Twenty years old when World War One Began, Vera Brittain was a well-to-do first-year student at Oxford and very much in love with young Roland Leighton, a friend of her brother Edward. In her work, Testament of Youth , first published in 1933, she ably recounts the many horrors of the conflict, how she joined up as a nurse-assistant to keep her from somber thoughts after the dearest men in her life had gallantly, if somewhat naively, marched off to war. With the help of her diary and a collection of letters, she articulately reconstructs with precision the sentiments that drove her onward through the next four turbulent years of hell.
Vera Brittain must have suffered tremendously. She lost both her love Roland and her only brother Edward. She also lost her Victorian innocence; she deftly paints the transformation from girlhood easily abashed by discussions of an adult nature to war-scarred nurse who sees the best parts of men amputated and thrown into bloody waste piles. She studied History at Oxford after the war and found work in journalism. Due to the intense emotional upheaval that she underwent, it took her fifteen years to detach herself enough from the experience to document it. After the war, she would evolve slowly into a writer of some import, a political speaker and a champion of feminism with a highly intellectual voice. She was eerily insightful about the future, and her struggle to be both a career woman and a mother was as intense as her fight to maintain her sanity in the slaughterhouses of war-torn France. She honestly retells incidents of post-war bouts with insanity, where she pulls frantically at an imaginary beard that appears every time she looks in the mirror, a sure sign of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The book is articulate and detailed, so much so that we're left amazed that she so accurately reconstructed such implied hypothetical internal dialogues so many years after the events. If not a post-event concoction, she must have been an extraordinary woman.
The narration, though it has an important message to convey, is written in a style mean to curry favor with her former black-mantled dons of Oxford English. Get your like-named dictionaries ready for a steady assault of inanity with the likes of propinquity, asseverate, fecundity, propitiation, and supererogation. These verbal gymnastics are not assisted by consulting the OED since the enforced expansion of diction leaves an after-taste that far outlasts the intended message. Her style is frequently cumbersome and pedantic, and through intellectual snobbishness, accomplishes the complete opposite of what was intended; it bores rather than inspires. Expensive erudition, like nudity, should only be exposed in tantalizing glimpses until the desire for more has been stoked by careful degrees to full flame.
In comparison to other important works of the day that deal with the personal costs of the war, such as Hemmingway's A Farewell to Arms , it does not have the same emotional impact. Although her was a true account, his a work of fiction, Vera does not punch our lights out with her moving story mostly due to stylistic reasons. For example, a visual observer and reporter, she sees more concerned with the League of Nations delegates' descriptions of white fluffy eyebrows topped by Bromberg hats than the thoughts and explanations that took place behind them. Of the former we receive much and the latter none. Be prepared for many descriptions of purple and pink flowers set against lurid multicolored sunsets. As a result, we never get the much needed helicopter view of the wider events in which her life unravels.
Distractingly, she parades her erudition and horticultural knowledge in the style of grotesque Edwardian epaulettes-and-bededaled patriotism, making the reader painfully aware of her Oxford robes, copiously employing phrases of Latin, Greek, French, and German (all without translation!) , ten-dollar words, sprinklings of 'deep' poetry quotations (many of them curious her own), and asserts quite wrongly, that the reader is familiar with the terms of elitist English lives. It clouds and handicaps the emotional message which should give the writer cause to take up the pen and the reader the motivation to sift through the 650 page result. Unfortunate, because the work at times simply becomes a historical curiosity in which the background conveys more than the foreground. We became amused, not only by the fact that that a twenty-year old did not know the sexual functions of male and female bodies, but that it took her twelve pages of circumclocution to express it. In this regard, her writing is important only if to reflect the spirit of her times. Her Victorian morals were destructive to the individual in that they suppressed the expression of the beauty of human experience in which sex plays the leading role.
This is perhaps why Hemmingway succeeds with fiction while Vera only seconds with an arguably more qualifying truth. To skirt around truth with time-obscured euphemisms is to dance naked in the privacy of the bath and call it an orgy. Although deep and intrusive, there is no orgy of the senses in her work since it lacks a certain honesty needed to bridge the gap between souls. She is a product of her inhibited generation and my interest in the beginning contrast of her Victorian upbringing when single women were never on dates without a chaperone, compared to our age which permits young ladies to send nude pictures to prospective partners via the phone, is about the only reason that kept me reading the work. I kept wanting to know when she would finally be enlightened to the full details of sex.
She devotes many pages to ribald or suggestive anecdotes. Subconsciously her desires surface for air despite the conscious Victorian need to drown them. She remains frustratingly true to her buttoned-down class and never reveals what we thirst for, reminiscent of the contemporary sea-side bathers covered from head to toe in reams of Victorian swaddling and laced boots. The fruits of her strident feminism, and of the world's for that matter, would only arrive in digestible bites.
We can thank the wholesale slaughter of men, intellectuals and others, for creating the void so abhorrent to nature into which her great intellect poured. Her work provides sufficient proof that women are capable of producing the same level of progressive thought needed to propel and improve civilization, even in the face of the personal idiosyncrasies and foibles that face us all. Given the strength of the Victorian shackles her sex was burdened with, her achievements in advancing the cause of feminism are notable. She was one of the first carrying the banner, and like the millions of unprepared men asked to sacrifice themselves for no reward, she did the best we could expect of anyone in her times. It pains me to criticize such a historic milestone for the advancement of civilization, since it documents the ascendancy of feminism during and after WWI.
One can only be left to wonder, if her message had not been styled like so many fish-and-chips wrappers of Fleet Street whether she would have moved a larger audience than the few who trod the steps of the Bodleian and the ivied quadrangles of Oxford. It's an irony then that feminism originated from her class; the majority of men and women that she wished to affect would have been without the means to appreciate her work. Less exalted circumstances may have served her cause better. On the other hand, sometimes it was the men of her social strata greedily clutching the reins of power who most needed to be addressed in a manner that they expected before changes could take place. If this is the case, then her work would have been invaluable in its day.
As I closed her book I was left with the feeling that it was not the millions of people who had to die and be maimed beyond usefulness so that society could give birth to a new paradigm and point the way towards a brighter future, but their outdated ideas. Vera Brittain's experience during the First World War unequivocally illustrates, despite the damage they cause, how we are cling to them.