Testament of Youth - Part 1
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I find this read all the more interesting that I realized that Brittain would have been exactly my great-grand-mother's age (Aline), whom I had the privilege to meet and know. Aline's family was ultimately destroyed by the Second rather than the First War, but like Brittain, she became engaged right before the war. I remember stories that she used to tell me as a child - different from what I am reading now, since the countries (France and Algeria rather than England) are different and the family backgrounds are very different, but I found it makes it all the more engrossing, getting those different perspectives and experiences.
Brittain was obviously not the sentimental type and I sometimes find her account a bit remote (it may be question of style as well - I tend to skip the numerous poems which do speak to the emotions she is feeling). However, despite knowing that this was going to happen, Roland's death feels particularly difficult: so close to home and yet far enough for him to not have made it back. I cannot fathom the shock and despair. I'm hoping the next book will describe her hospital experiences more.
I happened to catch this on BBC R4 a couple of days ago. It's still available at the URL below. I didn't particularly enjoy Testament of Youth, but I can't help but admire the author.
Great Lives: Vera Brittain http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b019rpw0
The pacifist Vera Brittain - whose Testament of Youth conveys the toll of the First World War on her generation - is discussed by her daughter Baroness Shirley Williams and Dr Clare Gerada.
Matthew Parris chairs a fascinating and insightful exploration of what it was like to be brought up by Vera Brittain, a mother who was effectively worldwide public property, and so in many ways was simply unavailable to the young Shirley. Vera, who as a teenage feminist was desperate for an education, turned her back on her studies at Oxford in 1914, because she felt compelled to serve as a nurse, wanting to join her brother and his friends in the Trenches as far as she could.
The rest of Vera Brittain's life was shaped by the grief that followed the loss of her fiance, her own brother and two good friends. Candidly conveying all this in her best selling book, 'Testament of Youth', won her a lifelong audience.
Shirley Williams explains that as a result of these experiences her mother became a passionately committed pacifist and feminist, who in 1944 denounced Bomber Command's blanket bombing of Germany at a time when it was deeply unpopular to do so. Brittain was vindicated in the eyes of the press when it was revealed that she and her husband George Catlin were the only married couple to feature in the Gestapo's notorious Black Book, listing those who would have been executed, had the German invasion of the UK been successful.
Dr Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, nominates a fascinating life in a programme that reflects on two influential women - mother and daughter - who have played key public roles across the entire twentieth century.
Producer: Mark Smalley.
Tue 24 Jan 2012
BBC Radio 4
Fri 27 Jan 2012
BBC Radio 4
#6 - I'm reviewing her emotivity as I move along in the book! You're right, there definitely is a bubbling of emotion. Brittain was a lover of life with strong convictions. I think I got side tracked by the morals of the time; hard to think nowadays that a few passionate conversations and a blushing kiss was "all" it took to get engaged!
Granted, we may have come too far in the "other" direction now: the rise of raunch culture is pretty horrid, and we need to reclaim the right to say "no". We have to find some sort of sensible middle ground where people are aware of their sexuality and happy with it all. Shame human beings aren't very good at being sensible! :)
I am a little way into part 2 now, but have been too busy to share any comments about the first part. I did love the intense romance between Vera and Roland in letters (brought back what it was like to fall madly in love for the first time), and the fact that there were awkward face-to-face, with the societal constraints of never being alone and not being allowed to touch. All that love, and only one kiss!! Unheard of, in this day and age.
I do like her snarky bolshy feminism, I'd rather forgotten about that wave of feminism that brought in the vote for women. Good on her and her fellow feminists.
The death of Roland wasn't shocking in that you knew it was going to happen, but it was shocking at the same time because it happened and was so distant from Vera, she didn't even find out for several days.
And it's so wonderfully written! The poetry goes over my head a bit (I'm not a great reader of poetry), but her prose is delightful. I can see why this is a classic: a great story (so far), wonderfully written, and such an important historical event, done in great detail about things that matter to me more than battles and military movements, such as domestic situations, the "home front", and just dealing with the events of the war at a distance. (Apart from the zeppelin raids.)
They're all so heart breakingly young, too.