|Testament of Youth
by Vera BrittainRating: ★★★★★Publication Date: August 28, 1933Genre: classic
688ReRead?: NoProject: a century of women
, back to the classics
, Mt. TBR 2022
Much of what we know and feel about the First World War we owe to Vera Brittain's elegiac yet unsparing book, which set a standard for memoirists from Martha Gellhorn to Lillian Hellman. Abandoning her studies at Oxford in 1915 to enlist as a nurse in the armed services, Brittain served in London, in Malta, and on the Western Front. By war's end she had lost virtually everyone she loved. Testament of Youth is both a record of what she lived through and an elegy for a vanished generation. Hailed by the Times Literary Supplement as a book that helped “both form and define the mood of its time,” it speaks to any generation that has been irrevocably changed by war.
This book was a journey. Divided roughly into three parts, Brittain’s memoir covers the pre-WWI period, including her first year at Oxford University, the war itself and her work as a VAD, and then the post-WWI period, including finishing her degree and then her ultimate career and marriage.
There is so much to say about it. Brittain starts her memoir at the beginning, as a young woman who has decided that she wants to attend Oxford and needs to persuade her parents, who are very traditional middle class people, that she should be permitted to try for a spot in spite of her obvious deficiency: she’s a girl. Her father, in particular, isn’t wild about his daughter going to college. She ultimately gains admission to Somerville College, which is known for many of it’s women graduates, including Dorothy Sayers. She arrives at Somerville in 1914, and the war begins within weeks, completely derailing her plans.
For the time being I simmered wrathfully in anger and hopeless resentment. By means of what then appeared to have been a very long struggle, I had made for myself a way of escape from my hated provincial prison – and now the hardly-won road to freedom was to be closed for me by a Serbian bomb hurled from the other end of Europe at an Austrian archduke. It is not, perhaps, so very surprising that the War at first seemed to me an infuriating personal interruption rather than a world-wide catastrophe.
Youth just can’t help but be self-centered.
Vera has four men who are close to her: Edward, her brother, Roland, her brother’s friend and eventually her fiance, with whom she falls madly in love in the immediate pre-war weeks, and two close friends, Victor, or Tay, and Geoffrey. When all of the men she loves enlist to fight, she leaves Oxford and becomes a nurse with the Voluntary Aid Detachment. In this capacity she works in hospitals in England, eventually ending up in France and the Dardanelles.
This section of her memoir is deeply affecting. Her description of nursing war injuries is terrible, but most affecting is the fact that, one-by-one, the young men die. First Roland, then Edward, then Victor and then finally, and last, Geoffrey. I’m not a crier, but every single death felt like a body blow, and by the end of the war, I, too had wept more than once. It does seem that Providence could have left one of them, but I suppose it would have been a very different book under those circumstances.
But the War kills other things besides physical life, and I sometimes feel that little by little the Individuality of You is being as surely buried as the bodies are of those who lie beneath the trenches of Flanders and France. But I won’t write more on this subject. In any case it is no use, and I shall probably cry if I do, which must never be done, for there is so much both personal and impersonal to cry for here that one might weep for ever and yet not shed enough tears to wash away the pitiableness of it all.’
The memoir could have ended there, but it didn’t. How does a person come back from this kind of devastation?
The fact that, within ten years, I lost one world, and after a time rose again, as it were, from spiritual death to find another, seems to me one of the strongest arguments against suicide that life can provide. There may not be – I believe that there is not – resurrection after death, but nothing could prove more conclusively than my own brief but eventful history the fact that resurrection is possible within our limited span of earthly time.
Brittain was by no means alone in her experience, and like most women, she got on with it. She returned to Oxford, where life had proceeded without her, and where the young people who had been less affected by the war didn’t want to hear about it.
The rest of the book covers most of the rest of her life – her graduation from Oxford, receiving one of the first degrees granted to women, her work around women’s suffrage and feminism, her long, close friendship with Winifred Holtby (which was the subject of a second memoir, called Testament of Friendship), her conviction, like Virginia Woolf that
Marriage, for any woman who considered all its implications both for herself and her contemporaries, could never, I now knew, mean a ‘living happily ever after’; on the contrary it would involve another protracted struggle, a new fight against the tradition which identified wifehood with the imprisoning limitations of a kitchen and four walls, against the prejudices and regulations which still made success in any field more difficult for the married woman than for the spinster, and penalised motherhood by demanding from it the surrender of disinterested intelligence, the sacrifice of that vitalising experience only to be found in the pursuit of an independent profession.
Brittain had a career as an author and journalist, but Testament of Youth is nearly the only thing that survives.
I doubt that I will be able to revisit this book in the future. The experience of reading it was intense, especially the middle section, that memorializes her experiences in the war. If I were to go back to it, it would likely be for the post-war section focusing on women’s rights and her relationship with Winifred Holtby. I read South Riding, by Holtby, a few years ago and loved it. I will likely seek out Testament of Friendship at some point, but it’s more difficult to source than this one.
It took me three tries to get past the first 30 pages, but I’m so glad that I persevered this time. This was a worthy way to close out the 1930’s in my Century of Women project.