Group Read, November 2014: Testament of Youth
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I picked up some Saki as a break and began reading The Square Egg in the bath only to find out that they were war stories. Then I reread the introduction and was reminded that Hector Hugh Munro was killed in the war...
The novel is in three main parts; the first deals with her life up to the outbreak of war, the second with The Great War itself and the third with the after effects which ends a bit before European relations really break down and World War II comes along. Each of these 'parts' is excellent in their own way and they are all extremely interesting as to what they reveal about a time of life far removed from the now, but it is the section on the war which forms the central core of the book and is definitely its emotional heart.
There are no surprises as such, we all know what is going to happen ahead of time, who is going to die and where Vera's life will go after the war - it's the journey not the destination that matters here.
As a young woman with a high opinion of her intellectual abilities Vera Brittian fights hard for the life she wants, and that means going to Oxford. Whatever your views on her personality I personally had great admiration for the grit and determination that she showed and also for her candour in being able to portray herself in rather an unflattering light at times.
After the outbreak of the war the true test of courage began and I'm unhappily aware that I wouldn't have shown the same moral determination that she did. Even with the rosy spectacles of youth Vera holds few illusions about what signing up as a VAD would entail and good grief they were worked hard!
Up til this point the novel was mostly about struggle; from here on, although the struggle continues, the personal losses begin to pile up one after the other. It was at this point that I had to put it down and walk away several times. I don't really have anything to say other than the personal strength that it must have taken to continue to work even though your very life as you know it is over is something outside my experience. I am going to go and see the poppies around the Tower in a few days, I'll remember just how many lives were blighted when I do so.
Once the war is over in many ways it became harder. Vera didn't really celebrate the Armistice; for her it came too late. For two years she lives in a bleak wasteland that was painful to watch before a human reaches out to her and ignites a warmth that begins the healing process and slows and reverses the mental breakdown that she was experiencing.
The part of the book immediately following this was the least interesting in a way as, along with Vera's life, there is a lack of clear direction and purpose that has driven the narrative up till then. Slowly, like a cold automobile on a snowy day, she picks up speed and begins to truly put her life back together. This later work contains a wealth of information about the Feminist movement, something I personally found very interesting.
There's a lot more to talk about but I'll wait until some others have finished it. But I would like to thank those who nominated and voted for this superb book during the 100 year remembrance 'celebrations'. It really couldn't have been better chosen.
Drawing upon her teen-aged diaries as she does is effective but almost painful. I feel that some of the naivete for which she castigates herself, or that she presents as unique to her as a sheltered provincial girl, is really the universal adolescent condition.
p.s. just got to where she knows Dorothy L. Sayers at Somerville. Love it!
At home she doesn’t seem to have a particularly close relationship with her parents, I think largely because her particular intelligence sets her apart from them and her personality is not suited to bridging the gap – something which I see repeating throughout the book. She has an ally of sorts in her brother but it seems her home life is one of at least partial conflict as she fights for the right to gain a higher education.
Once she gets to university she again seems isolated and later as a nurse. Betty is her one female friend and even with her she recounts a story about how they drifted apart as Betty was livelier and didn’t share in her interests in walks and the such like. This was presented as a good thing but I think it was putting a brave face on things. If I was in Vera’s situation I would have given much for one good friend to be able to pour my heart out to.
I think it was this loneliness which made her losses the more devastating. She didn’t make close friends easily and those who came up to her standards she loved passionately. Without the comfort of religion, without the support of close friends, each loss smote at her heart but she bottled everything up and ‘soldiered on’, something which eventually had an almost inevitable impact on her mental health.
I knew now that death was the end and that I was quite alone. There was no hereafter, no Easter morning, no meeting again; I walked in a darkness, a dumbness, a silence, which no beloved voice would penetrate, no fond hope illumine.
Last night I reached the first major death. I don't want to give anything away but I will say that even though I knew it was coming, I felt shattered. I couldn't sleep. The whole circumstance was so remarkably awful.
I'm not sure how to formulate this exactly but I am thinking that once her idealism about fighting for what's right, and patriotism etc. had been so utterly shattered in 1914-18, she couldn't retrieve any bit of it when the next war arrived. Also, to us in historical hindsight it is so simple to see WWI as the useless, pointless war and WWII as the one that was right and just. But I can imagine how, to somebody who'd been overwhelmed by the useless and pointless one, that distinction was not so easy to make in real time.
That is exactly how I felt.
I was so deeply moved by her story of youthful innocence, followed by her experience nursing in WWI and later life, that I am really enjoying reading your comments as you move through the book. Hope to continue following this thread.
I couldn't help feeling a bit of patriotic pride when she described the American soldiers entering the war at the end of section 14 in chapter 8.
I am however determined to read the two sequels as well and I am going to rate this one with 4.5. As a German, I could just hug her for her understanding and very clear and intelligent views on the political situation of post-WWI Germany, and on the same time go into hiding for shame that she was so let down by that country again, just after ToY was published. Reading her careful optimism and realizing the book was published in 1933 of all years almost made me cry.
What an inspiring extraordinary woman she was!
This is also a great example that war books written by time-witnesses reach their objective better without getting too drastic. I often thought that most modern authors, writing historical fiction about VB's life, would put the focus elsewhere. We would have to go through the odd half-passionate love scene, then through all the desperate grief (the way the author imagines it) and on top get all the blood and gore details from hospital life. Women's rights and pacifist movements would probably fall flat in comparison to all the emotion.
So while the book has some lengths, retrospectively it all made sense, even more if it is seen as part of a comprehensive life work (also the parts about writing and publishing - it will be interesting to see if that gets any easier).
I found Vera's story of the war years was really powerful and I really liked the stories she told in the years immediately following the war, showing how different her generation was from those that were kids during the war. I found the final quarter of the book -- focusing on the feminist and peace lectures a little less interesting.
Definitely a great choice for a group read!
I am very glad to have read this book. The style of writing sometimes drove me crazy and there were things about Vera Brittain herself that annoyed me and yet this is a book that will very much stay with me, a remarkable window into the life of a quite remarkable woman in a period when it's the men we usually hear from.
It will take a while for the book to soak in, but at first blush I find it to be remarkable in every way. Well written, easily read and understood, very descriptive, emotionally revealing, a unique look at a time and place. Reading it together with the group, with all your supportive comments which helped to enlighten my understanding and confirm my own reactions, made it even more enjoyable for me.
This was the best group read ever!