Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Parallel Lives, Nella Last and Dorothy Nixon

My secretary with all of the Nella Last books in a place of honour.


A few years ago I heard the book Nella Last's Peace serialized on BBC Radio Four  and I was enraptured and ordered the book off Amazon.co.uk. A short time after I ordered Nella Last's War, the original book, and Nella Last's 50's.

These books are all based on the diaries of a Cumbria Housewife who volunteered for a historical project called The Mass Observation Project and who subsequently supplied them with millions of words on hundreds of pages.

Nella Last's War was originally published decades ago, but in 2008 it was turned into a successful television program Housewife 49 starring Victoria Wood, reviving interest in Nella's Life. (I bought that too.)

I know I find her life most interesting, even if it is a 'small life' like most women's lives up until now.

Nella was born in 1890 in Lancashire, five years before my own British grandmother, who was born in 1895 at Teesdale  in County Durham, not too far away.

My own grandmother did, indeed, lead a rather 'big' life, not that it was entirely her fault. She got swept up in the currents of history.

During WWII my grandmother was interned at Changi Prison in Singapore and tortured in an infamous incident, the Double Tenth.

               Self-portrait. My grandmother in her cell at Changi. From the Cover of Looking For Mrs. Peel. Available on Amazon

What a difference 5 years can make!

It is  very likely that my grandmother and Nella would have lived very similar lives had it not been for WWI.

My grandmother was born in  1895 and not 1890 like Nella, so she came-of-age too late to find a mate in England and went to Malaya to marry Robert Nixon, a rubber planter. (My theory, anyway.)

During WWI, at 19 years of age plus, she worked as a land girl in forestry, guiding the huge Clydesdales that pulled the logs around.

Perhaps she got a taste for adventure during WWI, in the same way Nella Last got a taste of independence during WWII.

Homely, intelligent Nella didn't have to find work in her youth: she had had a considerable dowry and was able to 'buy' a husband. I think that's how it was done in Edwardian times.

This dowry is discussed in her diary. On occasion frugal Nella gets a little perturbed at her door mat status, and she considers that she brought the money into the marriage  that permitted her moody husband to start his business.

I can't say for sure that my grandmother went to Malaya only to marry, but I have to guess, as this was usually what happened.

(Well, British men came back to England after a few years working at the plantations expressly to find a wife. Their companies wanted them to 'settle down' but NOT with local women.)

In those post WWI days, these white British Colonial women were looked down upon by almost everyone seen as parasites of sorts or women living a fairy tale existence way above their real station in life.

Here are some relevant blurbs:

             "They (white colonial women)have possessed (or still possess)all the
            advantages of wealth but never been trained in the
            responsibilities,”leadership and courageous example.They are
            pampered and admired all out of proportion to their desserts in an
            open market. They are middle class were they back home, they would likely 
            be sweeping out a four bedroom cottage."


            Giles Playfair. Singapore Goes off the Air, 1943 (Playfair met my mother at Malayan Radio during                 the Fall of Singapore and describes her as a strong, stubborn woman.)

            "Indeed, the presence of white women in the tropical East sets a
            problem for which a satisfactory solution has yet to be found. The
            disadvantages are obvious; an enervating climate, a multiplicity of
            servants to attend to her wants and nothing to do all day except to
            seek amusement. I doubt if the white woman will ever be suited to
            long residence in a tropical country like Malaya, and I cannot
            resist the contention that her presence in such large numbers, is
            responsible, at least to some extent, for the decline in the white
            man's prestige.

            Bruce Lockhart. Return to Malaya, 1937

            The unsung maiden aunts of the Edwardian era deserve a very special
            place in British history. There would have been thousands of sad,
            unfulfilled women who were forbidden to take a career yet where
            blatantly exploited by the more fecund members of their families.
            Without these devoted slaves the children of Empire Builders could
            not have been educated in England because it was impossible to go
            home every holiday in those days of sea travel."

            Dr. Cecily Williams: Retired Except on Demand by Sally Craddock. 1983

       Four bedroom cottage? Like Nella, I guess.


Dr. Cecily Williams was interned with my grandmother and also caught up in the Double Tenth Incident where many civilian men were tortured to death -which resulted in a 1946 war crimes trial.

(There were four women involved in the incident and they all survived.)

But Williams was a medical doctor, so  highly-respected at the Changi Women's Camp.  Both Cecily and my grandmother acted as Commandant for a  period. My grandmother thought Cecily nice, but a bit scatter-brained, which is ironic, all things considered.My grandmother resented her special status and also looked down upon Cecily's spinster status.

These "Imperial Women" with servants to do everything didn't have much choice but to be layabouts. They weren't encouraged to get involved in "good works" in Malaya as they might have been back home, because that would involved meeting up with natives and upsetting the natural order of things. But they were encouraged, well FORCED, to send their children away early to England.

One local lady I recently met told me her mother, married to the Chief Surveyor of Singapore, did a lot of sports to keep herself amused in the 1920's. Golf and such - and she scored cricket for Singapore.

My grandmother found a way to alleviate her boredom and to contribute to society by becoming the secretary of the Kuala Lumpur Book Club in the early 30's  and Chief Cricket Scorer for Selangor too.

She was the only woman allowed into the men's side of the Royal Selangor Club to perform this activity.

(English school girls, apparently, learned how to scored cricket.)

The Kuala Lumpur Book Club started out at the turn-of- the-last century as an all-white bastion, so, I guess, it was considered a safe place for a British Woman, but after WWII, my grandmother opened it up to the locals, even, Yikes, to women.
My grandmother, Dorothy Nixon, scoring Cricket at the Royal Selangor Club. From a 1951 March of Time Newsreel.