Testament of Youth has had a hold on my heart since the first time I watched the beautifully haunting film. Something about the tragedy and pathos of the story resonates so deeply in me.
I believe Vera Brittain’s WWI memoir is meant to have that affect on one. There’s good reason for why this book was proclaimed the “voice of a generation.” Britain’s recollection of her war years as a determined young women at Oxford, a passionate and sweet fiancé, and as a broken war nurse, give voice to the horrors the “silent generation” witnessed.
The utter tragedy of her story speaks to the horror of war – a horror that steals youth, innocence, and life.
Her intelligent, yet poetically inclined, writing style reveals much of Brittain’s personality. In reading her writing I felt as if I was with her at Oxford, in pretentious Buxton, and in war-ridden France. Although her writing is not as emotional as some is, one could grasp the pathos of her story from her descriptions. I found myself crying more than once.
Her addition of her former fiancé’s poetry, and her own, was very stirring and thought provoking. (I still can’t read Roland Leighten’s Villanelle without my eyes filling with water. Seriously, if I even here the soundtrack piece from this moment in the movie, tears start running down my face. If you’ve seen the movie, you know they use this poem in such an evocative emotional, brilliant, way.)
One image that particularly remained with me was one of Brittain, as an exhausted, heart broken VAD (volunteer nurse) in France at the arrival of the Americans. To understand the poignancy of this moment, one has to understand all the trauma she has endured prior. After three years of war, and the loss of those dear to her, she had begun to wonder if the war would ever end. The arrival of the Americans signified hope, and a nearer end to the death and decay.
“An uncontrollable emotion seized me – as such emotions often seized us in those days of insufficient sleep; my eyeballs pricked, my throat ached, and a mist swam over the confident Americans going to the front. The coming of relief made me realize all at once how long and how intolerable had been the tension, and with the knowledge that we were not, after all, defeated, I found myself beginning to cry.”Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain
In all that I learned from Brittain’s harrowing memoir about war and its consequences, I found some of her conclusions lacking.
For someone who had lost everyone, literally everyone, who mattered to her, Brittain did not believe that life continued after death. As a secular author, I did not expect her beliefs about the afterlife to mirror my own, however for such a passionate plea to remember the dead, her idea that death is the final end, nothing is beyond, seemed hollow to me – a solution that does not provide either a genuine answer or true comfort.
Perhaps it was the devastation she witnessed that brought her to this conclusion, as she did believe life went on after death in the beginning of her memoir. Grief alters people, and their beliefs for better or worse.
Some of Brittain’s feminist beliefs were problematic for me as well. Not so much women’s suffrage, the right to a career, or the right to a degree, I’m all for those! But the most glaring issue for me was her idea that her career and the legacy she left behind there, was more important than the legacy she left in her children. However, one cannot see the eternal value of one’s work in a child’s life if one view’s death as the final end.
Her later political convictions of pacifism, while I completely understand why she held them (how could one not after such losses?), do not sit well with me. As horrible as war is, there are some wars that cannot be avoided. However, she has a point in believing war is not always necessary. WWI certainly could have been avoided. (Did you know historians say that WWI was the most avoidable war in history? There are over a thousand instances in which it could’ve been prevented. But politicians wanted the war, and thus it erupted and devastated the world, particularly Europe, in a way it had never seen before. She’s right, there are no good moral reasons for WWI and that is where its’s tragedy lies. Why steal lives, for the sake of nationalism or militarism?) *wow that was a long rantish parentheses. sorry ’bout that*
I did also wish that Brittain’s relationship with her husband had been expounded on more, as her marriage to him was so significant in her embracing life after her tragedies.
A complaint I had about the book itself was the lack of footnotes. There were some historical events and politicians Brittain expected her reader’s to know, that I myself had no knowledge of. This didn’t really take away from my enjoyment of the book, or what I gleaned from it, but some context might have been nice in certain instances.
All of this said, Testament of Youth is an extremely important work of literature. Although it is most definitely one of the most tragic stories I have come across, it sorrow makes it all the more vital. Britain’s detailed account of her youth, and the youth of her fiancé (Roland Leighton), brother (Edward Brittain), and other friends, with all its joys, trials, and deviations, speaks of a generation that was robbed of its something precious. It testifies to the confusion and devastation of war more poignantly than many of the books I have read.
I can’t begin to express the sorrow, the horror, the sympathy, the passion this book puts in me. All war is terrible, but something about WWI is so woefully tragic, so plaintive, that I cannot help but weep over this catastrophe that occurred a hundred years ago.
At its heart, Testament of Youth is a woman’s requiem for the stolen lives of those she loved, as well as of all the WWI youth, and a passionate plea to never allow such devastation to occur again.
They’ll want to forget you. They’ll want me to forget. But I can’t. I won’t. This is my promise to you now. All of you.Testament of Youth (2015)
We, whom the storm-winds battered, come again
Like strangers to the places we have known,
who sought men’s understanding all in vain
For harder hearts to grief’s dark image grown;
So, passing through the careless crowd alone,
Ghosts of a time no future can restore,
We desolately roam for evermore
An empty shore.
For us they live till life itself shall end,
The frailties and the follies of those years,
Their strength which only pride of loss could lend,
Their vanished hopes, their sorrows and their tears;
But slowly towards the verge the dim sky clears,
For nobler men may yet redeem our clay
When we and war together, one wise day,
Have passed away.Vera Brittain, 1933
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