- Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self
Nine Wartime Lives is a fascinating collection of biographical sketches of men and women who kept diaries during the Second World War for Mass-Observation, the pioneering British social research project founded in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the poet Charles Madge, and the filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. Hinton includes a feline nine lives, precisely, in homage to the eighteenth-century cat massacre famously analyzed by the cultural historian Robert Darnton; like the domestic cat, writes Hinton in his conclusion, the ordinary lives archived in Mass-Observation are “‘good to think’ with” (199). The book supports this claim abundantly and engagingly, using a sample of otherwise obscure lives to explore a wide and often surprising range of topics—among others, mid-century marriage and the origins of women’s empowerment in later decades; the thoroughly mixed motives driving civic engagement in wartime; the earnest intellectual and artistic culture of provincial England; and the idiosyncratic shapes taken by religious belief and other forms of spiritual transcendence in times of historical crisis. It is, admittedly, a small sample from a vast archive, and Hinton explains that representativeness is neither possible nor, for that matter, desired (17); he adds, furthermore, that these are “biographical essays” and emphatically not “case studies” in the service of a systematic or totalizing theory (20). Yet, as a study of the lived experience of Britain in the 1940s, this book is no less illuminating than it is absorbing.
The main thing Hinton’s Mass-Observers have in common is a degree of public participation, and everyone writing about Britain’s home-front culture [End Page 868] must reckon with the tenacious cliché of the “Blitz spirit,” when, as the familiar story had it, Britain attained a democratic national unity, a classless solidarity never seen before or since. Hinton’s handling of this cliché is exemplarily measured, alert to its convenient utility as a stick to beat Britain’s disappointing present (selfishly individualistic, atomized, antisocial), but alert, too, to its actuality as one among many operative forces on wartime consciousness. In this respect, Hinton’s treatment of the familiar narrative of wartime public-spiritedness is entirely characteristic of the book as a whole, resistant to the ritual scholarly demythologizing of the war that too often amounts to the effort to break the butterfly of popular cultural fantasy on the wheel of academic cultural history. This is a more searching and generous-minded inquiry into the relationship between subjective experience and public memory. It eschews the easy target.
A compelling imaginative receptivity is the central quality of the essays that form the main part of the book. Seen from one angle, Hinton’s material is, among other things, a record of bad faith, even hypocrisy—from the apparently open-minded woman whose homophobia drives away her beloved gay son, to the war-industry chemist whose very livelihood reflects perplexingly on his declared Quaker and pacifist convictions. And it is also a compendium of middle-class and lower-middle-class snobbery in its variously toxic forms, from an embarrassingly smug and overweening assumption of cultural superiority among the suburban aficionados of Edward Elgar through to its manifestations in racism, anti-Semitism, and a fastidious shuddering at the horrid accents and foul odors emitted by working-class women. And yet, to focus on those aspects of 1940s culture is to read the essays against their grain, giving them an emphasis that Hinton, whose own liberal and democratic priorities are nonetheless everywhere apparent, does not. What I have called hypocrisy reflects for Hinton the extraordinary complexity of any life when it is examined at close quarters; and what I have dismissed as snobbery looks, in Hinton’s sensitive and sympathetic handling, more like a reflection of the inevitable anxieties and insecurities attendant on modern self-understanding.
Hinton takes palpable pleasure in the sheer contrariness of his subjects: the social-climbing Conservative housewife with surprisingly progressive hopes for the postwar peace; the...