Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth (1933)

“When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy,

but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.” (17)

I meant to tell you all about this in July, but well, #dalloway and life intervened. Nonetheless, here I go:

Brittain as a V.A.D. nurse, 1915

Brittain as a V.A.D. nurse, 1915

Vera Brittain writes with tremendous care about prize day at her brother’s school when she was falling in love with Ronald Leighton, who became her fiancé. It goes on and on—her floaty dress with the pink spots, her pretty hat—and then she explains that she spends so much time on this because it was “the one perfect summer idyll” of my life. Etched, every moment of it, in memory. Like the moment in The Hours where Clarissa thinks this is the beginning of happiness only to realize, oh!, that was my moment of happiness. What’s lovely and different about the Brittain is that she’s writing from such a kindly, matronly perspective—she’s generous to the whole world that’s past—including her benighted self. So that her observation that she didn’t attend to the assassination of the archduke of whom she had never heard in a nation she could not find on the map is perfectly calibrated to be patient with the individual but damning of the society. She is so smart on the perils of ignorance. What’s remarkable about Testament of Youth is that it reproduces at once her memory and her post-war perspective.

Testament of Youth documents how the effects of the war rippled out beyond the soldiers. The description of her, still in provincial England, going to a neighboring town and hearing rumors and seeing a trainload of Russian soldiers, and coming home bursting with the news only to find the same news greeting her in Buxton is terrific. It offers a vivid picture of what it feels like to experience a bit of news of war first hand, not even yet knowing who among your family, will have had the same experience. She tells the story of her nurses training when a girl got mad at Brittain for tucking her into the hospital bed a little too vigorously and wrinkling the frills in her knickers. Such silliness in retrospect, but for that girl, at that moment, the heart of her life and Brittain’s book gains its effect by asking us to think that through. She was a young woman in a world where pretty girls worried about the frills on their knickers. Then: war. Her method shows—and asks us to bear—some compassion for that poor idiotic girl, too, a girl who surely suffered, too, somehow. She certainly was not facing five easy years any more than anyone in England from 1914-1919.

She is wonderfully funny on how difficult it was to be alone with a boy in those days—how her aunt stuck to her like a limpet, how Leighton came shopping—even to buy underwear—with them, just for the pleasure of being together. She goes on to explain how hard it was to arrange to meet a man for a few unsupervised hours. She and other middle class girls would be delivered to a train station, commanded to telegraph upon their arrival at the destination. Eventually, she concocted a story about not wanting to run into certain classmates at one junction so she could meet Leighton at another.

One of the lessons that Brittain seems to want us to take away is something about paying attention. This emerges as a theme in Cecily Hamilton’s book, too. Silly goose, she seems to say of herself, I ought to have known to attend to that. But what is the lesson for us? What is the crisis that will, as in the passage she quotes from Daniel Deronda, bring us into confrontation with history? Is it the riots among the poor in Brazil? Climate change? The emergence of the Islamic State? Or is it some tiny ripple that most of us have not yet imagined, some slight, some rude inattention we have visited upon Canada or Kansas that will set the whole thing ablaze?

You can read a biography of Brittain by the Peace Pledge Union here. If you'd like to read other reconsiderations of Testament of Youth, this one at The Guardian is wonderful. And here is another