on 28 August 2000
I have just finished reading 'Testament of Youth' and thought you could hardly better the sense of experience, personal and national, that comes out of it. I come to the book from an 'autobiography' background, rather than of 'interest in the war' as such, and therefore to my mind the first two thirds of the book are best where Vera Brittain is conveying her personal experience and responses; I think she is less good in conveying her work for the League of Nations etc. But then, perhaps that is the point of it. As she says a couple of times in the text, these are experiences which I will never be able to overcome. Her courage in picking herself up after the war is fantastic, but you know in your heart that something has been lost in her forever. It was also very nice to read about a Buxton lass. I like Derbyshire & the Dales and I enjoyed the presentation of 'genteel' Buxton and her family and friends.
on 26 July 2009
I first read this book when studying for my A levels 25 years ago -it totally overpowered me then and now it still does.It is my all time favourite book because it has such humanity and love at its core.
Vera Brittain was an amazing woman and her early years as documented in Testament of Youth shaped her views for the rest of her life.
With the recent passing of Harry Patch the last WW1 Soldier I picked up this seminal work again to remind me of that generation and all they endured.
Vera's Courage whether it be fighting to gain an education at University, or working as a VAD Nurse while all the time one by one those she loves perish shines through .I still cannot read the poem after Roland's Death without tears falling.
This wonderful work will remain a classic - a benchmark for Womens Literature.I will continue to reread it and pass it on to my children as an important message is contained within.
on 31 January 2009
Vera Brittain was a privileged, yet restricted young woman. She was very of her time in that she had to fight for everything that today's women tend to take for granted. The freedom to spend time with whomever she chose, to have privacy, even to receive an education, were all hard-fought. She belonged to the middle/upper class, with all the comforts that that status implies, even to the point of reaching adulthood without ever learning the simple task of boiling an egg.
She freely admitted that when the War broke out, it appeared to her to be an interruption and an inconvenience. She had no idea just how it would transform the world and her life. Five years later, she was a bitter, nightmare-ridden shadow of her former self.
Testament of Youth takes you from the time of Vera's childhood through 1925, when she is just starting a new, happier life. Making copious use of her own diaries, letters between herself and her friends, and the poetry and music of the time, she gives a lesson by means of immersion into her life. Her prose is extremely demanding and not for the faint of heart. There were many sections where I was only able to pick up just what she was saying from the context. Her vocabulary is dense and elaborate. At first I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to rise to the occasion, but in the end I was richly rewarded.
The meat of Testament of Youth is Vera's writing of her wartime experiences as a nurse and as a worried sister, lover and friend of those serving in the trenches. I have never been so aware of just how debilitating this era in history was, not just to the soldiers, but to those who waited, worked and worried back at home.
The book runs out of steam after the War, and then Vera's completion of her education at Oxford. I didn't find her discussion of her work for the League of Nations Union nearly as interesting as the previous 450 pages, though I might have done if I'd known more about British political history. Testament of Youth shines when Vera is discussing her personal relationships and frailties. It is at these moments that the book grabbed me by the shoulders and absolutely refused to let me go.
on 1 November 2001
If you only read one book about the First World War, read this one. The true horror of the war is detailed, and it really makes you think about the loss and sacrifice.
I read this book first of all studying for my History degree,and I have re-read it many times since then.
Vera's life and what happened to her, and her friends has stayed with me always, and I have now encouraged other people to read it too.
on 23 May 2004
Vera Brittain's account was written in the early 1930s, as she tried to make sense of the extraordinary bereavement that affected those of her generation who survived the First World War.
Growing up in provincial Edwardian England, a fascinating piece of writing in itself, she falls in love with one of her brothers's friends in 1914. The romance is going well, until the outbreak of war sweeps in to disrupt her life. Suddenly the love of her life, as well as her brother and some other close friends, are all in the trenches, trying to live out the noble heroic dream on behalf of King and Country.
Unable to support directly, she joins the nursing corps as a volunteer but there is no consolation for her as first her fiance, then her friends and finally her brother die.
Her account of desolation when she receives the news each time is traumatising and shows a side of life you don't get from the war poems: the horror of war not from the front line, but from the perspective of almost continuous bereavement, among people who feel helpless and increasingly angry with the world. Her perspectives on daily life in London in the war years are as insightful as the descriptions of nursing in Malta and France, where she spent the bulk of her time. Certain details, such as the atmosphere behind the lines as the British wilt before the Ludendorff offensive, but are rallied by a missive from Field Marshall Haig will interest even those who know a lot about the history of it.
Yet it is the human story which is most powerful.
This is a brutally honest book, and she does not paint herself without warts: she is obsessive about academic study, has a mental breakdown after the war and doesn't make it easy on anyone courting her thereafter. Yet Brittain's problems outside the war, of a woman trying to combine a career with marriage, anticipate the great feminist struggles of the 20th and 21st centuries. Indeed, her honesty gives the book a raw truth.
Yet this is not just her story. As she herself writes, this is the story of a generation whose men were wiped out in battle and whose women were shattered by bereavement.
The book continues after the war following her work with the League of Nations until 1925 and this has only limited interest today: the really timeless passages come from earlier on. Profoundly affecting and profoundly insightful, in beautiful prose, this deserves its classic status.
on 4 April 2001
Vera Brittain effectively conveys the anguish, pain, grief and helplessness of a civilian in times of war in a manner that I have not witnessed in any other account.
Having read this book twice I am not ashamed to admit that I wept on both occasions. I defy anyone to read Vera's biography with dry eyes.
