Monday, August 4, 2014

Testament of Youth

I'm excited to talk to you about Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain (1893-1970). Since this year is the 100th anniversary of World War I, I wanted to read something about the wartime experience from a woman's point of view. Testament of Youth, first published in 1933, was exactly what I was looking for.

Brittain's memoir doesn't begin with the war. It starts earlier with her upbringing in a well to do middle class British family. She was educated in a boarding school and led a fairly sheltered life.

Before the war began, Brittain was accepted to Oxford University in 1913, something which was still new for women at that time. Something else happened, too. Her brother, Edward, brought home a friend, Roland Leighton, and Brittain and Leighton fell in love. When he went off to fight, she courageously decided to leave her studies and become a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse where she served for much of World War I. Her main reason for becoming a nurse was to feel closer to Leighton, but as the war went on, her reasons would change.

Brittain found herself called upon to do things she never imagined, having grown up with servants, but she did not shy away from responsibility. Her experiences highlighted the terrible conditions that nurses had to endure--working amazingly long days on little sleep, returning each night to living conditions in which there was no running water and sometimes no way to get hot water. One can't help but admire her ability to do her job in the face of these challenges. Brittain worked in England, France and Malta. In France, some of the soldiers she cared for were German prisoners, and at times, she worked dangerously close to the Western Front.

This is Brittain's story, but it is also the story of Leighton (who became her fiance), her beloved brother Edward, and his friends who were also her friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. While I had some idea of what the outcome would be for these young men, there were times when it was difficult to read the book. At the same time, I couldn't stop reading.

While Testament of Youth dealt primarily with World War I, Brittain also chronicled her life after the war until the mid 1920s. She discussed the difficult period of adjustment and the emotional issues she faced. She also wrote about the challenges when she unexpectedly fell in love and tried to decide if she wanted to marry.

I highly recommend this book. Brittain was a talented writer, and her memoir is compelling and poignant. 

A sequel, Testament of Experience, which I have not read, covers the years 1925 through 1950 and was published in 1957.

If you have an interest in the role of women during World War I, there is an excellent podcast on BBC Radio 4 about how World War I changed the life of women. Vera Brittain's daughter, Baroness Shirley Williams, is a participant in the discussion:

Have you read Testament of Youth? What books do you recommend about World War I?

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