Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, recently brought to view by the movie of the same name, unaccountably escaped my decades long reading of war opposition stories, even though as one reviewer says, it is “firmly enshrined in the canon of the literature of the First World War,” calling it “the most eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by the 1914-18 conflict…”

Movies Testament of YouthAlready a published writer of two novels and a practiced columnist and speaker, she embarked in the late 1920s on what was to become Testament to Youth, determined  “to warn the next generation of the danger of succumbing out of naïve idealism to the false glamour of war,” and  “to challenge that too easy, too comfortable relapse into forgetfulness which is responsible for history’s most grievous repetitions.”

Despite those aims, she is not a polemicist.  She writes with a quiet intimacy, as from the heart to someone she knows, or will know, well, to a grand child, a niece or nephew.  She finished the book 10 to 15 years after the events described, pulling from her diaries of girlhood before the war, her journal written as a volunteer nursing assistant in several war zones, and from letters to and from her mother, her brother Edward, several of their mutual friends, one of whom, Roland Leighton, becomes her fiancee early in the war. With these she is able to share her emotions and decisions of the moment, along with comments and observations of them at a decades’ distance. It is quite a wonderful mix.

As all such journal-based writing does, it proceeds in sequential fashion, in her case from young girlhood to anticipation, and some anxiety, of marriage at the age of thirty. Because her days are often linked to historical events, the fighting at Neuf Chappelle, the sinking of the Lusitania, Italy’s declaration of war May 1915, seeing the first American contingents arrive, and because of her even tempered judgments of her own youthful behavior and her continuing work against future war, we are never mired in the solipsism of some such writing.

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Testament to Youth is divided into three roughly equal parts, each further divided into chapters and sub-chapters.  The opening third tells of her upbringing in that “unparalleled age of rich materialism and tranquil comfort, which we who grew up at its close will never see again… .”  She is good friends with her slightly older brother, Edward, and his friends and, at the age of twelve, a proto-feminist pushing for equal treatment from her parents and forming the idea of equality in marriage or no marriage at all.  Despite her precociousness in these matters she later tells us, because of her parent’s circles and the newspapers read in the house, she didn’t know what a socialist was until late in her twenties.

The war began, as many have written, in a shock of disbelief followed by exuberance, everyone wanting to be a part of the “big show.”  By late August, 1914, Edward, Roland and two other friends had decided not to matriculate to Oxford and to join the early, enthusiastic volunteers in the British army. Even that was not enough.  As Roland wrote her early summer, 1915, in uniform but still in England,

It is summer – but it is not war; and I dare not look at it. It only makes me angry with myself for being here – and with the others for being content to be here. When men whom I have once despised as effeminate are being sent back wounded from the front, when nearly everyone I know is either going or has gone, can I think of this with anything but rage and shame?’

By end of second term, May, 1915, Vera follows, leaving her hard-won place at Oxford, to become a V.A.D (Voluntary Aid Detachment), a nursing assistant without technical training.  She and friends like her were soon indispensable to the military medical contingents, equaling in skills and experience most of the trained nurses. Part One ends at Christmas, 1915 when, instead of Roland’s much anticipated arrival home on leave, news of his death is delivered.

Part Two is entirely taken with her war time experience, and for many will be the heart of the book.  It brings us into the war through a woman’s eyes, and one immersed in the very real evidence of the war itself — the maimed, and crying, vomiting and dying soldiers.  She begins in London, nursing mostly recovering soldiers, is sent to Malta where patients include the wounded and near-drowned from the naval war in the Mediterranean, and finally volunteers for Etaples, the enormous military base at the Western Front, where she spends nine months.

“… my letters home tell the same story of perpetual convoys, of hæmorrhages, of delirium, of gas-gangrene cases doomed from the start who watched our movements with staring, fear-darkened eyes, afraid to ask the questions whose answers would confirm that which they already knew.”

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

A Canadian victim of mustard gas at No.7 Canadian General Hospital, Etaples, c. 1917 (Library and Archives Canada/ Wikimedia).

There, not only severely wounded Commonwealth men from England, Australia and New Zealand are treated, but Germans as well. She sits with one as he enters his death delusions.

“After barely a second’s hesitation I took the pale fingers in mine, thinking how ridiculous it was that I should be holding this man’s hand in friendship when perhaps, only a week or two earlier, Edward up at Ypres had been doing his best to kill him. The world was mad and we were all victims; that was the only way to look at it. These shattered, dying boys and I were paying alike for a situation that none of us had desired or done anything to bring about.”

Her recollections, descriptions, conflicting feelings of patriotism and loathing of the war, move us as well as any fine novel.

Part Three follows her growth and maturation after the war, graduating in History, not English as she had begun, from Sommerville College at Oxford.  She describes the dislocation she feels, returning not as a respected elder but as someone out of place, the war ignored, their experience even scorned.

