on December 24, 2001
I first read this book when I was not much younger than Vera Brittain was when she "viewed the outbreak of the First World War as an interruption of her plans", and I was immediately touched by her experiences. I have read (and re-read & re-read) this book many times. While I am not of the same social class that she was, I can relate to her desire to make something of her life, first through a university education (then restricted to many women) and later through finding meaningful work. (This is something that we all seek.) She fell happily in love, only to lose first her fiance, then her two male friends, and finally her beloved only brother in the carnage of the First World War. Her experiences as a V.A.D. (Volunary Aide Detachment) nurse in the war--from describing what the wards were like, to the frenzy she faced during a "push", to watching the Americans arrive in 1917, to her life on the hospital ship "Britannic", that's right, the sister ship to "Titanic"--both went down, are unforgettable. When she writes, she does not spare herself, nor seek to make herself look good--and she takes an unflinching look at her own difficulties (a word which does not even begin to describe it!!) adjusting to a post-war world which did not want the survivors. She tells of the difficulties she had fitting in (again, but this time older & wisher) at Oxford, of her mental near-breakdown, and of the bright light that was Winifred Holtby. I cannot recommend this book enough. It should be required reading in colleges and universities, and not just for history, English, and womens' studies majors. Perhaps those who do not understand what all the fuss over "women's lib." is all about should make this required reading as well (both male and female). She is the first feminist role model for me, and inspired me to learn as much as I could about current events AND history (so much so that I majored in history in college, with a concentration in modern Europe). This book is well worth your time and effort, and will probably send you to the nearest library or bookstore to hunt for more books on this era. It is also rare because most of the books written about the First World War are written by men (Sassoon, Graves, etc.), so this is unique in that it tells of the impact of the war from a woman's perspective. History tends to forget that women as well as men have experienced war. Brittain writes both from the view of those back home in Britain (when she is on leave) and from the view of someone at the front, cleaning up the wreckage (as a volunteer nurse). If you are wondering what happens to her, she wrote a "sequel" of sorts titled "Testament of Experience", which chronicles the years 1933-1950. "Testament of Youth" is a wonderful book, one which you will read again and again, and all the more moving because it is a true story.
on August 13, 2001
Never have I read a better account of current events interupting the normal rituals of young adulthood and changing the destiny of a group of individuals so dramatically. This book so captures the dreams and longings of people coming of age and finding themselves in terms of careers and loves and then having the rug pulled from under them that it could stand as a testimony for all generations shattered by war. In sometimes heartbreaking and often very poetic language the writer takes you along on a journey of discovery under horrific conditions and the reader is made to understand the remarkable transformations that these young people go through. The fact that the book was written by a young woman and is one of the few war memoirs that reflect a feminine sensibility and perspective serves to make this a unique book in the literature of either World War. Required reading for anyone interested in 20th century history.
on October 27, 1998
This book by Vera Brittain is one of the most moving that I have read. Written as an account of the experiences of young men and women at the onset and during the First World War, it gives a particular insight which is different from, but equally absorbing as, those accounts, so often understated, of soldiers who fought in the trenches during the conflict. To be more accurate, while she recounts the feelings and experiences of the men who were closest to her, hers is the only woman's viewpoint which is given in any depth - and, indeed, it is her personal account, given in such depth that it draws in and involves the reader in a way unlike any simple factual account of events. While it recounts in some detail her own work as a nurse in the war theatres, it is a story with as much muted romanticism as those of the Brontes or Jane Austen, and belies to a degree the orthodoxy of Vera Brittain's feminism. This is a book to be recommended without hesitation, for anyone interested in the period, but also as a timeless account of human endeavour, endurance and love.
on March 7, 1997
This book changed my life. I first read it as a young
woman, and I have never stopped reading it since.
Vera Brittain became one of my first female role models.
She made World War I come alive for me; her courage, her
unflinching honesty, her integrity and her humor in the
face of the horrors of the Great War shine through in
her autobiography. Vera Brittain taught me that a woman
can lose her faith, her family, her friends and her love
and yet not lose herself. Her life was an act of hope
and belief in humanity.
on January 23, 2002
This is the only book that upon finishing, I turned back to the
first page and started reading again. I am currently reading it
for the fifth time. It is a unique story by one who suffered a
most unbelievable tragedy. It is also a picture ot the world just
prior to the cataclysm of 1914, duirng and after. It is actually
a book in three parts. Part 1 deals with the role and status of
English women prior to 1914. Part 2 details the 1st World War
tragedy from a woman's perspective. Vera Brittain lost her fiancee,
brother and the only two other male friends she had. Part 3
details how she regained a life after the war and how she
became involved in English political and social issues. She was
a most remarkable woman and in my opinion not given the credit
she truly deserves. "Testament of Youth" is the most incredible,
unique masterpiece imaginable.
on January 4, 2012
I agree w/ so many others that the book is absolutely beautiful in emotional expression. I'm a wounded combat veteran myself, and I feel that I understand Brittain's listlessness upon demobilization. She expressed the feelings so very well.
