Nine Wartime Lives

Penny Summerfield on a new approach to Mass Observation  


Reviewed by: Penny Summerfield
Author: James Hinton
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £25


 Diaries present historians with a challenge. Those that combine, as Mass Observation (M-O) diaries do, public observation with intimate details of personal life, enable the reader to enter the diarist’s past. Yet writing history from diaries is difficult because the historian’s purpose as commonly understood is to identify trends and offer generalisations. M-O’s own plans in the 1940s to construct a collective history of the Second World War from the diaries it elicited from volunteers foundered on their complexity, subjectivity and individuality. As a result these treasures lay hidden from public view until the 1980s when, led by Nella Last’s War, publishers started to present a succession of M-O diaries in edited volumes to a receptive public.

James Hinton has tried something different, involving a realignment of the historian and the diary. Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self reconstructs the biographies of nine M-O diarists – six women and three men who vary in age, social status and location – from their diaries and other writing they did for M-O. He poses big questions. What were the mainsprings of motivation for war service? How did women and men reconcile public wartime endeavours with their personal lives? What were the effects of war on individuals’ world views and on their relationship to modernity? Diaries, as Hinton skilfully shows us, are perfectly suited to answering such questions, albeit that the answers complicate the questions. 

The outcome is a compelling account that presents much that is unexpected about the lived experience of the war. Hinton is to be congratulated on demonstrating the value of a welcome and overdue ‘biographical turn’ in historical studies.  


Penny Summerfield is professor of modern history, University of Manchester