“Far from criticising our Olympian [professorial] superiors, we tackled our daily duties with a devotional enthusiasm now rare amongst young women, since a more cynical post-war generation, knowing how easily its predecessors were hoodwinked through their naïve idealism, naturally tends to regard this quality with amusement and scorn.”

She was saved by a deepening friendship with Winifred Holtby (about whom she wrote another “Testament” some years later,) both meaning to make their way as writers.  She finds work teaching, and increasingly as a travelling lecturer on behalf of the League of Nations.  She is present in Geneva at deliberations about the Italian occupation of Greek Corfu as Mussolini begins his rise.  After working on several local campaigns she finds her first political identity with “a vague Radical Socialist bias,” soon after, quitting the Liberal party for Labor.

“For the first time, during those General Elections of 1922 and 1923, I came into intimate contact with the homes of the poor, and learnt, as my provincial middle-class upbringing had never permitted me to learn, the semi-barbarous conditions – intensified beyond calculation by the War and its consequences – under which four-fifths of the population are obliged to live in a confused and suffering world.”

Along the way she becomes a knowledgeable and outspoken agitatior for feminist positions, from speaking in Hyde Park, to organizing with the Six Point Group [child assault, equal parental rights, equal pay for teachers] and writing, with Holtby, for the feminist “Time and Tide.” We are reminded of, or introduced to, important feminists of the era, many of whom she came to know, Olive Schreiner, Rose Macaulay and Rebecca West, among others.

The middle pages of this section have perhaps too many mentions and details of various bills proposed and passed, (e.g.   “The Criminal Law Amendment” and “Matrimonial Causes Bills,”) to hold the attention of all readers.  Similarly, some of the details of a three month trip through Central Europe with Holtby as representatives of the new League of Nations, may be a bit arcane for readers 100 years later.  Her realization, however, of the growing anger of Germans against the French occupiers in the Ruhr, and her first encounter with an enthusiastic young Fascist on a train in Italy center us again in the years in which the war just “ended” had in fact burrowed underground to emerge just as the book was going to press with the public appearance of Adolf Hitler in Germany.

As she suffers rejections for her first novel, contrasted with the acceptance of Holtby’s first, we are again privy to her feelings — her rejoicing when finally The Dark Tide (1923) is published, then the weeks of anxiety as reviews appear, sometimes kind, often acid. We like this woman, so honest with us, so able to turn a wry eye on her youthful idealism but who continues to believe, and work, to extend what she sees as the human capacity to grow to mutual tolerance and peaceful stability.

As she begins to realize, while letters are being exchanged across the Atlantic,  that she can be in love again, we cheer her on.  When she wrestles with herself and “G.” [George Catlin] over anxiety of entering into a marriage and still keeping her career as a writer, we hear in her voice the concern that is with us still.

“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?”

(She kept her own name, by the way, with Catlin’s support.)

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The Testament returns often to several themes, the experience of that generation coming of age during the four years of the war principal among them. It was not only the war itself with its wounded and dead, but the enormous social changes in private attitudes and public behavior, the relaxing of Victorian sexual morays, the movement from naive, patriotic idealism to anti-authority cynicism, and after the war the enormous gap between those “whose youth had been stolen” and those who came right after, often flippant and cruel about their naivete.

Her own experience of nursing is detailed with quiet moments and friendships interspersed through grueling hours of work in field hospitals, in the relentless cold or driving rain, suffering the pain and bewilderment of the men through amputation, blindness and death.

“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 [sic], 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.”

The war itself is a constant reference, with dates and names of battles, of air raids on London, of ship sinkings, picked up from news accounts, or from personal knowledge,  but seen through the lens of her non-combatant eyes, or those of the wounded, not the fighting, men. It’s a very different kind of war story.

And because of the war, she sees, and fears, changes in herself and others; what was once unassailable and substantial becoming ephemeral, barely a memory.

“I had not yet realised – as I was later to realise through my own mental surrender – that only a process of complete adaptation, blotting out tastes and talents and even memories, made life sufferable for someone face to face with war at its worst. I was not to discover for another year how completely the War possessed one’s personality the moment that one crossed the sea, making England and all the uninitiated marooned within its narrow shores seem remote and insignificant.”

We also hear of the fears and feelings in England itself, initial enthusiasm waning, everyone under war-time rationing,  rumors compounding the reality of daily newspaper listings of the dead and wounded, the dread of finding a friend’s name, zeppelin bombing raids a frequent occurrence.

Books Testament Breaches_of_the_Rationing_Order'_poster

Those without immersing work, including her mother, turned neurotic with anxiety.

***

Love is tenderly told.   Between herself and Roland it is the giddy, supervised first love of 18 year olds.

“At the beginning of 1915 I was more deeply and ardently in love than I have ever been or am ever likely to be, yet at that time Roland and I had hardly been alone together, and never at all without the constant possibility of observation and interruption.”

