Saturday, July 7, 2018

Testament of Youth: War is Hell and Women Are Still Fighting For Equality


It took me more than a month, but I've finally completed Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's classic memoir of World War I. I'd been meaning to read this book since about 2014, when it started showing up on lists of WWI reads. I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge List last year, but I kept putting off reading it until Jillian suggested a June readalong on Twitter. Sadly, I wasn't able to finish on schedule due to some travels to the UK, but I persevered and I'm glad to say that I have completed the 661 pages and am slightly exhausted.

The background: Vera Brittain was a student at Oxford when WWI broke out. Her brother Edward, sweetheart Roland, and two of their best friends all enlisted, and after a few months, Vera could not sit idly by and joined up as a VAD [Volunteer Aid Detachment], a volunteer nurse, and worked in France, Malta, and England until the end of the war, when she returned to Oxford, completing a degree in History, and became a teacher and eventually a lecturer, speaking all over the UK about pacifism and the League of Nations. The book begins with Vera's childhood in Buxton but mostly covers 1913 until about 1924. Testament of Youth was published in 1933 and is considered one of the classic WWI memoirs. Brittain also wrote novels and two more memoirs, Testament of Friendship (1940), about her relationship with classmate and best friend Winifred Holtby; and Testament of Experience (1957) -- both of which are much shorter.

I really enjoyed this book but it is long, with tiny print. I really loved reading about Brittain's life in Oxford and her friendship with Holtby and other writers (Dorothy Sayers was also an Oxford classmate). She had to fight her parents to attend Oxford, and even after the war and the suffrage movement, she was a feminist and struggled to have a career as a woman. It's so discouraging that women are still fighting for the same issues nearly 100 years later. Also terribly discouraging to hear how badly the young nurses were treated when they were volunteers, and how how inefficient some of the staffing and medical methods were. 

Of course, the sections about the war are absolutely heartbreaking. It's devastating to realize how many lives were destroyed on both sides, and how quickly Europe went back to an even bigger war just 20 years later. I cannot imagine living through a war like that as a civilian, much less as a nurse treating patients near a battlefield. 

Though there were a few sections that I did skim over (particularly some of the politics which I'm not as familiar with, especially at the end) the writing in this book is just wonderful and insightful. I copied at least ten passages that I would love to quote, but I've narrowed it to just a couple: 

What exhausts women in wartime is not the strenuous and unfamiliar tasks that fall upon them, nor even the hourly dread of death for husbands or lovers or brothers or sons; it is the incessant conflict between personal and national claims which wears out their energy and breaks their spirit. (p. 422- 423).

One had to go on living because it was less trouble than finding a way out, but the early ideals of the War were all shattered, trampled into the mud which covered the bodies of those with them I had shared them. What was the use of hypocritically seeking out exalted consolations for death, when I knew so well that there were none? (p. 446).



Only gradually did I realize that the War had condemned me to live to the end of my days in a world without confidence or security, a world in which every dear relationship would be fearfully cherished under the shadow of apprehension; in which love would seem threatened perpetually by death, and happiness appear a house without duration, built upon the shifting sands of chance. I might, perhaps, have it again, but never again should I hold it. (p. 470).

It did not seem, perhaps, as though we, the War generation, would be able to do all that we had once hoped for the actual rebuilding of civilisation. I understood now that the results of the War would last longer than ourselves; it was obvious, in Central Europe, that its consequences were deeper rooted, and farther reaching, than any of us, with our lack of experience, had believed just after it was over. . . . . Perhaps, after all, the best that we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (pp 645-646.)

I had been rather dreading this because of the length and subject, but I'm really glad I read it, so thanks to Jillian for suggesting it! I'm also inspired to read Testament of Friendship which I must track down, and to read the remaining Winifred Holtby novels that are on my TBR shelves (Poor Caroline and Mandoa, Mandoa!). I also have the TV adaptation saved on the DVR, but I might have to wait a bit to watch it -- I can't imagine how this has been adapted to film. Bloggers, have any of you seen it? Is it worth watching or should I just delete it? 

This is book #9 for the TBR Pile Challenge 2018

11 comments:

  1. I read this years ago,when the TV show was on loved it
    have not seen the updated versions

    fan of Cheryl Campbell, so I probably won't

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    1. I had to look up Cheryl Campbell but I instantly remembered her from The Way We Live Now! I'm sure she was fabulous as Vera Brittain, I must see if I can find the 1979 version. I know I've seen her in other British dramas as well, she's wonderful.

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  2. I was so tempted to join Jillian's readalong, but knew it would be impossible to complete on time. This book has been on my Classics Club list for several years and your post makes me even more determined to get to it. Might have to opt for the kindle edition... with adjustable font size ;-)

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    1. I'm very glad to have finished it, but it was a commitment -- I made a final push this week and read more than 200 pages and now I have a bit of a bookish hangover, if you know what I mean. I dragged it along with me on an 8-day trip to the UK and I think I only opened it once, I should have just left it home.

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  3. I'm really glad you read along with us, Karen! I've just completed Testament of Friendship, and it is as moving. (Or, it was for me.)

    This was a reread of Testament of Youth for me. I first read it in 2015, & I skimmed a lot of the political passages as well. This time I read them because I realized that the last 200 pages are the culmination of the first 400. It felt rather like sitting in on one of her speeches, and I learned a lot about the times from her perspective. I knew nothing of 1930s England before this.

    I think that you will favor Testament of Friendship, now that I've read it. Just a hunch! Winifred Holtby was just -- wow. What a human.

    Thank you for joining in! :)

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    1. I'm very intrigued by Testament of Friendship. I loved South Riding and I've read nearly all of Holtby's books. I'll probably read Poor Caroline this summer as well. Thank you for organizing the readalong, I would never have tackled it alone.

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  4. I can understand you being exhausted by this. It is powerful and emotional. I think it was probably in 2014 I read it but have yet to read the rest of Vera Britain's memoirs. I have read all Winifred Holtby novels and a volume of short stories and recommend them all
    (Heavenali your site won't allow me to sign in to my WordPress account.)

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  5. One of the great things about keeping a book blog is that you get to read other book review blogs and so thank you Karen for this wonderful review of Testament of Youth. I have heard of tne book and the author but your review has sold me. I will read it because Vera Brittain is a talented writer with alot to say but also I know so little about World War 1 which had such a major impact on the 20th century.

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  6. I read this a few years ago and loved it. It's such a powerful, moving book - and so heartbreaking every time she receives another piece of bad news. I haven't read anything else by Vera Brittain yet, but I have read and enjoyed most of Winifred Holtby's books.

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  7. I've been meaning to read this for so long. I'm very interested in the fact that Brittain was a classmate of Dorothy L Sayers as I'm re-reading Gaudy Night right now. Your review has made me want to read Testament of Youth.

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  8. FYI - the follow-up book, Testament of Friendship, is harder going that this book, but still worth reading.

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