Thursday, March 21, 2013

Review: Testament of Youth

Vera Brittain
Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1933 and Seaview Books, 1980

“I don’t want to see any more of these [post-war] results, but only to go back to that past in which abstract heroism was all that mattered, and men acted finely and bravely, believing that the end would be quite other than this.” Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

American textbooks and war movies tend to skip over the “Great War” in their rush to highlight World War II, but the devastating conflict of 1914-1918 had a profound effect on Europe and Great Britain. Its influence on the attitudes of the British public is comparable in many ways to Vietnam’s impact in America.

Vera Brittain’s memoir is deeply individual, yet also representative of a generation that lost everything they had been raised to believe in. Brought up in a typical late Victorian home by genteel, middle class parents, the young Brittain was nevertheless unconventional enough to pursue a nascent interest in feminism and seek out a stint at university. When war began she volunteered as an army nurse and served in London, Malta, and France. Her account is interspersed with letters and diaries she wrote throughout this time, including frequent requests to her parents for sweets. Brittain possesses a rare ability to analyze her fellow human beings with the harshness of a social reformer while still conveying a sense of her own and others’ humanity, and she includes an abundance of humorous and poignant anecdotes. She conveys the incredible suffering of the war and the profound, soul-shaking questions with which she was battered. One by one all of the people she cared most for died—her fiancé, his entire group of friends, and her only brother.

Testament of Youth is the story of a woman who endured experiences common to many of her peers but who reacted more radically than most. Her sufferings were all the more unbearable because she ultimately rejected the existence of any reality beyond the material and struggled through bereavement with only the cold comfort of a philosophy akin to existentialism. She resented what she saw as the prudery, the stupidity, and the naïveté of Victorian morality. Her lonely bitterness highlights the immense psychological cost of the war. That cost—of lives, of youth, of idealism—is emphasized by Brittain. Throughout her story, she laments for a world that must attempt to solve its problems without the help of its bravest, most intelligent, and most idealistic men.

          Brittain emerged from her experience of war with a feeling of utter isolation, and was burdened under a depression that lasted for two years following the Armistice. As she built a career as writer and speaker, she found a new war to fight by spreading her cause of feminism and fiercely pacifistic internationalism (it must be noted that Testament of Youth was published in 1933 before Hitler’s aggression forced Britain back into battle).  

             Like Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, this memoir uses words to paint a compellingly vivid picture. Not only does it deepen the reader’s understanding of Vera Brittain and World War I, but it also adds to our understanding of humanity and human nature, and the effect of suffering on a human soul.

          I find it interesting that Brittain's final response to her suffering is both similar and contrary to that of the fictional Katniss Everdeen, discussed last week. Brittain, bereft of belief, ultimately found her sufferings as meaningless as Katniss did hers. However, the world in which Brittain lived was clearly guided by beliefs, and she attempted to find meaning by creating a new set of beliefs for herself (in pacifistic, feminist activism) and throwing herself into their cause.

The book includes haunting poetry written by Brittain and her friends. This one, by a young man who died at the Somme when he was twenty-years-old, is included.

Take my Youth that died to-day,
Lay him on a rose-leaf bed,—
He so gallant was and gay,—
Let them hide his tumbled head,
Roses passionate and red
That so swiftly fade away

Let the little grave be set
Where my eyes shall never see;
Raise no stone, make no regret
Lest my sad heart break,--and yet,
For my weakness, let there be
Sprigs of rue and rosemary.
William Noel Hodgson

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