It is sometimes almost confessional to us, strangers, reading through her letters and journals.

‘Sometimes,’ I told him, ‘I do wonder if you are not just an imagined lover that I have created in my own mind to bring a little romance into my present rather dreary existence. But when your letters are brought to my ward and the sight in the midst of disinfecting dishes of your delightful handwriting . . . reminds me that the imagined lover has a flesh-and-blood counterpart somewhere, I wish so greatly that he would materialise once more.

Of some surprise to today’s readers (or lovers) will be the frequency with which Vera and Roland communicate by verses they have read, and recollected, (not copied from a book, much less googled) prompted by a moonlit night, or a favorite flower, a memory. Poems he wrote himself are used as epigraphs at the beginning of several chapters; her own are used at others.

In fact Vera had gone into nursing in good part to share the discomforts and danger he was in.  By the fall of 1915 she wrote,

‘I hate nursing! How tired I am of this War – will it never end!’ And then I think of you out there in the danger and the darkness, and the cold and the rain – most precious being, a thousand times more tired of it than I! . .

Throughout, feminism grows in her, from its incipient form as a young girl, angered at the differing expectations and treatment of her brother and herself, to a full political as well as personal expression of it in her late twenties. The double duty of family and work we are still familiar with today.  As her mother falls ill and she is called home to care for her she writes.

“What exhausts women in wartime is not the strenuous and unfamiliar tasks that fall upon them, nor even the hourly dread of death for husbands or lovers or brothers or sons; it is the incessant conflict between personal and national claims which wears out their energy and breaks their spirit.

Through it all is her determination to be a writer. We see her sharp eye and fine descriptions in the beauty of light and color.

“By the time that we reached the village again, long indigo shadows lay dark upon the fields, and the harvest moon hung like a Chinese lantern in the pale green sky.”

All made more vivid from the days and weeks in among tents and cots of bloodied, wounded men.

Although her 1930s pacifism was only in its beginning stages as she wrote the book, her sensibilities were well formed.

‘Public opinion has made it … a high and lofty virtue for us women to countenance the departure of such as these and you to regions where they will probably be slaughtered in a brutally degrading fashion in which we would never allow animals to be slaughtered . . . To the saner mind it seems more like a reason for shutting up half the nation in a criminal lunatic asylum!’

Testament of Youth is quite a wonderful book, a look back in time, and at a person’s growth and change.  It is honest, self-observant as well as socially and psychologically astute. It should be on any reading list about the early days of modern feminism and to be stunned at how similar the work still is.

Though it is much about politics and war, loss and injury, it is written in lovely prose, including us in her life.  From her perspective of a mature age 30 she often looks back wryly on her earlier self.

At the age of twelve I was already preening the gay feathers of my youthful conceit in one of the top forms, where the dull, coltish girls of sixteen and seventeen so persistently treated me as a prodigy that I soon lost such small ability as I had possessed to estimate my modest achievements at their true and limited worth.

As in good novels, we set the book down from time to time, in order to fully absorb what this growing good friend has told us. We mourn her loss of Roland, are happy when her first book is published, pull for her as she bravely tells her possible husband that she must keep her own work going.  When her brother, Edward, dies, late in the war, and far from the terrors of the Western Front with the British contingent sent to help the Italians after the disastrous losses at Caporetto, it is such a moment.

She was able to visit his grave in a tiny, almost unknown cemetery on the Asiago plateau, once before her own death in 1970.  She requested that her ashes be scattered where he lay.

Testament of Youth

I you want another opinion, here Simon Jones, a WW I military historian, calls Testament “one of the best of the hundreds and hundreds” of books he has read.

The continuation of Testament of Youth came in Testament of Experience, published in 1957, taking her from 1925-1950, through her increasing political activism and embrace of pacifism, her further publications and her marriage to George Catlin.  A third, titled Testament of Friendship (published in 1940), is a memoir of Brittain’s close colleague and friend Winifred Holtby.  Mark Bosteridge, who contributed a forward to the edition of Testament I read, has written two books about Brittain, the titles of which you can find here, along with her major work.

Besides the recent film [reviewed here] Testament had a revival of sorts with a very well thought of BBC mini series in 1979

There is also, by the way, a very good PBS/BBC mini-series called The Crimson Field about VADs and Nurses at the Western Front.  As with Testament, movie and book, it provides a vital but usually forgotten look at war, not from the trenches, but from those dealing with the bitter consequences of human failure just the same.  [We found it on Xfinity (Comcast) streaming.  It is also at PBS.org to stream or to purchase a DVD; 1 season, 6 episodes.]

The first several episodes are quite good. (See User Reviews a screen down, here.) Recommended.

 

Will Vera Brittain be remembered?  If not as a person, her message?  In Lowestoft, where Roland’s family was from and from which he left in the first year of the war, there is a Vera Brittain shopping center.  Better that we tell her story…..

 

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