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March 23, 2014

'No selfish ways in those days'

Even though I'm an Anglophile, and I read a lot of British fiction and mysteries, I realize that there are many things in British history and culture that I only know about from passing glimpses in books {A levels and O levels, the peerage (and the order it goes in), the early kings and queens {before Queen Victoria} and how they got there, and Agas and other things you'd cook with -- I was SO excited when Darlene showed us one of these!}

The Women's Institute would be another. I'm sure it has come up in Angela Thirkell and Barbara Pym (and in Calendar Girls, of course), and as soon as I heard about Julie Summer's book Jambusters:  the story of the Women's Institute in the Second World War, I hoped for a chance to read it (thank you, college library).

One of their principles was that WIs were non-partisan, non-political, and non-religious, so the members were not permitted to engage in overt 'war work.'  But the WIs were also seen as incredibly important resources for food production and other needs.

Wartime jam-making was an additional burden for busy housewives. The preservation centres were set up in villages or close to where supplies of fruit were found and the conditions that the women worked in were seldom ideal. The list from 1940 included halls, domestic science kitchens, huts, WI markets, police stations, cafes, baking sheds, garages and private kitchens of all kinds. Mrs. Denys Blewitt lived at Boxted Hall near Colchester in Essex. A wealthy lady and an active member of her WI as well as the Women's National Citizen Association and the Conservative Party, she was very generous offering the hall when it was needed. From 1939 onwards for the rest of the war she made the kitchens in the servants' quarters at the hall available for jam-making. There WI members made more than four tons of jam on seven stoves. Boxted Hall's kitchens were well equipped and there was running water to hand, which was a boon. Where water was not laid on it was carried by relays of willing helpers to the 'kitchens' and the fruit very often had to be picked by the women doing the jam-making. 'At one centre half the members cycled five miles before breakfast to pick the fruit, other members prepared and served them breakfast and the rest preserved the fruit in the afternoon.' Miss Cox, who checked all the forms that came in from the preserving centres, found one that had a note apologizing for her form being later but 'my house was bombed and it was so difficult to find things afterwards.'
But it wasn't only jam, or victory gardens.  The WIs were encouraged to form pig clubs and raise chickens for eggs, to grow or collect foxgloves, rosehips, chestnuts and dandelions for medicinal use {in some cases, supplying them to drug manufacturers -- that was fascinating}, to raise rabbits for food or for Mrs. Churchill's 'Fur for Russia' campaign, and even to salvage animal bones needed for industrial processes when Britain had to begin importing processed meat instead of livestock. Through their national leadership, they also effectively lobbied the British government on issues relating to public health.
I found this book enjoyable and engaging from beginning to end, and often found myself feeling tremendous admiration for these women and wondering whether the efforts they undertook would be even conceivable 70 years later. The last chapters, the ones that talk about how women faced the end of the war and what would come after it, were especially moving, including this letter from a WI member, quoted at the very end:

What are the reactions of the ordinary person to these days? It is, of course, impossible to generalize, but those of our own circle are interesting.  First then, our treasured possessions are no longer the same. The china on the mantelpiece, the odd bits of furniture, even the house we lived in happily for many years cease to be of real value. we know them to be unimportant, but family life, friendship, music, books: these remain our true possessions. Again the background of uncertainty seems to enhance our joy in the beauty of life; the summer morning with its long shadows, the dew-y, the dew-sprinkled flowers, the gentle chatter of swallows and their swooping grace. Life is more secluded, though not less full, and our occupations are  changed. The hostess is cook and finds a fresh pleasure in hospitality the artist becomes a practical gardener, and the gardener makes dug-outs. Each finds a new pride in a new achievement. Letter writing has come into its own again and we may have some enlightening records of daily life for posterity. We make the most of our next door neighbors, now that our movements are restricted, and find them pleasanter company than we had expected.
      Life is simplified; we cannot look forward or make plans, so that time seems to have ceased to exist. Perhaps after the rush of these last years, these days may bring us single life, an acceptance of life and of death, an inward peace. ...



Lisa said...

I've just put in an ILL request for this - hopefully the six-months' embargo on borrowing newly-published books has passed. And hopefully it doesn't arrive before the TBR Double-Dare is over.

Bellezza said...

This book sounds fascinating! I know so little of British culture/history, although I've become a great admirer of it through the literature I read. It's wonderful to read how women are so important, so helpful, so necessary to society (and always have been). This almost sounds like it could be a Persephone book!

xo (your fellow m & m and book lover)

Nan said...

For a long time now, I've been thinking of buying a little book called The Women's Institute. It is at the Book Depository.

This one sounds wonderful. I must read it. Thanks for writing about it.

CGrace said...

This book looks wonderful! I love English WWII culture and I think this book would be right up my alley, especially since it's about food production.

Thank you for visiting!

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