Thursday, January 10, 2013

Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

A staggering work of beauty, sadness, insight, introspection, and intelligence, Vera Brittain's memoir, Testament of Youth, ended my year of World War I reading on a pinnacle. As a relatively privileged member of pre-war Society (her parents had servants, she had lovely clothes and the opportunity to advance her studies), she still had to win a battle with her parents to allow her to attend Oxford and study English Literature.

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 ( 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.

 The Superfluous Woman
Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Recalling words
Whose echoes have long died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
But who will look for my coming?

Long busy days where many meet and part ;
Crowded aside
Remembered hours of hope ;
And city streets
Grown Dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
But who will seek me at nightfall?

Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *   *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *
But who will give me my children?

V.B. July 1920
pg. 535

There are hundreds of quotable thoughts in this book.  I have over 7 pages of notes to remind me of the beauty and the sorrow of her experience.  Many thanks to my daughter for lending me her copy of this best of the best books.  It was a great way to end my World War I reading, and an even better way to post the first book of the New Year.

Author: Vera Brittain
Publisher: Penguin Books, 1989,  661 pages
Orig publisher: Victor Gallancz, London, 1933
Genre: Memoir
Subject: personal reflections on war and women's roles/rights
Setting: Europe 1914-1925
Source: borrowed from my daughter
Why did I read this book now? part of my War Through the Generations challenge.


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