Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study Of The Years 1900-1925
On 28 August 1933, Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain’s classic memoir of the cataclysmic effect of the First World War on her generation, was published by Gollancz to a generally enthusiastic reception and brisk sales. ‘Oh what a head-cracking week . . .’, Brittain recorded in her diary, after reading the early reviews. ‘Never did I imagine that the Testament would inspire such praise at such length, or provoke – in smaller doses – so much abuse.’1 Lavish praise came from, among others, Rebecca West, Pamela Hinkson, Compton Mackenzie and John Brophy while, in the Sunday Times, Storm Jameson commented that ‘Miss Brittain has written a book which stands alone among books written by women about the war’.2 By the close of publication day, Testament of Youth had sold out its first printing of 3,000 copies, and was well on its way to becoming a bestseller. In Britain, up to the outbreak of the Second World War, it would sell 120,000 copies in twelve impressions. In the United States, where Macmillan published the book in October, and where Brittain was feted on a triumphant lecture-tour in the autumn of 1934, it enjoyed similar success. ‘Of all the personal narratives covering the World War period’, wrote R. L. Duffus in the New York Times, ‘there can surely have been none more honest, more revealing . . . or more heartbreakingly beautiful than this of Vera Brittain’s.’3
Several of the original reviewers, though, were unnerved by the autobiography’s frankness. James Agate struck a blow for misogyny when he wrote that it reminded him of a woman crying in the street. However, in her diary, Virginia Woolf expressed the more widespread response. Although she mocked Brittain’s story – ‘how she lost lover and brother, and dabbled hands in entrails, and was forever seeing the dead, and eating scraps, and sitting five on one WC’4 – she admitted that the book kept her out of bed until she had finished reading it, and later wrote to Brittain about how much Testament of Youth had interested her.5 Woolf’s interest in the connections that Brittain had ‘lit up’ for her between feminism and pacifism would leave its mark on the novel she was then writing that would eventually become The Years, and even more decisively on the radical analysis of Three Guineas.6
For Vera Brittain, the publication of Testament of Youth represented the crossing of a personal Rubicon. Approaching forty, she had at last passed from relative obscurity to the literary fame she had dreamed about since childhood, when as a girl she had written five ‘novels’ on waste-cuts from her father’s paper-mill. In the process she had exorcised her ‘brutal, poignant, insistent memories’7 of the war, releasing her deeply felt obligations to her war dead: her fiancé Roland Leighton, shot and fatally wounded at Christmas 1915; her brother Edward, killed in action on the Italian front just months before the Armistice; and her two closest male friends, Victor Richardson, shot through the head and blinded at Arras, who survived for a matter of weeks until June 1917, and Geoffrey Thurlow, killed in an attack on the Scarpe earlier that spring.
Brittain had been attempting to write about her experiences of the war, during which she had served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse in military hospitals in London, Malta, and close to the front line in France, for more than a decade. In 1922 she had selected and typed sections of the diary she had kept from 1913-1917, and submitted it for a prize offered by a firm of publishers for a personal diary or autobiography.8 It was not chosen, and in the course of the next few years she struggled with several unsuccessful attempts to write her war book as fiction. Having finally settled on the autobiographical form, with the intention of making her story ‘as truthful as history, but as readable as fiction’,9 she subsequently found her progress on the book impeded by all manner of domestic interruptions and tensions. Within weeks of beginning Testament of Youth, in November 1929, Brittain had unexpectedly discovered that she was pregnant with her second child, her daughter Shirley, born the following summer. In 1931, a year after Shirley’s birth, she wrote to her friend Winifred Holtby: ‘My “Testament of Youth”, if only I get the time . . . to do it properly, might be a great book. It is boiling in my mind and I shall become hysterical if I am prevented from getting down to it very much longer . . . If I am to continue sane I must have . . . a) rest from the children & house and b) freedom and suitable circumstances to continue my book’.10
By the middle of February 1933, she had completed her manuscript, but other problems soon became apparent. In the final stages leading to publication, she was confronted by the strong objections of her husband, the political scientist George Catlin, to his own appearance in the book’s last chapter. Catlin scrawled his comments in the margins of the typescript: ‘intolerable’, ‘horrible’, ‘pretty terrible’.11 Believing that his wife’s book would hold him up to ridicule among his academic colleagues – not least, one suspects, because of the account of the continuing importance to her of her intimate friendship with Winifred Holtby – he begged Brittain to make changes to certain passages, and prayed that ‘this spotlight’ would pass swiftly.12 She complied by reducing him to a more shadowy figure in the final draft, though she bitterly regretted that the theme of her post-war resurrection, symbolised by her marriage, had been irretrievably weakened.
