Thursday, July 5, 2018

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth
Vera Brittain
Published 1933
It was a read-along, started on Twitter, by Jillian.


A young woman's coming of age experience is shattered and transfigured over night by World War I. This is the passionate, true story of Vera Brittain, who fought to further her education at Oxford, only to postpone her attendance to serve as a volunteer nurse during the Great War. In only a few short years, she had experienced traumatic suffering, sacrifice, and loss, which altered her life mission forever. She wrote in order to share her story and the story of her generation.

Vera Brittain


This story is well-written, though at times slightly wordy; nonetheless, Brittain tells a captivating story, 600+ pages long. The reader will sense her bitterness towards the stifling expectations of her time, especially the traditions of her parents and their generation. Brittain was never meant to fit or follow those customs. She was born before her time and blazing her own trail.

It may seem obviously outlandish to 21st-century readers, but for Brittain's generation, and more specifically for provincial young ladies, such as herself, marriage and motherhood were supposed to be her only options for the future. But she fought the status quo and won her chance to enter Oxford, though many doubted her success.

Then WWI began. Brittain referenced her journal to retell the events of the War as they occurred in her time. Her brother and his friends, including one young man whom she developed a romantic relationship, patriotically went off to fight for England. Determined to sacrifice herself for her country, Brittain also left Oxford and volunteered as a nurse.

She was stationed in England, Malta, and France (even close to the front line - as per her request), and experienced the ravages of war. She lost her fiancé, two other male friends, and finally, her brother. It devastated her conscience and transformed her life course.

After the War, Brittain was understandably discouraged and bitter about life and the world. She reluctantly completed her education at Oxford, focusing on history, and soon after, worked as a journalist and became a speaker for the newly formed League of Nations. She also struggled as a frustrated novelist. She secured a best friend, who lovingly reminded her of her brother and fiancé; and she also gained a romantic admirer, attracted to her intellect, whom she committed herself to marriage.

For the remainder of the story (which ends in 1925), Brittain wrote about her fervent development of socialist ideals and the ambitious quest to end war for good and maintain peace in the world.

The men Vera loved (L to R: her brother, fiancé, and friend)


Brittain's story resonated with me because I like to know people on a personal level where I can better understand why they think the way that they do, whether I agree with them or not.

Her story reminded me of my mother's story (who was a young girl during World War II). She, too, desired to attend college; yet even in 1960s America, her parents never heard of such an idea. Instead, she was sent to work . . . to help pay for her brother's college tuition. This unjust decision burns my mother even today.

It was not until her marriage that she put herself through community college, to at least obtain an associate's degree. And my grandparents still thought her behavior outrageous, especially as a wife and young mother. But they were of a different time, and lived with different life experiences, just as Brittain's parents and their peers did. Future generations often look back on previous generations as primitive and benighted.

One looming question Brittain often asked was this (in my words): How are women to find satisfaction in education and fulfilling careers, yet, still make room for marriage and motherhood? In her words:
Could marriage and motherhood be combined with real success in an art or profession? If it couldn't, which was to suffer -- the profession or the human race?
This is an essential question for women even today because, yes, finding time for a successful career is time-consuming. But more women are doing this today, completing college and developing a career; yet, the truth is, adding a husband and children complicates everything. Or dare I say . . . pursing education and a career complicate marriage and family? I guess it depends on your priorities.

Not all women want to pursue education or career, as some are just as desirous to focus solely on family; hence, the human race will go on regardless; but, in truth, I think more are doing it all, though something is suffering -- if not the career, then the family, and if not those, then the woman is burdening herself beyond her control, which is the frustrating struggle of a woman's life, as Brittain identified.

Brittain also understood that marriage was an emotional risk, something she was not willing to experience, given the pain she had endured during the years of the War. She admitted that women do desire male companionship, including intellectual and romantic, but marriage is certainly a risk. I cannot repeat that enough. Even Scripture says (again, my words): singleness is good, but if you cannot remain single, get married (though this is in reference to spreading the gospel).

Now, other hot topics included nationalism, patriotism, heroism, and pacifism. Brittain believed that a world organization of leaders would solve the war problem by reigning in man's desire for control, conquest, and possession. That is why she adopted the socialist ideology because they claimed to have the answer to ending war, poverty, and inequality -- issues closest to her heart.

