‘Even War must end some time, and perhaps if we are alive in three or four years’ time, we may recover the hidden childhood again and find that after all the dust and ashes which covered it haven’t spoilt it much.’- Letter from Vera to Roland, 1915
Testament of Youth is a momentous historical text preserving for us – the lucky generations – what war really meant. Most poignantly it is the portrait of Vera Brittain’s unrelenting and tragic psychological annihilation during and after World War One. Through loss after tragedy after loss we see the breakdown of Brittain’s hope, which we would now label ‘post traumatic stress’. Through Brittain’s diary extracts, letters and poems we see her decline from hopeful, energetic, burgeoning feminist and Oxford student – giddily in love for the first time – to a broken, traumatized, suicidal twenty-something who hallucinates that her face is covered in fungus each time she looks in the mirror. These quotes illustrate her decline:
“I am less blindly confident than I once was, for I have been learning a truer estimate of myself, my failings and limitations, in these dark days” (193).
“…I bow my head before the storm now, I don’t try to fight it any more. I no longer expect things to go well for me; I don’t know that I even ask that they shall. All I ask is that I may fulfill my own small weary part in this War in such a way as to be worthy of Them, who die and suffer pain.” (243).
“It all seemed to have mean one thing, and one thing only, ‘a striving, and a striving, and an ending in nothing’” (326).
“I did not wish to live emotionally any more, for I was still too tired; I wanted only to stand aside from life and write” (414).
Alongside the psychological portrait runs the thread of Brittain’s developing feminism (and pacifism) which change through War’s impact. War overshadows the suffragette movement, illustrated best by the Representation of the People Bill (which gave women over thirty the right to vote) becoming law in February 1918, with little fanfare: “[the Bill] crept to its quiet, unadvertised triumph in the deepest night of wartime depression”. Brittain goes on to be a well-respected journalist and novelist, and a speaker in feminist and pacifist circles.
The book is not completely bleak – it seems the breaking down and writing of her War experiences are cathartic. History tells us Brittain never completely gets over the deaths of those close to her (she asked her ashes to be scattered at her brother’s grave in Italy), but the process helps her rebuild herself. In the latter quarter of the book we see glimmers of hope, albeit couched in worry:
“Could I, a wartime veteran, transform myself into a young wife and mother, and thereby give fate once more the power to destroy my vitality and creative ability as it had destroyed them in the years which followed 1914? If life chose to deal me a new series of blows through G. and his children, should I have the strength to survive them and go on working?” (439).
And in the end, there is hope, especially for those thinking life isn’t worth living:
“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 eventful history the fact that resurrection is possible within our limited span of earthly time” (352).
There is a lot my ‘writer’ self got from this book. Firstly, the structure is interesting. The inclusion of sheet music (by Edward), poetry (by Vera, Roland and more well-known poets), letters and diary extracts lends at times a collage-like feeling to the text, making you feel as if you are amongst the action as it happens. Secondly, this was Brittain’s third attempt at a suitable structure, helped and hindered by existing raw material (diaries, letters etc.). At first she planned the book as a novel but found it difficult to find the necessary distance with the characters. She then tried to reproduce her diaries with fictitious names which created a “false atmosphere”. The end result was Testament of Youth as a memoir:
“In no other fashion, it seemed, could I carry out my endeavor to put the life of an ordinary individual into its niche in contemporary history, and thus illustrate the influence of world-wide events and movements upon the personal destinies of men and women” (10).
I’d prefer not to criticise this book for want of having as many people read it as possible; but if I had to, I’d note the foreshadowing sentence at the end of each chapter – it became an obvious tool and thus took me momentarily out of the story. Brittain also left out her thoughts on the prospect of love in the years immediately following the War. It is not until G. turns up that she appears to have even thought about it, which I don’t believe is realistic.
Despite these trifling flaws I believe this is an extremely important book for all generations to read. The World Wars seem to us – these lucky generations – something our grandfather’s talked about, or refused to talk about. The War, as Brittain describes, possesses for us “the thin remoteness of a legend, the story-book unreality of an event in long-past history; it would be a bodiless something, taking shape only in words upon the lips of the middle-aged and the old” (439).
Let us, as we witness First World War Centenary Celebrations in 2015, remind our children and ourselves, what war really meant. And I wouldn’t truly know if it wasn’t for you, Vera Brittain. Thank you.
This review also appears on Goodreads.