Just Finished Reading: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (FP: 1933)
After much haranguing of a much put-upon father a young Vera Brittain is finally allowed to try for a place at Oxford. Seen by many as an indulgent waste of money (after all what good is a University education without a degree to show for it to a woman who will be getting married soon enough) Vera must work hard to overcome both prejudice and a barely adequate education up to that point. Against all expectations she is offered a place at Somerville College, Oxford and starts her new life in the final months of 1914. Weeks after she enrols the country is at war with the Central Powers and her brother, his school friends and the man she is beginning to fall in love with join the Army for a host of reasons. Not wanting to sit out her time in the educational isolation of Oxford Vera volunteers as a nurse in order to ‘do something useful’ for the war effort. Expecting a short sharp war, like many others, she had no idea that she would be spending the next four years dressing wounds, emptying bed pans and watching soldiers from both sides die in front of her.
As the war grinds on and the casualty’s mount Vera volunteers for overseas service now that she has completed her basic training in London. Burdened by the deaths of her friends and especially her lover she managed to recover somewhat during a year in Malta treating the wounded from the Middle Eastern campaigns. Returning to London to look after her ailing mother she returns to nursing and finally is posted to France working in a casualty clearing station not far from the front lines. Thankful that her brother is posted to the quieter Italian Front just as the 1918 massive German assault smashes against the Allied lines in France she is never busier or more exhausted when her mother calls her home again. Torn between duty and family she chooses family and has a black mark put against her military nursing career and will never work abroad again. Whilst at home the much feared telegram arrives: ‘Regret to inform you that…..’ her brother is dead – killed by a sniper in the Italian Alps. Numb from so much personal tragedy she somehow carries on until the Armistice and leaves nursing behind to continue her education – not in English but in History to try to discover how the world could have walked into such a catastrophe and to find a way of stopping it happening again. This, she determines, will be her life’s work from now on.
This is one of the classic biographies of WW1 and has been continually in print since its first publication in 1933. Filmed as a BBC series in 1979 with Cheryl Campbell as Vera and as a movie in 2014 starring Alicia Vikander as the author. Part cathartic exercise, part testimony, part polemic against the culture that produced the war in the first place and then steadfastly refused to learn from their obvious mistakes this is an interesting look at the home front in WW1 and how the fighting (and dying) had effects on the personal lives of those left behind. The constant fear of a ‘push’, the wait for a letter (or the much worse unexpected telegram), the reading of the lengthening casualty lists in the newspapers and the worsening conditions brought on by rationing, the U-Boat blockade and zeppelin raids all made life back home difficult at best. It’s no surprise that after the war Vera worked hard for the much maligned League of Nations to stop future wars from happening – of course somewhat ironically her memoir/biography was published in the same year that Hitler came to power in Germany. Running in parallel was her concerns over the conditions of the poor (yet oddly there’s little in here apart from a few paragraphs regarding unemployment during the Great Depression) and the growing struggle for women’s rights in all areas. As an early Feminist this biography became a rallying cry to all women of her generation and beyond to grasp their place in the sun.
Although I certainly found this interesting enough and I was glad that I had finally read this deservedly classic work I did have more than a little trouble actually liking the author. I most certainly sympathised with her losses and deeply admired her commitment to the nursing profession but there was something about her attitude that grated all the way through the book. I think it was, as she admits herself, the fact that she never really threw off her Victorian upbringing with all that implies. I couldn’t help but find her something of a snob and despite agreeing with much of her thought never really warmed to her. But maybe that says more about me than her. After all it was a very, very different age back then and no doubt she would be deeply shocked at the world today – if she could cope with it for 10 minutes without simply passing out in horror! This is most definitely a valuable document and a must read for anyone interesting in WW1 or the early days of European Feminism.
So ends my double-headed (Fact & Fiction) books into movies series. It’s been a very interesting experience and there will be more fiction into films to come. But now back to normal (and interrupted) programming!