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.