In 1914 Vera Brittain was eighteen and, as war was declared, she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life - and the life of her whole generation - had changed in a way that was unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, one of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain's account of how she survived the period; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world. A passionate record of a lost generation, it made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time.
For those who read this memoir, War will never more be "something remote, unimaginable." It will be real, searingly painful, ineffective and so obviously wrong. When World War I broke out in 1914, Vera Brittain was only 18 and had recently overcome tremendous odds to be admitted to Oxford. When her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward, and two good friends all joined the Army, Brittain left her studies to become a nurse. She served first in London, later in Malta, and finally at the front in France before returning to England.
Brittain was an early feminist; every decision she made went against the norm, something she was keenly aware of:
Probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions. Perhaps it is just as well; women have still a long way to travel before their achievements are likely to be assessed without irrelevant sex considerations entering in to bias the judgment of the critic ... (p. 59)
She was driven, but also understood the "frivolity" of pursuing a degree in wartime. Her nursing experience forms the heart of this book, and is also the most emotional. Brittain describes each hospital's harsh and inadequate conditions, and some of the soldiers under her care. When she is assigned to a ward for German prisoners, the reader begins to understand that "the enemy" also have mothers, wives, and families who love them. And, while Brittain is "doing her bit," she experiences tremendous personal loss as those she loves lose their lives in the conflict. I found myself holding back tears, and cautiously turning the pages, fearing the next death.
After the war, Brittain found that not only had her country changed, but so had she:
Only the permanence of my fondest ambitions, and the strange and growing likeness of my son to Edward, reminds me that I am still the individual who went to Uppingham Speech Day in 1914, for although I was a student at Oxford in both my lives, it was not the same Oxford and I was not the same student. (p. 495)
Her experience left permanent emotional scars, and she struggled to cope with being part of "the lost generation." Still, she was able to return to Oxford, and obtained her degree shortly after the university began awarding them to women. Brittain became a regular lecturer with the League of Nations Union. She returned to Europe, touring several countries to understand the impact and aftermath of the war; this once again brought home the pointlessness of it all.
This is one of the most moving and powerful books I've ever read. If all you know of war is strategy, tactics, good guys and bad guys, then you must read this book. Brittain has left us an important legacy. In her words:
Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (p.646)
She was made aware, early on, that men had an unfair advantage in life, and she spent her life trying to remedy that situation. As an early feminist, she began her quest by trying to win acceptance into Oxford. When it actually becomes a reality, she is ecstatic over the possibilities that lie ahead of her when it becomes apparent that the war rumblings that have been in the distance are now crowding the front page and Britain’s involvement can no longer be denied. She desperately wants to be involved, as her brother and male friends are, but most doors are closed to her. As the war heats up, correspondence with those on the front becomes more and more important:
“The fight around Hill 60 which was gradually developing, assisted by the unfamiliar horror of gas attacks, into the Second Battle of Ypres, did nothing to restore my faith in the benevolent intentions of Providence. With that Easter vacation began the wearing anxiety of waiting for letters which for me was to last, with only brief intervals, for more than three years, and which, I think, made all non-combatants feel more distracted than anything else in the War. Even when the letters came they were four days old, and the writer since sending them had had time to die over and over again. My diary, with its long-drawn-out record of days upon days of miserable speculation, still gives a melancholy impression of that nerve-wracking suspense.” (Page 116)
Brittain goes on to leave Oxford in order to serve as a volunteer nurse with the armed forces and served in Malta, France and London. She saw the horrors of war first hand and suffered tremendous losses of her own over the war years. She presents her narrative by including verses written by the poets of the day (including herself), too numerous to mention. This inclusion made me realize that this no longer happens as we wend out way through the war that’s been going on for the last ten years. As the war winds down, her devotion to the plight of inequality for women continues:
“Half-frantic with the misery of conflicting obligations, I envied Edward his complete powerlessness to leave the army whatever happened at home. Today, remembering the violent clash between family and profession, between ‘duty’ and ambition, between conscience and achievement, which has always harassed the women now in their thirties and forties, I find myself still hoping that if the efforts of various interested parties succeed in destroying the fragile international structure built up since the Armistice, and war breaks out on a scale comparable to 1914, the organizers of the machine will not hesitate to conscript all women under fifty for service at home or abroad.” (Page 366)
Once the War is over, Vera can set her sights on feminist issues and the securing of a lasting peace as she meets and becomes best friends with Winifred Holtby. I am impressed by Brittain’s passionate accounting of WWI and those courageous people who fought the war on all fronts. I admire her dedication to both the feminist movement and the peace movement. I finished this book well over a week ago and yet can’t get it out of my mind. It is truly a memorable read and, therefore, highly recommended.