But she soon learned that the League of Nations was full of hot air. Sadly, I am not sure (yet) she discovered that Socialists have their own desires for control and power because, in all of human history, small groups of men always gain power over and control the masses. It does not matter what label is given their ideology; they always make similar promises, and the end result is always misery for everyone else. She quotes Ecclesiastes:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter. 
Furthermore, I disagree that patriotism is what causes war, although Brittain may have switched patriotism and nationalism. She may have clarified that patriotism was used to fuel men to rise up and fight for their country. Patriotism -- a love of one's own country -- is good and healthy for citizens; but nationalism, in which greedy, power-hungry men, who seek to dominate because they have a higher view of their place in the world over others, is dangerous and does cause war. I believe Brittain did discuss that her generation was duped into patriotism when it had nothing to do with the War.

As for heroism, Brittain found it unnecessary and reckless; but I disagree. Heroes conquer fear and confront evil; heroes stand for righteousness. Heroes risk their lives for the weak. And this is even more prevalent in men because they are designed by God to be protectors of their homes and families.

However, the fact that saddened me the most is the author's spiritual hopelessness in the future. Unfortunately, Brittain's parents did not train up Vera and her brother in the knowledge of Christ. She had zero hope in the resurrection and everlasting life. She did not know the Lord.
And then I remembered, with a startling sense of relief, that there was no resurrection to complicate the changing relationships forced upon men and women by the sheer passage of earthly time. There was only a brief interval between darkness and darkness in which to fulfill obligations, both to individuals and society, which could not be postponed to the comfortable futurity of a compensating heaven. 
Why do I bring this up? Because she talked about this a lot. It was a source of bitterness for her, as if she knew there was a God, but she was really angry with Him. Everyone suffers to some degree in this life because there is a purpose and point to suffering. Brittain begrudged her parents generation because they enjoyed a seemingly peaceful world; but her own coming of age was shattered with war and political upheaval.
The middle-aged and the old had known their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled.
No, it was not fair; but if she had any understanding of the way of the world, she may have better understood that it really was not about her or her generation, that much of it was out of her control, and that war was and is always to be because of sin and wickedness that abounds on earth, which began at the very beginning of time, in the Garden.
. . . but at least I can begin by trying to understand where humanity failed and civilisation went wrong.
Her hope was in man-made solutions, which also makes me sad because man is utterly corruptible. Man will never have peace on this earth, so long as he is at war with God in his heart.
We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence; our lives, and our children's lives, will be rational, balanced, well-proportioned, to exactly the extent that we recognise this fundamental truth. 
So when you combine a group of godless men and call them the League of Nations, or the U.N., or have leaders sign peace treaties, they are only temporary fixes to the world's problems. But Brittain could not known this because her hope was solely in man.

By the way, while I hate war, I also strongly believe that God does permit men to go to war, especially to restrain evil, even if it means a loss of life. Hence, I am curious what Brittain's opinion was of World War II and if she ever wrote about it.

There is much more to this story, so many struggles and conflicts on this personal journey. Brittain is very raw and truthful about her youthful ignorance and emotional disappointments. I know I had a lot of disagreements with the author, but I absolutely appreciated this momentous work of insight and discovery. No one can discount her experiences; this is her unique story.
The demonstration would not . . . be easy; for me and my contemporaries our old enemies -- the Victorian tradition of womanhood, a carefully trained conscience, a sheltered youth, an imperfect education, loss of time, blasted years -- were still there and always would be; we seemed to be forever slaying them, and they to be forever rising again.

If you enjoy biographies, stories about World War I, especially in a woman's voice, and particularly prefer works on early feminism and pacifism, this is an essential story for you. There is also an intellectual feel about the work, and a sweet romance that blossoms in the early part of the story. But beware because it is heart-wrenchingly devastating, though there is a sense of recuperation at its end.
In one sense, I was my war, my war was I; without it I should do nothing and be nothing. If marriage made the whole fight harder, so much the better; it would become part of my war and as this I would face it, and show that, however stubborn any domestic problem, a lasting solution could be found if only men and women would seek it together. 


Anonymous said...

Very well written review, Ruth. I'm adding this to my TBR list. It was sad that Brittain could not have learned to lean on God, to know that He is the only constant that won't change, unlike Man.

I'm interested in her questions and thoughts on women, family, and careers. It's almost 100 years later and this question has never been answered. I didn't realize this debate was that old; I thought it was a modern concern. Why is it that only women have to ask themselves this question, not men?

Jillian said...

Hi Ruth! I'm SO GLAD you read this, & that we now share this book. I love your thoughts. To your point about WWII, yes, she did write about it. Testament of Youth is the first in a trilogy. The third book (Testament of Experience) covers 1925-1950. I haven't read it yet, but I'm certain it covers her experience in marriage and motherhood, as well as international affairs, including World War II. The second in the trilogy (Testament of Friendship) covers 1925-1935. I've just finished it, and she does mention the growing tension and how disheartening it was to see the war returning. (By the way, I found Testament of Friendship just beautiful.)