I wonder, though, if Brittain's obsession w/ discovery efforts of whether or not her fiance and brother died "gallantly", and in a "major push", doesn't undermine her later efforts at pacifism. Doesn't her effort contribute to a social expectation of "gallantry", and thus pressure young men into following suit, to avoid a "white feather"? It reminds me of Hector in the Iliad discussing the expectations of the Trojan women. Unfortunately, more must be written: according to her biography (A Life), Brittain falsely presented her brother as having died in action, when she knew by the time that this book went to press that his regimental commander (a man whom she had criticized in one of her poems) had given an entirely different story about his (her brother's) death. She left her readers w/ a false impression, and should (in my opinion) have downplayed his combat record to the barest facts. I recommend that the reader Google "Edward Brittain" and read an article from the British press ("Testment of Truth", Gue Gaisford, The Independent (London), 21 Oct '95) reviewing Vera Brittain: A Life (Berry & Bostridge, 1995). According to this British newspaper reviewer, Edward Brittain may have committed suicide, awaiting court martial for "immorality" (homosexuality, apparently also called "beastliness"). This failing of V. Brittain to set the record straight should be considered in critique of Testament of Youth. It is a failing that most readers will not have noted otherwise.
Although she remained a talented, expressive writer, subsequently (reflected in her Testament of Experience) Brittain went off on an idealistic binge, and that "slipperly slope" led her to moral relativism. She came to equate the morality of deliberate genocide (the Holocaust) and that of bombing the German cities and dropping the A-bombs on Japan. She went so far as to criticize the Nuremberg Trials, as if the Allied leaders were as morally guilty of war crimes as the Axis leaders were. Interestingly, one gets the first of Brittain's jealous comments about Churchill as "our leader-writer", here in Testament of Youth (continued in Testament of Experience). Churchill was not only competition for Brittain as a popular writer, but was also a major Allied leader, and so doubly a Brittain target.
Vera Brittain was a remarkable woman. Born in 1893, she was a product of Victorian bourgeois society, but she challenged many of its conventions, particularly as regards the subordinate place of women. She was in the vanguard of female students at Oxford (Somerville College), until the "Great War" intervened. Not content to let the waging of the war to men, she did what she could - which for her was to leave Oxford (despite how much it meant to her) and serve as a nurse in the V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment). For three years, she tended wounded and dying soldiers (including, for one stretch, German soldiers) in London, in Malta, and in Boulogne. She gradually became a critic of the War and the Conservative Party, a supporter of internationalism (as represented by the League of Nations) and the Socialist Party, as well as an outspoken advocate of various feminist causes.
TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, published in 1933, is Brittain's autobiography of her youth - which for her and her generation was a youth torn asunder by WWI. For Brittain, in addition to the interruption of her academic career and three years of physical sacrifice, sweat, and gore, it meant the deaths of her four closest friends: her fiancée, her brother, and the two other men who had comprised a tight circle of friendship before the War. Much has been written about how WWI ravaged a generation of leaders in Great Britain. Brittain adds her two cents, in writing about the dim post-War prospects for marriage:
"The various men, I thought bitterly, with whom I had come into contact since the War--men who were married already but enjoyed making use of my company for a little romantic diversion, men who imagined that I could be tempted by wealth and promises of financial support in politics, * * * young men who were ardent but ineffectual, men of all ages who wallowed in nauseating sentimentality and hadn't the brains of an earwig--simply provided one proof after another that the best of their sex had disappeared from a whole generation." (Despite that, Brittain did marry in 1925, and she had two children.)
The above sentence is representative of Brittain's writing style - vivid but wordy and syntactically complex. It makes for an over-long book, also prolonged by the numerous extracts quoted from similarly prolix correspondence Brittain had saved from the War years. (Good heavens but educated Brits of that era were verbose! Orwell and Waugh really did cleanse the literary palate.)