By todays standards her prose may appear old-fashioned but it is extremely elegant and most effective considering her subject matter. The prosaic descriptions of her mental turmoil and sense of hopelessness contrast vividly with her determination and resolve to help alleviate the suffering of the soldiers by joining the nursing establishment at the front. Her inclusion of poems and letters within the text considerably aids the readers understanding of both her personal relationships and state of mind during this period.
Being well versed in the history, and statistics, of the Great War, I found 'Testament of Youth' extremely enlightening in terms of the personal suffering that was endured by individuals like Vera who were forever changed by the experience.
Perhaps, were it a prerequisite for aspiring politicions to read this book, our nations leaders may well find it a lot more difficult to commit a country to war.
This is an important book.
on 29 January 2015
I don't want to worry anyone who is forced to read this for education purposes that this book is going to be a trial however you have to realise that this is an autobiography and therefore you have to like the person you are reading about. Vera and her friends are quite philosophical and I mean intellectually discussing every decision such as marriage, death, post war life which can be a little hard to take.
I would have say that as a contemporary account of the first world war it is varied, covering nursing, middle east war, western front and then the home front. It also covers the inter war years in a very engaged way but Vera is not a character I instantly liked and I read this mostly because I felt I should rather then to get a true feeling for the Great war experience.
on 17 July 2011
It is extremely difficult to get through this book without splashing the pages with your tears. I mentally clasped the author's hand throughout this tormented autobiography. I like strong women. People like me frequently do. Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth didn't disappoint. Brittain was a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) - a sort of auxiliary nurse - who were often middle or upper class civilian women with little or no experience of hardship or hospital discipline filling in for a lack of trained nurses in the wars. She coped as best she could, on one occasion finding herself in charge of a ward of 40 badly wounded men. While the men (rightly so) earned medals and distinctions, she was refused permission to return to the Front and help because she had broken her contract to look after her sick mother. Brittain writes with an insight into the First World War in a way that most men can't. Emotional, passionate and with a welcome frankness about sex and relationships.
"The ward was reserved for gassed classes, and I had once again the task of attending to the blinded eyes and scorched throats and blistered bodies which made the struggle for life such a half-hearted affair. One of the dying men had his wife beside him for two or three days; she didn't much enjoy her vigil, and had already began to flirt with the orderly sergeant before he came to superintend the removal of her husband's body. I wondered whether she knew that the dead man had been syphilitic as well as gassed."
The sub-text is rich. Her brother Edward's love of music, his dislike of women and his close friends: the beautiful Roland who Vera falls in love, the strong Victor, rendered totally blind by his injuries and the sensitive Geoffrey whose engagement in this brutal and futile war is reflected in a marching song of the time sung to the tune of Auld Lang Syne: "We're here because, we're here because, we're here because, we're here....". Their loss brings you close to a woman who lost everything in life. Yet, long after her death, Vera Brittain continues to humble anyone privileged enough to read her book. Light a candle and with the strains of Elgar's requiem For the Fallen playing quietly in the background, why not let Vera Brittain lead you into the trenches to the very heart of the fighting and question what it was all for?
Compulsory reading. (Please click on the Amazon link on the National Secular Society website to help their work if purchasing. I'm sure she'd like that).
on 29 January 2015
I know it is sacrilege, but I hated this book. The further I got, the more angry I was becoming. Certainly, Vera Brittain shows how the Great War provided so much loss and suffering - she lost her brother, fiance and two close friends to the fighting, but in all honesty this aspect could have been covered in a book a fraction of the size. For the rest of the interminable and turgid offering we are offered the self-centered self-pity of a privileged lady who despite supposedly detesting her mother's middle class acquaintances, saw the working class only as a means of gratifying her own patronizing views. Although she professes socialist and feminist opinions, she appears only to have mixed with the upper classes. Even during her service as a nurse, during the war, she barely mentions the average Tommy, choosing instead to fraternize with officers. There is more name dropping in this book than on Oscars night!
Miss Brittain seems to have decided from the outset of the war, that she was to be a martyr. She was imagining the effect of the deaths or serious injury of her brother and fiance in terms of the effect it would have on her, before either had even taken up arms, and when the inevitable happened, there is hardly a mention of genuine grief, merely her own self pity. At one point she had decided to marry one of her male friend, blinded in action, but this decision seems to have been entirely to add to her own suffering rather than from any real love or compassion.
I completed the book, but have never been so glad to reach a final page. The second part, although continually harping back to her wartime suffering, reads rather like a really dreadful Christmas "round robin", with references to people and events which were clearly designed to show Miss Brittain's superiority over everyone else. This is further evidenced by her regular use of foreign (particularly Latin) quotations with no translation, not to mention her apparent high regard for her own poetry, invariably attributed to "VB". While I appreciate that many people regard this book as a classic, I would strongly suggest that anyone who wants to read a genuinely inspirational true story about a lady who went through horrendous suffering in wartime (albeit World War II), should look to another VB. The story of Violette Bushell (Szabo), in "Carve Her Name With Pride" tells something of life in wartime, rather than offering self obsessed, subjective arrogance and self pity.
on 13 March 2014
Perhaps this is sacrilege, but this is rather a turgid tome. I'm reading it for my bookclub, but I am having to make a great effort to complete it. I think we may tend to look at this book uncritically because it is about a great even in recent (relatively) history. But I find that I have to skim much of it to look for the important bits. I have also heard it described as self-indulgent, a comment I'm not sure I agree with, but can see why some would regard it so.