‘Mournfully we sat there recapitulating the brief and happy past; the future was too uncertain to attract speculation. I had begun, I confessed to him, to pray again, not because I believed that it did any good, but so as to leave no remote possibility unexplored. The War, we decided, came hardest of all upon us who were young. The middle-aged and the old had known their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled’.
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, pg.108
In the spirit of Remembrance Sunday, I thought it would be the perfect time to start reading one of the most enduring memoirs of the period from the First World War. It has taken me just little over a week to read, which is an achievement considering that it is over 600 pages long and I loved every single bit of it! Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is a beautifully written autobiography that captures the tumultuous period of the beginning of the twentieth century, from 1900-1925. At the outbreak of the war, in 1914, Brittain was on the brink of adulthood. Her most informative years were formed by the tragic and disastrous effects of a war that was on such a scale the world had never seen before. Her life, thereafter, is constantly divided into pre- and post-war worlds which, for her, cannot live side-by-side.
The events that occur in Testament of Youth are pretty well known for those of us who have studied First World War literature before, even if we haven’t necessarily read the book in its entirety. For those that don’t know – I’m not sure if this will spoil the plot but, just in case, spoiler alert – Vera Brittain lost the man she loved, Roland, and her brother, Edward, amongst two other close male friends from her Oxford days.
‘It was best, after all, that our dead who were so much part of us, yet were debarred from our knowledge of the post-war world and never even realised that we ‘won’, could not come back and see, upon the scarred face of Europe, the final consequences of their young pursuit of ‘heroism in the abstract’. How futile it had all been, that superhuman gallantry! It had amounted, in the end, to nothing but a passionate gesture of negation – the negation of all that the centuries had taught themselves through long æons of pain’.
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, pg.584
However, Testament of Youth is about so much more than her own personal grief. This memoir includes her battle to be accepted into Oxford University, her subsequent battle to be accepted as a VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) for the war effort, to return to normality in post-war Britain, to fight for female rights and to become an author in her own right. There is so much of history compacted into this wonderful book, yet it didn’t feel like I was reading a historical account. Brittain is an artful writer. The struggle to express her experiences have culminated in an autobiography that took decades for her to do it justice – and she sure does achieve a masterpiece in war literature.
Although I was fascinated by her work in the war effort, as war literature still seems to be dominated by males, I was equally fascinated by her efforts to go back to Oxford and campaign for women to receive Bachelor degrees on equal terms to men. It was interesting to see the issues that directly affected women during post-war England. Although the vote for women over thirty was granted in 1918 (which completely passes Brittain by in her preoccupation with the war), the women who actually took part in the most vigorous and demanding war work, that of the younger generation, were still denied the vote. It wouldn’t be until 1926 that women would get the vote on equal terms to men and Vera Brittain chronicles these issues in her feminist and unapologetic stance. Testament of Youth reminded me, somewhat, of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in that it discusses her thoughts on pursuing a career and starting a family. It was heart-warming to witness the interest that sparked up between Vera and her future husband, called ‘G’ in the memoir, but for a woman at that time it was not seen as acceptable or practicable to have a career and a family. However, Brittain proved that this was possible, though she was never able to fully realise the success her work would have in the decades following her death.
‘It was a problem that I now very often discussed, and endeavoured – with a detachment which I believed complete – to solve in articles and on the public platforms of feminist organisations. Could marriage and motherhood be combined with real success in an art or profession? If it couldn’t, which was to suffer – the profession or the human race? Surely, since the finest flowers of English manhood had been plucked from a whole generation, women were needed as never before to maintain the national standard of literature, of art, of music, of politics, of teaching, of medicine? Yet surely, too, a nation from which the men who excelled in mind and body were mostly vanished into oblivion had never so much required its more vigorous and intelligent women to be the mothers of the generation to come?’
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, pg.560-61
I was also interested in her choice to switch degrees from reading English Literature to History in an attempt to understand how such a war could be allowed to happen. After graduating, Vera Brittain immersed herself in politics and worked for the newly formed League of Nations, of which she was a great supporter. Whilst reading the final chapters, though, I sensed that she was picking up on a sense of national political unrest.
‘Still optimistic in spite of the War, I had believed that statesmen needed only to realise the mistakes of the past in order to avoid them, only to be shown the path of peace in order to tread it; now, in spite of that momentary sense of a common purpose in the Assembly, I knew that most of them were too cynical, too suicidally wedded to expediency, to adopt the pure, lucid policy of simple wisdom. All too clearly, the conflict for internationalism as a creed was going to be longer and sterner than we had imagined in the first vigour of anti-war reaction’.
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, pg.517
I wonder what she would have made of another world war and the ineffectiveness of the League of Nations, being a passionate pacifist herself. I am tempted to read her second memoir, Testament of Experience, which follows the years from 1925-1950, to read her reactions to a Second World War and how she coped with raising a family whilst pursuing a career in writing.
I want to leave this post on an excerpt from the beautiful poem Brittain wrote to her brother shortly before his death on the Italian Front in 1918, remembering his success two years previously in the Battle of the Somme:
‘Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,
Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’
You played your part
Two years ago’.
Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain, pg.397