Review: Mavis Nicholson talks to Sarah Compton

I can only hope to be as sparky and sparkling as Mavis Nicholson when I’m an octogenarian. Her book, What Did You Do In The War, Mummy? is a collection of interviews with women about their wartime experiences – from WI stalwarts to spies to the little known but awesomely named ‘landjills’. The audience for this event was definitely on the older side and there was much knowing nodding and finishing of Nicholson’s sentences for her.

Nicholson had two particularly interesting takes on social change and the Second World War. First, that while women found freedom, independence and adventure in the war, by and large they went back to ‘ordinary’ lives afterwards. What changed most were their expectations and relationships with their daughters – they gave up on liberation for themselves but wanted it for the next generation. Second, she argued that women’s willingness to be volunteers is ‘why they don’t rule the world.’ Women want to be liked, so they are content with gratitude; men want to be admired, so they start to compete.

One particular woman stood out for me: Odette, who spent two years in solitary confinement as a prisoner of war. To stop herself losing it, she would mentally redecorate people’s houses – and was often surprised on returning home that they hadn’t followed her advice.

There was definitely a sense that no one had ever asked these women to tell their story before. At a time when every celebrity has churned out three autobiographies by the age of 25, it’s worth remembering whose memories really matter.

Lyndsey writes at teadevotee

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