Hands down the best book I’ve ever read about World War I, detailing life pre-during-post war, all from the perspective of a non-soldier (All Quiet on the Western Front is so far the soldier’s view I most liked, and I think Vera Brittain’s book beats it by a landslide). She weaves in snippets from her diary and letters to and from her brother, her lover, and their friends–all of whom are killed during the lengthy conflict. Also included are poems both she and Roland (her fiancÃ©) wrote, along with quotations she copied into her diary. With this rich primary source data, she penned a nearly 700 page tale of what life was like before, during, and after the war.
I now see the tangible benefits of having my own library, since I can look up what Virginia Woolf thought about this book in Vol 4 of her diaries. Oddly enough, I, too, am neglecting the very same Miss C. Burnett book (More Women Than Men, pub 1933) that VW put aside to read this:
I am reading with extreme greed a book by Vera Britain [sic], called The Testament of Youth. Not that I much like her. A stringy metallic mind, with I suppose, the sort of taste I should dislike in real life. But her story, told in detail, without reserve, of the war, & how she lost lover & brother, & dabbled her hands in entrails, & was forever seeing the dead, & eating scraps, & sitting five on one WC, runs rapidly, vividly across my eyes. A very good book of its sort. The new sort, the hard anguished sort, that the young write; that I could never write. Nor has anyone written that kind of book before. Why now? What urgency is there on them to stand bare in public? She feels that these facts must be made known, in order to help–what? herself partly I suppose. And she has the social conscience. I have still to read how she married the infinitely dreary Catlin & found beauty & triumph in poor, gaping Holtby. But I give her credit for having lit up a long passage to me at least. I read & read & read & neglect Turgenev & Miss C. Burnett. (Sept 2, 1933)
But back to Vera. Knowing their letters would be read by the military, she and her brother and friends come up with code words. Roland says “hinc illae lacrimae” (hence these tears) as an indicator that they are about to be deployed into battle. Brother Edward alerts her to his impending deployment with “the celery is ripe.” The days are nail-biters, not sure if the boys are still alive in their various battles. Brittain is almost relieved (as well as devastated) when Roland dies, because she no longer has to wonder. Working as a nurse in England, then in Malta, then in France, Brittain sees her fair share of terrible mangled gangrenous limbs and death death death. She’s able to shield her parents from some of the stress by writing calmly about her brother, “The whole of my generation seems always to have worn, for the benefit of its parents, a personality not quite its own, and I often wonder if, in days to come, my own son and daughter will assume for me the same alien disguise.” Some top secret events are covered, apparently there was a local mutiny (“Battle of Ãtaples”) in France that the medical establishment was not allowed to mention in letters and which was mostly omitted from history.
After a stressful crossing and months of dismal misery nursing in England, she muses at the beginning of her chapter on arriving in sunny Mediterranean Malta about the “enlarged vitality” that war creates:
But I know that those things [in Malta] will never come back. I may see the rocks again, and smell the flowers, and watch the dawn sunshine chase the shadows from the old sulfur-consciousness of wartime, the glory seen by the enraptured ingenuous eyes of twenty-two, will be upon them no more. I am a girl no longer, and the world, for all its excitements of chosen work and individualistic play, has grown tame in comparison with Malta during those years of our anguish.
It it, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem–a problem still incompletely imagined, and still quite unsolved. The causes of war are always falsely represented; its honor is dishonest and its glory meretricious, but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-‘o-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality.
When the war ends, she limps back into civilian life, re-enters Oxford but finds a chasm between her and other students:
Obviously it wasn’t a popular thing to have been close to the War; patriots, especially of the female variety, were as much discredited in 1919 as in 1914 they had been honored, I reflected, making no effort to shut out the series of pictures that passed insistently through my mind–the dark, blurred spire of a Camberwell church at midnight–the Britannic lurching drunkenly through the golden, treacherous Archipelago–sun-drenched rocks and a telegram on a gorgeous May morning–Syracuse harbour and the plaintive notes of the “Last Post” testifying to heaven of the ravage of a harmless little “enemy” dying in the sticky morass of his own blood–the Great Push and a gassed procession of burned, gruesome faces–the long stone corridor of St. Jude’s where walked a ghost too dazed to feel the full fury of her own resentment–Millbank and the shattering guns announcing the Armistice. On the whole the “experience” of those four years didn’t seem exactly conducive to the development of a sense of humour– but perhaps I was prejudiced. No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism has “nothing to it,” and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidding into thinking it had. The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.
Life post war (1922-3), with regards to women voters:
During both General Elections, a good deal of space was given by nearly all newspapers to the demands of the recently enfranchised woman voter. Women, as such, had always possessed for the Press a peculiar fascination in which the opposite sex seemed inexplicably lacking, and though their publicity stock had fallen during the wartime preoccupation with “heroes,” it rose again directly after the War owing to the fact that, unlike men, they had inconsiderately failed to die in large numbers. The reason universally given for limiting the vote to women over thirty was that the complete enfranchisement of adult women would have meant a preponderant feminine vote.
This excessive female population was habitually described, none too flatteringly, as “superfluous,” although the teachers, nurses, doctors and Civil Servants of whom it was largely composed were far more socially valuable than many childless wives and numerous irresponsible married mothers. An agitation over the mere existence of so many unmated women began with the census revelations in the late summer of 1921, and during the “Silly Season” of that year their position became a favourite topic with the stunt Press, which publisheed innumerable articles on Equal Pay, Marriage versus Career, and the RIght to Motherhood
Rec’d by Linnea