Testament of Youth underwent its own remarkable resurgence in the late seventies, almost a decade after Brittain’s death. Brittain had been heartened by the assessment of Oliver Edwards (nom de plume of Sir William Haley) in The Times in 1964, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, that Testament of Youth was ‘the real war book of the women of England’. 13 However, she had believed in her final years that as a writer she was largely forgotten, and that any future interest in Testament of Youth would be of only a minor kind. She would certainly have been surprised by the extent of the book’s renewed success after it was reissued in 1978 by a feminist publishing house and adapted as a landmark BBC TV drama. Carmen Callil, head of the nascent Virago Press, found herself weeping while reading it on holiday in her native Australia, and back home propelled the book once more to the top of the bestseller lists; while the five-part television adaptation in 1979, with a luminous performance by Cheryl Campbell in the central role, and an intelligent script by Elaine Morgan, introduced Brittain’s story to a wider audience than ever before. It has never been out of print since.
Today, Testament of Youth is firmly enshrined in the canon of the literature of the First World War. It remains the most eloquent and moving expression of the suffering and bereavement inflicted by the 1914-18 conflict, as well as offering generally reliable testimony of a VAD serving with the British army overseas,14 together with a host of other aspects of the social conditions of the war as experienced by the English middle-classes. Furthermore, in writing her autobiography – or ‘autobiographical study’ as she preferred to call it – Vera Brittain was also contributing a chapter to the wider history of women’s emancipation in England. It has sometimes been overlooked that a little more than a third of Testament of Youth is concerned with Brittain’s account of her wartime experiences. Two chapters of almost a hundred pages precede the beginning of her narrative of the war, which describe Brittain’s attempts to escape the living death of her provincial young ladyhood and her personal struggles for education. Rebecca West saw this as ‘an interesting piece of social history, in its picture of the peculiarly unsatisfying position of women in England before the war’.15 And in the book’s final section, after the declaration of the Armistice in November 1918, and following the granting of the vote to women over thirty in February of that year (an event that passed unnoticed by Brittain at the time because of her absorption in her work as a nurse in France), Testament of Youth returns to feminist themes: to Brittain’s post-war involvement in equal-rights feminism, to her working partnership with her great friend Winifred Holtby and, finally, to her engagement to a survivor of the war generation, and the promise of a marriage that will be defined in feminist terms.
More insidiously, though, Brittain’s autobiography dramatises a conflict between a pre-war world of ‘rich materialism and tranquil comfort’ and the more liberated society that developed partly as a consequence of the war. Its avoidance of modernist idioms seems to underline this, while the autobiographical figure of Brittain herself embodies a central paradox: that though she proposes a form of egalitarian marriage and other radical reforms, and despite the fact that she envisages herself as a modern woman, she remains at heart a product of her Victorian bourgeois background.
For an understanding of Testament of Youth in a broader context, the book needs to be viewed as one of the large number of women’s autobiographies and biographical histories published in the twenties and thirties, which attempted to reconstruct and assess the pre-war period and the years between 1914 and 1918. Works like Beatrice Webb’s My Apprenticeship (1926), Ray Strachey’s The Cause (1928), Sylvia Pankhurst’s The Suffragette Movement (1931) and Helena Swanwick’s I Have Been Young (1935), adopted what had hitherto been a predominantly masculine form of writing in order to celebrate the achievements of women’s public lives. Vera Brittain, too, was concerned to place on record the unsung contribution of women to the war effort, though, ironically, much of the confidence and assurance of her autobiographical voice emanates from her passionate identification with her young male contemporaries and her experience of living vicariously through them. But in keeping with her fundamental belief in ‘the influence of worldwide events and movements upon the destinies of men and women’,16 she was also anxious to write history in terms of personal life, and to illustrate what she had come to regard as the inextricable connection between the personal and the political.17
The germ of the idea behind Testament of Youth can be traced back to March 1916, when Vera Brittain wrote to her brother Edward that ‘. . . if the War spares me, it will be my one aim to immortalise in a book the story of us four . . .’18 (her close friendship with Geoffrey Thurlow, the fifth member of her wartime circle, still lay in the future). The seventeen years between this statement and the appearance of her autobiography saw Brittain produce a bewildering number of fictional versions of her war experiences, some of which are preserved in the vast Brittain archive at McMaster University in Ontario.19 As early as the summer of 1918 – at the time when Brittain’s earliest published utterances about the war, her Verses of a V.A.D.,20 were just appearing – she was close to completing her first war novel. Variously entitled ‘The Pawn of Fate’ or ‘Folly’s Vineyard’, and drawn from her spell as a VAD at Étaples in northern France, it centred on a melodramatic plot involving a senior nursing sister, based on Faith Moulson, the sister in charge of the German ward where Brittain had nursed in 1917.
