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29 of 31 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A classic: shattering at times, always enlightening, 23 May 2004
This review is from: Testament Of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 (Virago classic non-fiction) (Paperback)
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.
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