Women on the Shelf -Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

In launching the Women On The Shelf collaboration between the3rdi magazine and Glasgow Women’s Library it seemed only fair that I should introduce the concept and write the first review.

The project asks women from all walks of life to discuss a book which means something special to them. It doesn’t have to be drawn from classical literature, it can be fiction or non-fiction. The only criteria are that it should be written by a woman and that it is important to them in some way. We’re not looking for an academic review of the book but rather an understanding of why that book is important to the woman, what made it special in her life.

The book that sprang to mind for me was Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. Had it not been for the BBC I probably would never had read this book. I don’t read biographies, historical novels, war stories or, crucially, big books! In fact in re-visiting the book for this column, I’m amazed that I ever read a book of this size!

But in the late 1970’s the BBC dramatised the book for TV. There was something in the trailer that caught my eye. It was the image of the nurse standing at the railway station alone as the train stood at the station, exactly as reproduced on the cover of my edition of the book. And when I learned that Vera Brittain was the mother of a hero of mine, Shirley Williams, I had to read the book.

Testament of Youth is a powerful personal memoirs bearing witness to the horrors of the First World War through Vera Brittain’s first-hand experience as a volunteer nurse in England and on the Western Front and through the desolation and loss that was to affect a whole generation.

I a very real sense the war stole Vera’s innocence as well as her friends, she lost a brother, a fiance and two close friends, and her future. In fact the book starts with a fairystory where a woman, Catherine, is given a choice between a happy youth and a long-life and chooses the latter. At the end of the war Vera returned to her studies in Oxford and was devastated when younger students found her recollections of the war to be boring and records that “Why couldn’t a torpedo have finished me off. I’m nothing but a piece of wartime wreckage living ingloriously in a world that doesn’t want me.” It is against this background that Testament of Youth was written and it is clear that Vera feels she has made the same choice as Catherine. I remember finding her self pity and fondness of the melodramitic more than a little tiresome but I was impressed by her bravery.

She was always ready to act and to experience the horrors of war for herself. In this regard, she was the sort of young woman that I would have liked to be; there at the front rather than sitting at home growing vegetables or sewing uniforms. I was, you understand, in my late teens and had not long emerged from the phase that afflicts many a young girl – that of wanting to be a martyr, laying down my life for some just and noble cause or at the very least living a life of admirable poverty curing diseases in far flung corners of the empire.

I fancied myself as an idealist and, initially at least, I identified with young men marching to war in what they were sure was a just cause. But reading Testament of Youth and the war poems of Sassoon and Owen in particular which I discovered at about the same time opened my eyes to the truth of war Рthat death is often futile, mainly stupid, frequently needless and always, always a tragedy. Reading the book changed my worldview and sent me down the path of pacifism and confirmed in me a dislike of all things military, anything that is any way jingoistic and a mistrust of authority,  here exemplified by those nameless faceless individuals who send young men to war while sitting safe in their own homes.

Looking back I am even prepared to forgive her constantly feeling sorry fer herself and the feeling that she conveys that somehow the war was a tragedy just for her, or at least one that was much worse for her than anyone else who lived through it. I can now see that she was a very young woman when she experienced the horrors of war and still young when she put those experiences on paper. Taking a call which you expect to tell of the return of your fiance on leave only to find that it brings news of his death entitles you to be melodramatic.

The book was certainly an important one for me and while I think that there have been fuller commentaries on the horrors of war since, this very personal story still has something to say about the futility of war and, more importantly, the loss of innocence.

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In 1914 Vera Brittain was 21 years old, and an undergraduate student at Somerville College, Oxford. When war broke out in August of that year, Brittain “temporarily” disrupted her studies to enrol as a volunteer nurse, nursing casualties both in England and on the Western Front. The next four years were to cause a deep rupture in Brittain’s life, as she witnessed not only the horrors of war first hand, but also experienced the quadruple loss of her fianc√©, her brother, and two close friends. Testament of Youth is a powerfully written, unsentimental memoir which has continued to move and enthral readers since its first publication in 1933.

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