestal all her life.
    The story of Anne Shelton was an example of how fortunate it was Mavis wrote this when when she did. Despite Anne being only in her sixties at the time, she unexpectedly died only a couple of weeks after Mavis interviewed her.

    • Jane Bradley says:

      Thanks for the comment Wendy, and for sharing your story – always intriguing to hear another side to how history has been documented! Sorry to hear about your mother too.