Brittain grew up in Buxton, Derbyshire, and loathed the place. She describes vividly everyday life, expectations, and the narrow scope of life as a middle-class girl then woman. Her battle with her father to go to Oxford was one of my favourite parts of the book, and her desperation to get to university and escape "provincial young lady-hood" made me want to give the book to some of the less inspiring students I've taught! Eventually, she gets to Oxford, and by that time she and Edward's best friend Roland have fallen in love. Then the war begins. Vera does a year at Oxford but leaves to go nursing and feel like she is doing something useful. Roland, Edward, and two other close friends of theirs and Vera's, all end up at the front. From that point, reading every chapter was tense as I waited to see who would die next. The terrible feeling of waiting is one of Brittain's themes.
After the war, Brittain goes back to Oxford and is one of the first women to graduate with a degree. As a war survivor, she feels unwelcome and out of place, but she gradually settles in. She makes friends with Winifred Holtby, moves to London and starts writing and speaking for the League of Nations Union. The book gets happier for the last 200 pages, but is still full of a sense of loss.
Highly recommended if you're interested in WW1 or like memoirs.
While I didn't quite understand all the different ins and outs of the British educational system, it was still clear enough that this entailed quite a bit of extra study and effort on her part to be accepted into the program. She settled in to her studies, and to a world of philosophical explorations with her brother Edward and his cronies.
When war broke out, Vera's generation was caught up in the emotional hysteria of the time. Those like herself, her brother Edward (a talented musician) and Roland Leighton, her about to become fiancè, suddenly faced decisions that would affect not only their own lives, but the lives of their loved ones, and ultimately their nation. Edward and Roland immediately presented themselves for service. Vera was left behind, wondering if she would ever see them again, and whether her studies of English literature were really what the world needed.
Ultimately, she left school, joined the V.A.D. nursing corps and worked overseas in field hospitals as a nurse. Her sense of accomplishment and achievement as a female in a still very constricted society was immense. After Roland is killed early in the war, she stoically continued her nursing, and in her descriptions of that life she offers us some of the most poignant and descriptive writing of the era. When her mother is no longer able to cope at home because of war shortages and a lack of servants, Vera's father insists she return to the family home to take over running the household. While that move may not have been the seed of her later support of the women's movement, it certainly provided the impetus to make it grow. Shortly thereafter, Edward's death in Italy was the final blow to her emotional balance.
Brittain published this memoir of those war years (and those immediately before and after) in 1933, after she'd had the opportunity to reflect and process her feelings about the events she writes about, and after she'd become very active in the peace movement (speaking often on behalf of the League of Nations) and in the drive for women's rights. The book is so powerful because she kept very detailed diaries and had access to letters of the principles, thereby giving us a look into her soul at the moment the thoughts were captured. She did not need to try to re-create the feelings. As she writes this, she is still young enough, and wounded enough to give us a raw glimpse inside her psyche. She writes from her soul, and includes lyrical passages of poems from her own, her brother's and her fiancè's writings.
After the war, she returns to school and studies History in an attempt to come to grips with the cataclysm that has befallen her world. She finds herself in the generation of single women not necessarily interested in marriage, but still being pushed by family and tradition to aspire to a "normal family". Her poem, "The Superflous Woman" is a masterpiece. In fact, the whole book is. It's a must read for anyone wanting to understand war and the havoc it wreaks on human beings.
Brittain lived a privileged existence, and was able to go to Oxford even if her parents didn't quite see the point in it; how would she ever get married if she spent these years getting an education? Aside from the loss of time, who would want her after she'd been doing something as unfeminine as attending university? It all turned out to be a moot point when the war starts, however, and as every man she knows (including the object of her affections, Roland, and her brother Edward) joins the army, she decides she can't see the point of continuing to while away her time occupied by academics and volunteers for nursing duty.
Her observations on life and war are pointed and profound; her writing is beautiful. The fact that she wrote this with seventeen years' distance from the War, but before the outbreak of the Second World War adds a feeling of wistfulness for the modern reader. If she had only known what was coming (although she did seem to have some ideas, at least). Once the war is over, she slowly regains some sense of equilibrium, although she realizes her generation is set apart from its contemporaries, although they may be only a couple of years younger. Her generation seems to be simultaneously old and young, and they aren't sure how to reconcile that or the new world they live in. Brittain does some political work, gets involved with lecturing through the League of Nations, and works for the cause of women's rights. These later sections of the book were not as absorbing as the first part for me, but on the other hand, they were also not as unrelentingly tragic.
I lingered over this book, partially because some of it was so sad that it was best to absorb it in small doses and partially because I wanted to contemplate some of the things she wrote. Brittain's voice came through loud and clear; it felt sometimes like I was listening to the story rather than reading it.
Recommended for: people who want a World War I account from a different point of view, feminists
Quote: "He neither hated the Germans nor loved the Belgians; the only possible motive for going was "heroism in the abstract," and that didn't seem a very logical reason for risking one's life."