And that prolixity is a shame, because TESTAMENT OF YOUTH contains much that is worthwhile, both as eyewitness history and intelligent (and generally critical) commentary on an Age. At the public school graduation ceremony for the class of Brittain's brother and her soon-to-be fiancée (in 1914, two months before Sarajevo), the Headmaster solemnly intoned, "If a man cannot be useful to his country, he is better dead." Four years later, a generation was indeed decimated, and to what end? Whatever answer the politicians give, it cannot justify the cost in human lives. Brittain writes that "my generation had been deceived, its young courage cynically exploited, [and] its idealism betrayed." She resolved to learn "how the whole calamity had happened, to know why it had been possible for me and my contemporaries, through our ignorance and others' ingenuity, to be used, hypnotized and slaughtered."
A noble resolution. Is it, however, quixotic? That is a question my sons must face. Plus ça change . . . .
on March 23, 2007
The word "classic" gets thrown around a lot these days. Many so-called "modern classics" are not that important, but "Testament of Youth" deserves this reprint as a Penguin Classic. Brittain tells of her early life in the north of England between 1893 and the start of World War I in 1914 in beautifully clear prose, and her clarity of thought and powers of observation make the bulk of the book, dealing with the war's impact on her, painfully vivid without ever lapsing into self-pity. Like too many others of her generation (and the next and the next) Vera Brittain learned almost unimaginable lessons about life and her own inner strength. To that extent, "Testament of Youth" can serve as both example and inspiration.
Vera Brittain came from an upper-middle-class background shared by millions of young women in late Victorian England. One thing that made her different was her great intellectual curiosity and determination to escape a truly suffocating existence that few of today's Western women can easily imagine. What made her like most citizens of the time (and of later times)was her complete ignorance of the meaning of "war." Patriotism, her social conscience, and a desire to take part in the bigger world led her to volunteer as a nursing sister with the British Army. Her grueling hospital experiences were a revelation to her. Her personal losses are even more powerfully revealing of the human condition. Brittain was a "survivor" in every sense of the word.
"Testament of Youth" is just as fresh and moving today as it was when it was written 75 years ago and Vera Brittain tells a story that must be told and retold to each generation. For every reader who finds the book "too long" by current standards (its almost 700 pages), there will be two who wish they could follow the author even further. But even if you find yourself skipping ahead, particularly in the early part, you will not be able to forget Vera Brittain or her story. "Testament of Youth" is one of the great autobiographies of the past 100 years.
on January 31, 2009
Vera Brittain was a privileged, yet restricted young woman. She was very of her time in that she had to fight for everything that today's women tend to take for granted. The freedom to spend time with whomever she chose, to have privacy, even to receive an education, were all hard-fought. She belonged to the middle/upper class, with all the comforts that status implies, even to the point of having no idea how to boil an egg at the age of 20.
She freely admits that when the War broke out, it appeared to her to be an interruption and an inconvenience. She had no idea just how it would transform the world and her life. Five years later, she was a bitter, nightmare-ridden shadow of her former self.
Testament of Youth takes you from the time of Vera's childhood through 1925, when she is just starting a new, happier life. Making copious use of her own diaries, letters between herself and her friends, and the poetry and music of the time, she gives a lesson by means of immersion into her life. Her prose is extremely demanding and not for the faint of heart. There were many sections where I was only able to pick up just what she was saying from the context. Her vocabulary is dense and elaborate. At first I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to rise to the occasion, but in the end I was richly rewarded.
The meat of Testament of Youth is Vera's writing of her wartime experiences as a nurse and as a worried sister, lover and friend of those serving in the trenches. I have never been so aware of just how debilitating this era in history was, not just to the soldiers, but to those who waited, worked and worried back at home.
The book runs out of steam after the War, and then Vera's finalization of her education at Oxford. I didn't find her discussion of her work for the League of Nations Union nearly as interesting as the previous 450 pages, though I might have done if I'd known more about British political history. Testament of Youth shines when Vera is discussing her personal relationships and frailties. It is at these moments that the book grabbed me by the shoulders and absolutely refused to let me go.
on January 4, 1998
Testament of Youth was first given to me by a British pen pal. I read it, loaned it, lost it. I could never find another copy, which is why I looked here. It should be a movie. It is as classic and powerful a war memoir as Red Badge of Courage. The ghastly trenches of World War I were never more alive than in Testament of Youth, which might seem amazing, given that the author is herself far removed from the war. That, to my mind, is the genius and the beauty of the book -- it conveys like no other the terrible lifelong pain and tragedy caused by war for those who lose their loved ones. Vera Brittain never got over it, and you will never be able to forget her grief and strength if you read this wonderful book, which few Americans seem to be acquainted with.