For my book, Shell Shocked Britain: The First World War’s legacy for Britain’s mental health, I read Testament of Youth, and Because You Died: Poetry and Prose of the First World War and After, both of which I found deeply affecting. As we approach the commemoration of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday, I thought I would share with you my own thoughts on a classic work of the Great War, and those of Pamela Davenport, who reviews Testament and expresses the value of it as a work supporting her research into the changing role of women during and after the war.
First of all, I must say that if you want to find out more about the background to Brittain’s work, you cannot do better than read the work of Mark Bostridge, who has written widely and well on the subject and who has provided commentary on her relationships, letters and life that, read alongside Testament of Youth, offer the context within which it makes sense.
Vera Brittain intrigued me long before I read the book as research. As a teenager, I watched the 1970s television adaptation, starring Cheryl Campbell as Vera, along with my parents. Both were born in the 1920s, to working class families who had endured that four years of war and suffered as a consequence. My grandfather was gassed, seriously physically injured and suffered from undiagnosed ‘shell shock’ that remained with him for the rest of his life, triggering nightmares and terror at the approach of thunderstorms. His story was one of those that inspired my own book, but it was a world away from the sheltered life Vera experienced as a child of a middle-class family, blessed with opportunities for a university education denied most women of her time. However, Cheryl Campbell’s exquisite performance drew us all in, and despite the more recent film, it is Ms Campbell rather than Alicia Vikander who is Vera for me.
Pamela goes into more detail about the story itself, below, but I wanted to mention Testament of Youth more as an evocation of a time, than as a reading experience. The descriptions of a world lost forever in the mud of the trenches are terrific, and Vera makes a statement that is one of the foundations stones of Shell Shocked Britain – that the civilian population were traumatised too, and that the impact filtered down through the generations, affecting us even now:
‘I underestimated the effect upon the civilian population (and on parents) of year upon year of diminishing hope, diminishing food, diminishing heat, of waiting and waiting for news which was nearly always bad when it came.’
The waiting at home, though more comfortable in many senses, chimes in a melancholy way with the traumatising silences between the barrages of shells in the trenches that affected so many men. Those anxious waits, at home and abroad.
Unable to write the novel she planned, Vera turned to autobiography instead and gave us a classic work that ranks alongside the best prose of the war, because, I think, she was a poet too. I refer to her poem The Superfluous Woman in my book, not because I think it is searing in its brutality like Owen, for example, but because it spoke for many middle class women (and this was the group disproportionately affected) who expected to marry those thousands of junior officers who were, in relative terms, more likely to be killed, as her lover and brother were, than the non-commissioned men serving under them.
The Superfluous Woman
Ghosts crying down the vistas of the years,
Whose echoes long have died,
And kind moss grown
Over the sharp and blood-bespattered stones
Which cut our feet upon the ancient ways.
But who will look for my coming?
Long busy days where many meet and part;
Remembered hours of hope;
And city streets
Grown dark and hot with eager multitudes
Hurrying homeward whither respite waits.
But who will seek me at nightfall?
Light fading where the chimneys cut the sky;
Footsteps that pass,
Nor tarry at my door.
And far away,
Behind the row of crosses, shadows black
Stretch out long arms before the smouldering sun.
But who will give me my children?
Vera Brittain expected to remain a spinster after her lover, Roland Leighton, was killed in action, by a sniper. But ten years later she did remarry, and her daughter, Baroness (Shirley) Williams, has always written movingly that although her father loved her mother deeply, he always, as Pamela quotes, saw himself in competition with the ghost of Leighton. The poem above, seems to indicate that he was not wrong.
Testament of Youth is a wonderful autobiography, and a must read for researchers of the period. Desperately sad, it remains the bench mark for description of the death of the golden age that the Edwardian era so frequently represents in our imaginations. At a time, in the 21st century, when the world feels a dangerous place once more Brittain’s words should remind us that conflicts around the globe affect us all in a myriad different ways, never for the better. I think it should remind us that the legacy of Syria, for example, will continue long after the guns are silenced and that we need to support those directly affected with compassion. During discussions about refugees, and about Brexit, with my 87 year old mother I found that far from fitting the demographic profile suggesting a split between older voters (seeking a return to who knows what?) and young she pointed out the similarities between the migrant crisis and her experience of being evacuated. And for her there was only danger in leaving Europe. The financial position aside, she felt we had more in common with our European neighbours, and more to lose by damaging the Union.