Despite having been written more than a decade after the war, [Testament of Youth] has an immediacy that draws the reader into sharing the experience. The author includes extensive excerpts from her diary and from letters she both wrote and received, so that most of the story seems to take place in the present. Articulate, reflective, and by turns naïve and jaded, she and her friends document not so much the war, as their intellectual and emotional responses to it. She also includes poetry that she and they wrote, and some of her war poetry was published in 1918 as [Verses of a V.A.D.]. I found the sections on her youth and her war experiences to be very compelling reading, less so the chapters on her early attempts to become published and her initial forays into grassroots politics. Perhaps it felt slower because there were far fewer quotes, as she ceased keeping a diary at the end of the war. Also, I am not familiar with the politics and politicians of the time, so it was a bit harder to follow. Overall, however, I found the book to be a poignant expression of the ideals of a generation lost at war.
No one could be left unchanged by such experience, and in Vera's case it lead her to campaign for peace the rest of her life.
Testament of Youth touched me deeply. It is an important book - a record of the shattering of the innocence of the pre-war generation that should be required reading.
One of the more interesting parts of the book was reading about the role of women at the time, including education. She is a witness how difficult it was for women to get an education at that time.
But her memoirs are also a powerful look at someone who stands at the margins of history, powerless to change things, in almost every way, except through her writing. Hers is a rare account of what it is to be a woman in that time of war.
This is an amazing book and should be used in schools in place of all that dry history junk that we are forced to endure. On the one hand this is an autobiography, but on the other it's a discussion of politics during and after the first world war. It's an interesting mix because the author herself didn't really have an interest in politics until after all of her experiences during the war.
My biggest annoyance with history is that it cuts out all the people involved. We learn about dates and leaders and wars and catastrophes, but it's always second hand and always from afar; there are no people in history and thus I find it hard to care about what's going on. Ms. Brittain's story is first and foremost about herself; her academic ambitions, her relationships to friends and family, the losses she suffered, the lessons she learned, the interests and skills she developed. And in her descriptions of these things we learn about the historical events that caused them. As she says, national and international events have a frustrating tendency to force their way into personal events.
For this reason, I found it very easy to sympathize with her story and in doing so, my interest in the things that she became interested/involved in grew with hers. I'm now finding myself wanting to search out the memoirs and literary works of her contemporaries which she mentions in several places throughout the book.
Definitely a recommended read.
Her memoir really excels as Brittain details the post-war years, where she has appears to be a feeling survivor's guilt and has difficulty relating to younger peers, who didn't have the same losses become so ingrained in their psyches.
I found the sections about Brittain's post-war work as a lecturer on peace and in the feminist movement less interesting -- there is a big focus on British politics that was uninteresting to me. But overall, this memoir makes for a truly fascinating read.
I started reading Testament of Youth mainly for the information on WW1, not knowing that apart from suffering heartbreaking losses and being a VAD nurse, Vera Brittain also was a feminist of the first hour and a writer of great astuteness.
In consequence she proceeded to reduce me to openmouthed admiration as early on as her description of youth and life prior to the Great War. Never before have I truly understood the massive societal changes wrought upon people during that short phase of time. Brittain writes so that you are there *with* her, that inevitably you get reminded of your grandparents and their often tentative and still excruciatingly backward stance in many personal matters.
Never before was I able to appreciate what it truly meant to have no privacy, at all, to be directed in every manner by parents and their peers. Brittain made it accessible to me, by giving me such simple signposts as e.g. the fact that no woman was ever private, to herself and alone except very early in the morning and late in the night. That indeed a lot of women didn’t rise very early because they had to, but because they cherished those few moments they could have to themselves.
Nor did I truly grasp what it might mean to an 18 year old VAD nurse to be thrust into a ward filled with men and having to tend to their most private needs, oftentimes themselves. Up to then any middle-class girl wouldn’t have been aware of male anatomy, yet suddenly she would have to deal with helping arm-amputated to take a leak and perforce also discover the pure plumbings of the male sexuality and what it might mean in terms of her later duties as a wife. It made me finally understand some things discussed with friends who grew up in extremely repressed households.
Her descriptions of budding love, of Roland, Victor and Geoffrey, and of course her brother Edward, and her unconventional approach to these men, were sweet and all the more ingenious to read when juxtaposed to their later letters from the front depicting how much they changed or wrestled with what they considered their duty.
*That* also was something I, a post WW2 child with a sound hatred of warfare, finally grasped, which was so utterly heartbreaking because it meant that so many, many gallant young men on any of the sides had been viciously misled.
