When I was researching the background for ‘Dead White’, which is set in 1947, I was aware that World War 2 would have to feature prominently, not just in the way that people were still confined by rationing and other restrictions, but in their thoughts and memories. For my characters, the war would be an important reference point, being for some people no more than a hiatus in normal life, and for others a life-defining time of danger, excitement and loss. I expected, however, that the sense of relief that it was over and indeed satisfaction that the Allies had won would play a significant role in people’s thinking. So, I was surprised to find, from the contemporary diaries made public by Mass Observation that this was not necessarily the case. The overwhelming impression one gets is of utter weariness and a growing resentment and dissatisfaction with the results of victory.
This is completely understandable in many respects – life for great numbers of people didn’t improve. In fact, from the point of view of food and travel restrictions, housing and work opportunities, everyday life became more difficult, if anything. When you consider how much of the housing stock was lost to bombing, particularly in populous areas (some 700,000 homes were either completely destroyed or rendered unsafe) with the resultant loss of possessions, the overcrowding in those remaining must have been appalling. On top of this, war work had been comparatively well paid. I know of people who brought home the equivalent of 80 pence a week and their food as farm hands before the war, but who earned £5 a week working in munitions during the hostilities. When the war ended, so did their jobs in many cases, and women, even more than men, found themselves surplus to requirements.
Even as an educated, professional woman, Della finds herself passed over for teaching posts. Getting the job at Nant-yr-Eithin comes as a surprise, until she learns of the peculiar circumstances that led to the vacancy. She knows that any man willing to take it on would have been appointed in preference to her. From our point of view, this is outrageous, but it reflects the attitudes that prevailed at that time. From government directives to women’s magazines, the expectation that people, particularly women, would be happy to go back to the old pre-war state of affairs seems perversely short-sighted to us. The authorities would probably have argued that the many thousands of returning service personnel took precedence as regards jobs, but how, for example, were the war widows supposed to support themselves and their families? I am not convinced that political expediency completely explains this attitude. It smacks suspiciously of alarm that the working class, and women, had become far too aware of their abilities and value in the workplace. War had been a game-changer for them and nothing would be the same from then on. They might accept matters on the surface, but never again would they ‘know their place’ so resignedly.
The modern world as we know it begins, in many respects, at the end of the Second World War. This change in mood, from acceptance of the necessity of suffering in order to defeat an enemy to furious resentment at the continuation of inequality and deprivation afterwards, was created by the war and its aftermath. War is horribly destructive and disruptive but, oddly, it also sweeps away old attitudes. You have to wonder how we would be living now if it hadn’t happened.
(Photo: By Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)