Title: Testament Of Youth
Author: Vera Brittain
Hi guys, apologies for a large gap again in posting on this blog as it has been an extremely busy few weeks which has taken me away from reading any books. Anyway I am hugely excited to share my review of this book which is my first non-fiction book and my first autobiography that I’ve reviewed for this blog, the classic war memoir by Vera Brittain Testament of Youth.
The autobiography begins with Brittain as a young daughter of a paper-mill owner in provincial middle-class Buxton, who dreams of emancipation from the “life in the home” that was expected of her by her parents. She manages to secure a place at Somerville College, Oxford to study literature and begins her studies at the point the First World War breaks out.
Around the same time, Brittain begins a relationship with Roland Leighton, a friend of her brother’s and at the start of the war both they and their two friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow all enlist to fight. Brittain decides she wants to try to make a difference herself so also enlists as a Voluntary Detachment Nurse.
During the course of the war she works as a nurse in London and on the fronts in Malta and France but by the end of the war her brother, her lover and both of their friends have all been killed.
The final part of the book recounts Brittain’s life as she emerges into a world without her war dead, and tries to rebuild her life. She returns to Oxford to study international history and begins a deep friendship with Winifred Holtby, a friendship which would last for the rest of Winifred’s life before her untimely death in 1935. Together, they visit the graves of Brittain’s brother and her lover before moving in together and embarking on their careers in journalism.
I first wanted to read this book after watching the 2014 movie adaptation, which starred Alicia Vikander and it is why I have featured the tie-in edition of the book above as well as the recent 100th anniversary of the Armistice ending the first world war. Below is the trailer for this movie. Since reading the book it is a great adaptation which covers the themes really well.
The book is an extremely powerful depiction of a young woman at the beginning of the 20th Century and the pain and suffering caused by war, especially when the causes of such a war were so futile. Her passionate account has so many moving events and thought-provoking ideas that it is hard to do it justice in this review.
The two main themes throughout the book are pacifism and feminism and both of the themes are presented by Brittain in a way which still resonates today.
Her dreams of escaping a life of domesticity in the opening chapters and daring to have ambition and go against what society at the time expects of her is something that really resonated with me. Towards the later chapters of the book the theme of feminism returns when Brittain begins to explore the future internal conflict of maintaining her journalism career against the duties of marriage which is represented in the last chapter by her engagement to her future husband George Catlin, in other words being a so called “have it all” woman. Her anger and cynicism with the patriarchal society she lived in is best demonstrated to me in the book when women over 30 were given the vote in 1917 with this powerful quote:
“With an incongruous irony seldom equalled in the history of revolutions, the spectacular pageant of the women’s movement, vital and colourful with adventure, with initiative, with sacrificial emotion, crept to its quiet, unadvertised triumph [the vote] in the deepest night of wartime depression”.
Her second theme is that of pacifism which is presented most obviously in her account of what happened in the war and how she lost her husband, both his friends and finally her younger brother. At the war’s end she begins to question just what her war dead had sacrificed their lives for as the British and French governments seek to punish Germany for the war and later in 1923, as she visits Germany for the League of Nations she encounters a country with growing political tension and extremism which now, with the benefit of hindsight, offers a terrifying foreboding of what was going to happen in this country and to the world only 6 years on from this books publication.
There are some aspects of the books language and sentence structure which can be quite complicated and hard to follow – I did find myself rereading paragraphs now and again as the diction used in the book can at times be quite complex but I cared so much for the book and Brittain’s story that I didn’t want to leave a stone unturned when reading this book which usually I tend to read over the complicated language to get the gist of what is going on.
A powerful, thought provoking read which is a must for anyone interested in the political and social impacts of the First World War and even if history isn’t your interest, Brittain’s viewpoints are relatable and resonate today.