I could go on and on, especially as I have read, prior to this, enough factual books on WW1 to know just what horrors she was so calmly writing about. A feminist, a pacifist and yet she still managed to display that special kind of stiff upper lip which was and is particular to the British middle and upper classes. She slips but rarely, this here I consider such a slip:
I wish those people who write so glibly about this being a holy War, and the orators who talk so much about going on no matter how long the War lasts and what it may mean, could see a case--to say nothing of 10 cases--of mustard gas in its early stages--could see the poor things burnt and blistered all over with great mustard-coloured suppurating blisters, with blind eyes--sometimes temporally, sometimes permanently--all sticky and stuck together, and always fighting for breath, with voices a mere whisper, saying that their throats are closing and they know they will choke.
For a brief moment that stiff upper lip slips and she lets us see the horror thrust upon her. By the end of the war she had lost everything dear and close, her beloved fiancé, her brother, her best friends. Brittain convincingly writes about the schism which separates the post-war self from her pre-war self, one which is likely to mark almost everyone of that generation.
A note of warning: I cried a lot, for all those young men, for their lovers, sisters, mothers, for the poor men feeling they let down their country and peers because they had to stay at home, for a generation of women confronted with a future alone. At times I was unable to keep going, simply because I was unable to breathe, I was so clogged up from crying. But I’d inevitably come back to the book, pressing on, reading on, wishing to learn where it all ended for her. What to me, child of those who fought and survived in WW2, was the worst was knowing that she was writing this in 1933, just a few months before everything started off again, to the same if not worse result.
I very much recommend this book for a personal look at this war, for insights which you won’t find in the usual books written by men and less feministic women and for a close look at what it meant to be a woman born in the Victorian era.
As I read about all the pain and sorrow she was forced to endure, I became completely absorbed in Vera Brittain's story. I found it very inspirational that despite having her entire world torn apart by the war, she was still able to go on to build a successful career for herself as a novelist, feminist and pacifist.
Testament of Youth was a long, demanding and often heartbreaking book, but I'm glad I read it and I feel I learned a lot from it
It is, as might be expected, massive in scope, describing how the war changed things on both a large and small scale. Individually, she lost the boys/men closest to her, as well as giving up her security and a university place to be a nurse. All of which has an emotional burden that is played out through the book. However, it is also clear how the war changed society as well. For example, she had to overcome intense resistance to go to Oxford and was, initially, not eligible for a degree (only awarded to men at the time). The contrast of the personal and the international events makes for an interesting dynamic.
That might sound depressing, but it isn't. There are terribly sad moments and it bought me to the verge of tears more than once, but it proves that life goes on, despite anything that is thrown at us. she continues to serve through intense dissappointment in the war itself, then has to deal with the suvivor guilt of the early post war years. Then there is the issue of being faithful to her lost love when she meets someone else. An emotional rollercoaster, in some ways, but all described in very restrained good manners.
The past may as well be another country, so far is it from anything I recognise
Re-read, from Mar 2009.
Maybe it was because I had a deadline - it being this month's book club book, but I got really quite annoyed with this book. The most obvious element that annoyed me was the sensation that Vera seemed to think that the world owed her something because of her experiences during the war. It's a very modern sounding phrase that you hear from the youf "I got rights" and there are echoes of this in her return to Oxford, but she does seem to feel that she is special, despite the references to her generation. You could easily argue that she had done something important and deserved more recognition, but it was her decision to volunteer, and self sacrificing acts usually involve some act of sacrifice.
It was still moving, and there is still the hope of the final chapters after the bleakness of earlier ones. But I still struggle to find any point of connection with her and didn't find it as enlighteneing second time around as it was the first time.
At the start of World War One, and despite finally getting into Oxford University after an incredible effort to overcome her parents' objections (of course it was accepted that the son would go there - but why would a woman bother?), she turned her back on that to take on arduous, and physically and emotionally demanding nursing work with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment - women who volunteered to nurse the war-wounded) and which required incredible courage and endurance.
This is the third WW1 memoir I've read in 2014 (the other two being Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, and Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves) and it was both interesting and refreshing to get a female perspective on the conflict. Vera Brittain arguably endured as much hardship and horror as the men in the trenches. Worse, she had to endure survivor's guilt after the war was over. 'Why couldn't I have died in the War with the others?' she lamented, and perhaps not surprisingly, as she lost four of the people she was closest to, including her brother and her partner. These deaths, and her war time experienced, turned Vera Brittain into a committed pacifist.
After the war, she returned to study at Oxford where she became close friends with writer Winifred Holtby. Both young women shared a flat and became writers. Convinced she would never marry, Vera Brittain finally succumbed to the attentions of George Catlin, marrying him, and ensuring a happy ending to this excellent memoir.
The opening sections capture her naïveté, her insular bourgeois life. Bound by codification, some Victorian, some essentially medieval—our protagonist attends, goes to uni, falls into something like love and then that damn Serb struts on stage in Sarajevo.
Too long by a third, Testament interminably delineates the liberalization of the codes despised by Brittain , this change comes at a cost: the very plague which took away everyone she loved.