Those who know about Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth only by reputation or the recent movie might think of it simply as a tale of love and loss in WW1 … the account of a spunky young woman whose brother, fiancé and other male friends are killed … a woman’s loss and a lost generation.
The book is so much more.
It has taken me several weeks to work through Testament of Youth – really three books captured in its 600 pages. Brittain documents the pre-war life of young middle-class women, the war years and the aftermath in the decade following.
Although I was then more deeply concerned about universities than engagements, I shared the general hankering after an adult wardrobe which would be at least partly self-chosen, since all girls’ clothing of the period appeared to be designed by their elders on the assumption that decency consisted in leaving exposed to the sun and air no part of the human body that could possibly be covered with flannel. (p 18)
A century later, it is hard to imagine the restrictions on young women in pre-war England. Brittain paints a vivid picture. They were never alone. Brittain fought to attend university (a privilege given without thought to her brother Edward) and passed the Oxford entrance exams. At Oxford, she could not visit her brother’s college, lest she be unchaperoned with another man.
Her friendship, flirtation and courtship with Edward’s friend Roland Leighton are played out in scarce vignettes of intense, mostly unspoken emotion.
Cue the war. Edward, Roland and their friends are quick to enlist. Vera finds school lame in comparison and enlists as a VAD to contribute and suffer in solidarity with her friends in the trenches.
Her hospital experiences in London, Malta and France show a range of VAD adventures. VADs are treated with contempt by trained nurses in England, as an integral part of the medical team in the warzone. She reveals her naivety of matters physical and sexual, and learns quickly in trying conditions.
She learns of grief, too, as Roland, then Geoffrey, then Victor, then Edward are all killed. She comes to the realization that the war is futile, a generation has been duped, and the brightest men are lost.
It is quite impossible to understand how we can be such strong individualists, so insistent on the rights and claims of every human soul, and yet at the same time countenance (and if we are English, even take quite calmly) this wholesale murder, which if it were applied to animals or birds or indeed anything except men would fill us with a sickness and repulsion greater than we could endure. (p 145)
Between 1914 and 1919 young men and women, disastrously pure in heart and unsuspicious of elderly self-interest and cynical exploitation, were continually re-dedicating themselves … to an end that they believed, and went on trying to believe, lofty and ideal. When patriotism ‘wore threadbare’, when suspicion and doubt began to creep in, the more ardent and frequent was the periodic re-dedication, the more deliberate the self-induced conviction that our efforts were disinterested and our cause was just. (p 320)
Post war, Brittain returns to a changed Oxford … a world with a chasm between those who put lives on hold for the war and those just young enough to miss the action who wish to forget. She recovers from physical and spiritual exhaustion, meets her bosom friend Winifred Holtby, starts to establish her career as a writer and lecturer, becomes an advocate for internationalism and the League of Nations, and marries political scientist George Gordon Catlin.
Another chasm in Brittain’s life: the people she held most dear before the war – the men she made the stuff of myth – and those after the war – Holtby, Catlin and her children – never knew each other.
I did not then know that if the living are to be of any use in this world, they must always break faith with the dead. (p 221)
Brittain rages at the confines on women, yet identifies most with men. Female friends (until Holtby) come and go. Laying herself out so frankly on the page serves to highlight the evolution of feminists of her generation. There’s a familiarity, too, as Brittain notes the passage of laws for which we must still be vigilant today – things like voting rights property rights, indecent assault, child protection and age of consent.
From our vantage point in the 173rd wave of feminism (or perhaps just the continuation of one long wave), Testament of Youth is like having an audience with a foremother and pioneer. Brittain is a marked woman with much to share.
Casting around for Western Front vacation ideas, I see a Testament of Youth tour. Might have potential. Itinerary: visits to Roland’s grave and battlefields where the lads fought. Nothing of Vera. Even though Étaples, where she served, is in the environs. Tour operator missed the point.