A fascinating book about coming of age during a time when the world is in turmoil, a book which resonates with emotions. – review by Pamela Davenport
The First World War can be seen as a watershed in society, marking the great division between the 20th century and the pre-war world of Victorian and Edwardian society. The traditional view of women as defined by their relationship to their men, wife, mother, daughter or sister, had difficulty withstanding the effects of war. Mobilisation left many women for the first time in an independent position and many took advantage of their “freedom” by joining the war effort. There are many letters diaries and memories that provide some insight into life during 1914-1918 turbulent years, but for me it is one of the first accounts of the Great War written from a woman’s point of view, which has been the most influential. Vera Brittain got the idea to write Testament of Youth, in 1916. Writing to her brother Edward that, “if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book, the story of us four…” the book clearly shows a young woman coming of age during a time when the world was in total turmoil.
Born in 1893 in Newcastle-under-Lyme in Staffordshire into a middle class family, Vera was expected to conform to society’s expectations of women’s role in society. This was during a time when middle class women were seen as a family’s possession, to prepare for marriage, to raise children and run a household. Not much had changed since medieval times! It was not considered suitable that a woman from Vera’s background would be in paid employment or god forbid, leave home to study at a University! Home life was oppressive for Vera and her independent spirit was apparent, “The disadvantages of being a woman have eaten like iron into my soul”. Vera was quickly realising that being a woman was a barrier to her being recognised as an individual and independent person with the right to have further education and a career. She was deeply envious of her younger brother Edward, who could leave home without getting married.
But times were changing and in 1913, after a series of lucky chances, Vera was accepted to study at Somerville College Oxford. Initially her father had rejected the idea, but so determined was Vera to study that he finally relented and gave her permission to leave home. By this time Vera had met and fallen in love with Roland Leighton, Edward’s school friend. All three of them were going to Oxford, and the future looked bright. But the dark clouds of war and destruction were gathering. On August 4th 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany. It was a decision that is seen as the start of World War One, and Vera would be on the move again. At the end of her first year at Somerville, she decided that her duty lay in serving her country and like Edward and Roland , she left Oxford going bravely into battle. As she said later, she was “carried away by the wartime emotion and deceived by the shinning figure of patriotism”. Vera became a nursing auxiliary and spent the remainder of the war years nursing in London, Malta and France.
Testament of Youth became a main resource when I was writing about Women’s roles changing due to WW1. Vera’s memoir highlights the cataclysmic effect of war, not only for Vera but for men and women from her generation. This testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas, is an eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by war. But Vera still observed that life was different for women, “The war was a phase of life which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make a puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concern women…The women is still silent who by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation“.
On reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth the reader is gradually drawn into Vera’s world of destruction and suffering. The narrative plays on emotions, the disbelief as one by one, those closest to Vera are lost in battle, her fiancé Roland, her brother Edward and their friends Geoffrey and Victor. It is a book that portrays the world through Vera’s eyes as she stands at the heart of the upheaval of pre and post-WW 1. Vera was a writer of great descriptive powers, both of place and emotions, the cold and damp, the sickening horrors of Boulogne, the field hospital at Etaples. Her writing resonates with emotions and thoughts of the “shattered, dying boys”, she nurses, her inability to readjust to the brightly lit alien post war world.
In 1919 Vera returned to Somerville, where she felt other students didn’t appreciate the war effort, to study Modern History in an attempt to understand the origins of the conflict which had claimed the lives of Edward, Roland and two close friends. When she visits Edward’s grave on the Asiago Plateau there is a sense of overwhelming shared grief. It was at Somerville that Vera suffered from a “nervous breakdown”, which is now recognised as post-traumatic stress syndrome.
By the time the book was published, 15 years after the end of the war, Vera had rejected anything that identified war with “grey crosses and supreme sacrifices and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky”. The book is Vera’s passionate plea for peace, she clearly throws light onto the agony of war to the individual and “its destructiveness to the human race”. Testament of Youth conveys the very essence of Vera, a feminist, writer, pacifist, and the voice of the lost generation of World War 1.
Vera was a fascinating woman who achieved so much in her life, she published over 29 books and many articles. She worked tirelessly for the League of Nations and working for peace during the Second World War as a member of the Peace Pledge Union. Her work showed that she was a woman who acted on her principles as well as talking about them.
Although there is hope at the end of the book she is able to escape the pain and devastation of the past as the reader is introduced to her husband to be George “G”, the “ghosts” never left Vera, as G commented, “The hardest rival you can have is a “ghost” because your inclination is to idealise someone who died long ago”. Vera died on March 29th 1970 and was cremated, according to her wishes her ashes were scattered over her brother’s grave in Italy’s Asiago Plateau.
Testament of Youth is a beautifully written and thought provoking book, about the consequences of war, love, duty, responsibility and the power of the written word. It is a book that has stood the test of time. Tragically the message still resonates in the world today.