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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful
on 31 March 2002
This book contains hundreds of beautifully written letters, dated from 1913 to 1918. All are to, from or about Vera Brittain, her fiancée Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain and their two friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. This time reveals the development of World War 1, but more the suffer and horror endured by the four young men in and out of the trenches.
"Nothing in the papers, not the most vivid and heart rending descriptions, have made me realise the war like your letters."
This passage, written by Vera Brittain to Roland Leighton as he acted as an officer in the trenches, is just one of many containing so much truth. Nothing has made me realise the war like these letters - so much is contained within them. More striking than the visible horrors of war is the raw emotion and pain of such perfect relationships as they are torn apart in such hideous circumstances. Through this intrusion into five people's lives via these breathtaking letters, we witness them growing together simply to be blown apart suddenly, unjustly, by shellfire and sniper bullets.
The five people featured are all academics at Oxford. None of them have completed their time their when the war begins, and Vera Brittain has not even started. All of them, then, are people of 'words rather than action', and had not formally considered military life. Vera becomes a V.A.D nurse after her first year at Oxford because she cannot stand being useless any longer whilst those that she loved were suffering on the country's behalf. All of the men act with the highest nobility by heading to the front as soon as they can, and becoming respected and courageous leaders. All of the characters are so incredibly brave and admirable as the situation, making the outcome more tragic and the enhancing the feeling that the men deserve to live, and that Vera deserves them to live for her. As Edward puts it, the loss of friends means that "whatever was the value in life has all tumbled down like a house of cards."
If the same plot had been used in fiction, I would have hated the book. It would have come across as over the top in its sentiment. The honesty, emotion and pain contained in it would have come across as almost unrealistic, and the tragedy would have been just too tragic - to the point of trivialising the true horror. However, because the letters, the emotion and the pain were all real as this was written, the book does the direct opposite. In this case, it seems that truth is far, far sadder than fiction.
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13 of 13 people found the following review helpful
on 3 November 2000
After over eighty years the shattering Great War experience has all but completely slipped into oblivion . Yet reading about the tragic fate of one 'lost generation' might well knock the most hardened of cyber-readers stone-cold or, better, turn out to be one of the most heart-warming experiences conceivable.
Following an intelligent youthful fivesome in their tracks, the trade or art, let alone, ecstasy image of the war is quickly left behind as its gruesome realities cause the inevitable questions on the glorification of warfare to crop up. Centre-stage is Vera, a brave and empathic VAD nurse, who sets out to acquire her own place inside, not out of, the war. As she loses one by one of her nearest and dearest, she turns her personal involvement in the war into an attitude of uncompromising sacrifice for life.
In so doing, the book, which is ultimately an intimate war memoir, reaches greater emotional intensity and richness as one turns the pages and notices how desperately Vera is trying to come to terms with the impossible. Just that very feminine line of approach makes this book an all the more worthwhile read. There can be no doubt that this is an indispensable work and one for everyone to cherish.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 1 October 2000
Over eighty years on, with the last survivors of the cataclysmic Great War nearly all gone, its dark clouds risk forever to be gilt with the silver linings of distance. To this day, however, coverage of the War in the press has continued to place it in the limelight, and on a heretofore unimaginable scale, at that. In this day and age of swift cybercontact, an eighty-year-old book might well leave anyone stone cold. Still, in terms of humane depth and appeal, Vera Brittain's letters may easily demonstrate greater force of intensity than any teacher of history, novelist or film director might aspire to ever reach.
The reader follows an intelligent, youthful fivesome along the path leading first from the fascination of elemental war - "a trade, and art, an ecstasy", Roland Leighton calls it - to the inevitability of questions about that supposedly glorious panoply of war. As war forces his fiancée Vera to part, first with him and then with more of her nearest and dearest, she sets out bravely to acquire herself a place inside, not out of, the war. Serving as a VAD nurse she invests her emotional 'all' into the quality of her remaining relationships as well as hoping to turn her wartime experience into one of sacrifice for, rather than of, life.
In so doing, the book's emotional prism acquires growing richness, ranging all the way from impetuous élan - at the onset - via affectionate involvement and, ultimately, an unbearable disillusionment which grips the reader as much as it must have done Vera. Hers is a story of a love and affection doomed to ruin by fate.
Just that very female line of approach may well be this book's ultimate hallmark of quality: it is Vera's intelligent perfection, her thoughtful reflection and her involvement to the point of being emotionally crippled that make this a volume of letters truly to be cherished. Her friends' hope and hers -against all odds - make this at once an indispensable and unforgettable read; for sheer intensity it is an experience that film can never surpass.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2000
One of the most moving books I have read. Beautiful account of youthful exuberance as it meets war head on. Incredibly poignant to read these letters as they build up a picture of lost innocence. The inevitable loss of life comes as a real shock - it sounds cliched, but you really do feel it as you turn the pages and tragedy strikes, out of the blue, time after time.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on 13 December 1999
Most historians consider the Great War of 1914-18 the defining event of our century, yet even now it is difficult to grasp the magnitude of its destructiveness. These letters, read here with great sensitivity, make some form of comprehension possible by showing the suffering the war brought to five individual lives.
