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Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain – a review

Posted by on February 14, 2015

IMG_0280 Vera BThe red flower for this Valentine’s Day piece is the scarlet poppy on the front of the Virago anniversary edition of Testament of Youth. First published in 1933 by Victor Gollancz, it became a great success both in the UK and the USA, and  familiar to a later generation when reissued in 1978 and a TV drama series based on it came out in 1979. Vera Brittain [1893 -1970] called it her ‘autobiographical study’, based as it was on extensive use of her own diaries and letters. Though other contemporary women authors had  written on similar themes [ eg Sylvia Pankhurst, and Beatrice Webb] Brittain wanted to emphasise the ‘unsung contribution of women to the war effort.’  Having studied the personal accounts of male authors’ wartime experiences, such as Sassoon, and Robert Graves [whose ‘Goodbye to All That’ had been published in 1929], Brittain felt that none of these acknowledged the value of womens’ war work. In her introduction, she describes how she felt the only course of action was to ‘tell my own fairly typical story as truthfully as I could against the larger background’ of contemporary historical events.’

After war was declared in August 1914, Brittain [then aged 20] decided to forgo her lang-awaited and hard-won place at Somerville College, Oxford, in order to train and work as a V.A.D.[ Voluntary Aid Detachment] nurse. The book tells of her experiences at a hospital in London, then on the Western Front. It also describes the tragic personal losses she had to endure, when first her fiance , then two close friends, and finally her much-loved brother were killed on active service. Brittain’s description of the impact these deaths had on her life, and on the lives of their families and friends , helps to explain the deep sorrow felt by a nation who had to endure the destruction of the ‘lost generation’ in the aftermath of war.

For anyone who is planning to write about the role of women as nurses, and domestic life in London during 1914-18, or who wishes to gain an appreciation of the horrors of mechanised warfare and its effects as seen in a field hospital in Northern France, it is a valuable and absorbing book which still has the power to disturb and move the reader, a century after the momentous events it records. Vera Brittain’s passionate plea for peace needs to be heard as much today as when it was first published.

Having recently seen the film, [directed by James Kent, and with Alicia Vikander in the title role] i would tend to agree with the Guardian reviewer, Peter Bradshaw, who describes it as ‘tastefully realised … but drifts meekly away from the necessary pain and anger, leaving a kind of heritage inertia.’Beautifully filmed and well-acted, the film does gain power after the young protagonists are drawn into the horror of the reality of war. It is almost impossible to do justice to such a long and profound book in a film of just over 2 hours, and much has had to be omitted.  However, it is hoped it will help to bring this remarkable and powerful autobiographical work to  the notice of an even wider audience  and to the next generation.

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