She also wrote (in 1941) a book called England's Hour, which was about her personal experience of the bombings in London. She was separated from her children during the Blitz. Her war diary from 1939-1945 has also been published. In One Voice: Pacifist Writings from the Second World War, she pleads for pacifism during the Second World War. She was blackballed in America and England during the Second World War for pleading for pacifism, but she held her ground.

I believe she was raised in the church. (I'm guessing Anglican, but I don't know offhand.) She often went to church. She has written a few times that she began to lose faith when she read the novel Robert Elsemere (which was likely around the time Testament of Youth opens, 1913 or so.) According to the biography by Mark Bostridge, by the end of her life, she considered herself a Christian.

Again, I'm SO GLAD you read this. I knew you'd like it. I guessed you wouldn't agree with all of her political ideas, but that you'd appreciate her strength nonetheless. :)

Her husband (G of the book) was a corker. She told him flat out she would be putting her work first, and he was cool with it! In the 1920s! And whenever they didn't have money for a housekeeper, he helped her clean the house because he said he couldn't start his writing until his wife could. Good guy.

Look at them:

Lovely. x

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Jillian, for providing the titles of the other books in the trilogy. I'm adding those to my TBR list as well.

Jillian said...

You're welcome! :)

Lois Tinúviel said...

I've been meaning to read this. I watched the movie a couple years ago and really enjoyed it but as always I know the book has so much more to say than the movie.

cirtnecce said...

I am so glad you liked it!! This book is really something else and I agree with you that the questions she raises are on career and marriage as are pertinent today as before! I too think she was trained to believe in God and Church but I also feel, the World War. which was the first kind of a world wide destruction with use of chemical weapons and lasting for years, kind of shook the faith, not only for Ms. Brittain but for many of her generation. I know faith should be stronger but I guess the circumstances and the constant presence of death, all around her, may have been unnerving. Anyhow,I am so glad Jillian introduced me to this book and you enjoyed it! P.S. I think your Mum was awesome to go back to school and get a degree after managing a home! Very Inspiring!

Ruth said...

Definitely, this is a worthwhile read.

I think the reason women have to answer this question is because they care about these things the most. Women want purpose, satisfaction, to be creative and successful, too, and it is easy to feel like they are not contributing when they are sitting at home w/ babies all day long. They are caught in a conundrum of wanting to feel personal success, while raising children, caring for a husband, and managing a house, which is all very natural. It does not seem fair when the man thinks all he has to do is go to work (where he gets his own needs met) and bring home a paycheck, while she is being pulled in so many directions, feeling unable to satisfy them.

Women do have choices to make, but it is not any easier today just because they can do it all. Now we may pursue our interests, but we also know that other things will suffer. Men don't understand these burdens b/c they don't have the babies, and they don't have what women have when it comes to caring for children. I can't explain it, but they just aren't as good as us when it comes to nurturing babies. They are better at other things, but we just have different bonds w/ our babies, and it affects our focus and pursuits.

Sorry, that was long, and I could have gone longer, but that was just my opinion.

Ruth said...

Thank you for encouraging me to move this up on my TBR bc I love books just like this, and I am going to finish the trilogy. I have to find out what happens to her, and I am interested in her position on WWII. (Hitler needed to be stopped, and unfortunately, pacifism did not work.)

I did figure that her parents raised her in the Anglican tradition, but that's all it was; not to teach truth, but tradition, which leads to emptiness. It made me sad to hear her brother write that he rather be dead than lose his sight; and there was something else really important that he said about it, which pointed to his lack of knowledge in God. I underlined it, but I don't have the book in front of me right now.

I caught that about husband -- he was made for her -- he was a man before his time, too.

So I'll be looking up the other two books soon. Very curious to see her evolution through her world.

Ruth said...

I watched the movie a couple of years ago, and I barely remember the ending. Everything else escapes my mind. The book is SOOOOO different and deeper and, obviously for me, much more memorable.

Ruth said...

Yep, it was a great read. Very engaging. : )

What made me upset w/ her parents: they probably put more effort into training up their kids in the traditions of the church as opposed to learning truth. So they knew the dogma and rules, but they didn't know what or why. When they were faced w/ the horrors they experienced, they could only guess what it meant or what would happen. It's enough to make anyone feel angry and bitter toward religion.