Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Vera Brittain
Testament of Youth

This was a very memorable book to read, and also felt an important book to read. I adore reading diaries, and the personal insight these provide, and I grew attached to Vera and felt for her with the bereavements and traumatic sights she experiences, but also the excitement and opportunities she was determined to take up.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

This was a very memorable book to read, and also felt an important book to read. I adore reading diaries, and the personal insight these provide, and I grew attached to Vera and felt for her with the bereavements and traumatic sights she experiences, but also the excitement and opportunities she was determined to take up.

It was so very sad with the deaths of all the men close to her, especially her fiance, Roland, and brother, Edward, and this is probably my overwhelming memory of the book and what has stayed with me the most. She was very frank and bitterly honest with her feelings of utter despair at the deaths of her friends and brother, especially her brother, and she didn’t hold back or keep some feelings private, it’s very raw and heartbreaking and honest, not only her shock and immediate grief but also the longer-term mental impact with her insomnia and paranoia about her physical appearance. It was tough reading, and I felt for her very much. I was also very affected by the tortuous waiting at home for news, with weeks and weeks of not hearing any updates and not knowing if your relative was dead or alive, I just can’t imagine today the powerlessness of not being able to get that vital information.

All the red tape and rules during the war that inevitably slowed down the processes, was incredibly frustrating to read about, eg her postings as a nurse being delayed. I struggled to understand how this could have been allowed to happen when help was so desperately needed. 

It was interesting to compare the experience of the men and women at the Front, with the experience of middle-aged people at home in England absorbed with their food shortages and the difficulties of day-to-day life, and Vera was quite scornful of these ‘difficulties’ compared to being at the Front, but I can see these were still valid difficulties that distressed people, and showed another perspective of the impact of the war. 

Her account of nursing German prisoners was quite powerful, it reminded me to see them as human beings not monsters, that they were not individually wanting to kill large numbers of English men but they were just part of the machine of war, just as the English soldiers were, and were just as scared of dying. I was also impressed with how generous we English were in providing medical care to the enemy, as I guess I struggle to believe that Germany cared for our captured injured men like that. And also how hard this must have been for the English nurses who saw these German patients as the enemy and who had probably lost loved ones at the hands of this enemy, and yet they could override these personal feelings to follow their professional instinct of nursing, I was full of admiration for this, that really was remarkable, but it made me wonder how hard this would have been and if all the nurses were able to do this.

I was quite shocked that Vera was frowned upon and almost mocked for wanting to keep talking about the war after it was over, but I guess this was the ‘code of silence’ that occurred which I have always found hard today to understand, thinking of the damage that suppressing things causes. I could also empathise and share her frustration with her desiring, very justifiably, recognition of the part she played in the war. I guess this was felt more by women, as men were decorated for the part they played, but perhaps it was often felt by men too that their sacrifice and the change to their lives and characters caused by the war was not fully appreciated, or at least there was a time limit on how long you could expect appreciation.

I found it interesting to consider that this book was very much from a middle-class perspective, eg going to Oxford, worrying about servants, Edward automatically being an officer in charge of men rather than just a soldier and this position seeming to be determined by a person’s class rather than by their abilities. It made me wonder how very different the working class/soldier’s perspective was. Even the letters between Vera and Roland and Edward use very educated poetic analytical language, and I imagine were very different from the letters of working class people.

Vera was obviously very determined on the rights of women, and feminism. It is astonishing now to consider how little rights they had then, eg when their mother was ill, it was expected without question that Vera would abandon her wartime duties to care for her rather than Edward, and Vera’s struggles to succeed and to be accepted as an equal at Oxford with the expectation at the time being that marriage was the only course available or desired by women, and also her determination to have women’s contribution to the war recognised and valued, and also that when she married she was determined that it was to be an equal partnership and indeed contemplated not marrying the man she loved out of apprehension that she would lose her independence.

I did wonder if Edward was gay, and if this was why he was continually overlooked to be sent to the Front during training, and the introduction to the book (that I read at the end) said he had been accused by the military police of being gay and was facing possible court martial for having relations with men in his company, and even whether he therefore deliberately put himself in the way of being killed by the enemy in order to save his family the scandal and humiliation of this. That’s quite an overpowering and terrible and awful thought. I also then wondered about the nature, or hopes, of his relationships with Roland and Victor and Geoffrey. 

I found this book quite slow at the start, as there was a lot about her early life and her dreams and aspirations, which I guess helped to show the kind of person she was and how she might then react in situations, but I was keen to get onto the war aspect of the book. Her adoration of her brother, Edward, and their closeness was lovely though, and I also loved her passion and enthusiasm for Oxford. I also found less gripping, though still interesting, the details of her work with the League of Nations after the war, her hopes of how this organisation could be a useful result of the war and to help make all the sacrifices of war try and mean something worthwhile, and her feelings that the penalties imposed on Germany were too harsh and her worries about the discontent this fostered which could then damage the united aims of the League. 

By the end of the book, I had also created a huge list of battles and people to read up more about!

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain available on Amazon
 Kindle  Hardback
 Paperback  Audiobook

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