The letters bring us into the lives of five young people who should have been college students during these years: Vera Brittain, her brother Edward, her fiance Roland and two friends. Instead, they found themselves caught up in events which, for once, truly deserve the name "apocalyptic." The four young men served in the army, Vera Brittain as a nurse in the UK, France and Malta. When the conflict ended, only Brittain was still alive.
The correspondence the five exchanged during the war documents their shifting moods of doubt, hope and despair as they struggle to understand what was happening to themselves, their friends and their world.
Vera Brittain relied heavily on the letters in writing her classic book, A Testament of Youth. This selection from them, carefully culled from their recent publication in book form, provides a history lesson no listener is likely to forget.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 3 January 2008
The letter writers concerned are four young men, friends from public school who were all to die in the Great War: Roland Leighton, ( 1915) Geoffrey Thurlow, (1917), Victor Richardson (1917) , and Edward Brittain (1918). Their story has been told in Vera Brittain's war time memoir from 1933, `Testament of Youth', and the whole project seems to be a spin-off from the revival of the book's popularity as from the late 1970's: Though 'Testament of Youth' was virtually forgotten by the time of Brittain's death in 1970, it seems that her new generation of admirers can not get enough of her work, as her novels come back into print and diaries are published. The personal papers of four leading characters from `Testament of Youth' are now placed in the public domain.
A potential problem is that the letters are selected from a wider body of correspondence, and edited albeit by foremost specialists in Vera Brittain's work. A further concern is that the writers are communicating to each other on a private level, often under the duress of taking part in armed conflict. Whether they would have elected to have their views presented to a wide readership, or be given the status of somehow representing a `lost generation' is a concern that can not be answered. Of course the reader knows that the men are going to die, and understands the course the War would take, which makes reading the letters uncomfortable at times. The individual natures of the four men comes over well via their writing, the introduction to the book is also potentially helpful in trying to understand the mentality of the young officer class of the Great War. But I can't help thinking that the readership is confined to people already familiar with `Testament of Youth ', not enough cross referencing is made to other Great War source material.
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 16 November 2005
One of the saddest books I have ever read. Four boys from the same year in their school are commissioned in the army and all die in the First World War. First to die is Vera Brittain's fiancee. Between them there was but one kiss and many letters. Last to die was her brother. Trench warfare and the horrors of nursing the wounded are described in detail. The pain of losing a generation is all too apparent.
Read and weep.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 15 January 1999
For those familiar with Vera Brittain's 'Testament of Youth' the first part of the book, until Roland Leighton's death, brings about an inevitable yet unwelcome sense of deja vu. It is in the later parts of this collection of letters that the real interest emerges - one gains a deep insight into the characters of Victor Richardson and especially of Geoffrey Thurlow. Despite a veneer of jollity, the anguish Geoffrey felt at possibly letting himself and his men down when the hour of battle came shines through in a very uncomfortable way. The mud, the conditions in the trenches, the boredom, exhaustion and mundanity both of being a front line soldier and a nurse are portrayed well. The reader also glimpses a picture of a long lost England - when trains ran on time, when the post man came on a Sunday, of chaperones and debutantes, and of a very stiff upper lip. The final letter in the book, from Roland's father to Edward's father, is pure agony to read, and is a fitting epitaph to the sons who died.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 100 REVIEWERon 19 November 2006
If you've read Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's classic war memoir/autobiography you will already know the story, but hearing the actual voices of her and the young men raise this book to another level. In their late teens when the first world war breaks out, we see their innocent nineteenth century ideals of the glory and honour of war shattered by the reality they face and the death of everyone they know.
A poignant, shattering, heartbreaking reminder of the death of innocence and the true birth of the twentieth century.

ps. If you haven't read Testament of Youth it's well worth it as a companion to this book since my one tiny complaint is that the editors give very little narrative. To understand what is actually happening particularly in the delicate, awkward, sensitive love affair burgeoning between Vera and Roland that other narrative is essential. I was confused, for example, about at what stage their 'friendship' turned to something much deeper, at what stage it was acknowledged by them, their friends and family. Also to get a sense not of what Roland looked like (for we have a photo) but the way Vera perceived him the autobiography is essential and an equally brilliant read.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 24 September 2003
These are some of the most enthralling and interesting letters I have ever read and I was hooked from beginning to end.
The letters are always so personal and emotionally filled, that you can't help but to question why so many young people had to die.
The letters are brilliant for both historical content and a real and human account of what war is actually like.
This book raises so many questions, some of which still don't have answers. A brilliant must read!
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