Fear of potential libel action led Brittain to put this manuscript aside, and when she returned to plans for a war novel in the early twenties, after the publication of two other works of fiction, The Dark Tide (1923) and Not Without Honour (1924), it was to a more broadly conceived book. The survival of a variety of incomplete novel drafts, together with references in Brittain’s correspondence to several similar projects that appear never to have materialised, indicates the extent of her confusion as to how best to commit her experiences to paper. ‘The Two Islands’ contrasts the ‘sombreness of the Grey Island’ (Britain) with ‘the brightness of the Gold’ (Malta, where Brittain had served 1916-17), but portrays the deepening of the shadow that war cast over both of them. The Roland Leighton character, Lawrence Sinclair, killed at Loos, is little more than a cipher. This is probably because Brittain was still wary of how his family, especially his dominating mother Marie, would react to his appearance in a book by her. However, one of Roland’s characteristics, as a poet, has been transposed to the brother figure, Gabriel, whose loudly proclaimed hatred of women, depicted in his preference for being nursed by male orderlies rather than pretty young VADs, is an extreme version of Brittain’s view of her own brother Edward.21 In ‘The Stranger Son’, another novel from the late twenties, Brittain makes a determined effort to write away from her direct experience through the character of Vincent Harlow who dramatises ‘the clash between the desire to serve one’s country, & the desire to be true to one’s belief that War is wrong’. But with ‘Youth’s Calvary’, she is entrenched in firmly autobiographical territory. Nominally it is still fiction, but surviving chapters show it to be a very close progenitor of Testament of Youth. Yet, without a first-hand narrative, and especially without the first-hand testimony provided by letters and diaries, ‘Youth’s Calvary’ altogether lacks the vivid immediacy of its famous successor.
Testament of Youth’s eventual appearance came at the tail-end of the boom in the war literature of disillusionment that began a decade after the Armistice with the publication in 1928 of Edmund Blunden’s autobiography, Undertones of War, and of Siegfried Sassoon’s skilfully fictionalised Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man. In 1929 the spate of war books had reached its numerical peak: twenty-nine were published that year, including the English translation of Erich Maria Remarque’s In Westen nichts Neues as All Quiet on the Western Front, which sold 250,000 copies in its first year, Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That, and Richard Aldington’s Death of a Hero.22
Vera Brittain made a close study of the war books of Blunden, Sassoon, and Graves, and they revived her own hopes of contributing to the genre. ‘I am reading “Undertones of War”’, she wrote at Christmas 1928; ‘grave, dignified, but perfectly simple and straightforward; why shouldn’t I write one like that?’23 Early in 1929 she went with Winifred Holtby to see R.C. Sherriff’s trench drama, Journey’s End, the theatrical hit of the season; and towards the end of that year, she reviewed Aldington’s Death of a Hero in Time and Tide, finding it to be ‘a devastating indictment of pre-war civilization, with its ignorance, its idiocies and its values even falser than those of today’.24
In none of these works, however, did Brittain find adequate acknowledgment of the role of women in the war; indeed, she attacked Aldington’s novel for its misogyny and for the way in which it poured a ‘cynical fury of scorn’ on the wartime suffering of women. It was obvious to her that no man, however sympathetic, would be able to speak for women.
The war was a phase of life in which women’s experience did differ vastly from men’s and I make no puerile claim to equality of suffering and service when I maintain that any picture of the war years is incomplete which omits those aspects that mainly concerned women . . . The woman is still silent who, by presenting the war in its true perspective in her own life, will illuminate its meaning afresh for its own generation.25
By the time she wrote those words, at the beginning of 1931, she had already embarked on her own book, and clearly intended to be that woman.
Of course, Testament of Youth was very far from being the only account by a woman of her wartime experience, though it remains the best known.26 A large number had been published both during the war and in the years since, and for some of these, like Mary Lee’s 1929 novel, It’s a Great War, written from an American standpoint, Brittain had expressed warm words of commendation. She would also later read, ‘with deep interest and sympathy’, Irene Rathbone’s novel, We That Were Young (1932), based on Rathbone’s own experiences as a VAD, like Brittain, at the 1st London General Hospital in Camberwell. It conveyed, as no other book had done to date, the full horror of nursing the mutilated and wounded.27 In the later stages of writing Testament of Youth in the summer of 1932, Brittain was concerned that Ruth Holland’s recently published novel, The Lost Generation, anticipated her own theme. Overall it is difficult to avoid the impression that Brittain wanted to perpetuate the idea that hers was the one work about the war by a woman that mattered. 28 On the other hand, none of these other books are of comparable stature to Testament of Youth, lacking its range and narrative power. As Winifred Holtby wrote on one occasion when Brittain needed particular reassurance, ‘Personally, I’m not in the least afraid of other people’s books being like yours. What other woman writing has both your experience and your political training?’29
However, it is the men in Vera Brittain’s story who typify the central founding myth on which Testament of Youth is based. Although in the early stages of the book’s evolution she claimed to be writing for her generation of women, she was subsequently to expand her claim to include her generation of both sexes.30 Certainly, nothing else in the literature of the First World War charts so clearly the path leading from the erosion of innocence, with the destruction of the public schoolboys’ heroic illusions, to the survivors’ final disillusionment that the sacrifice of the dead had been in vain. Testament of Youth is the locus classicus of the myth of the lost generation, and it is important to understand why this should be so. Brittain’s male friends were representative of the subalterns who went straight from their public schools or Oxbridge, in the early period of the war, to the killing fields of Flanders and France. As a demographic class these junior officers show mortality rates significantly higher than those of other officers or of the army as a whole. Uppingham School, where three of Brittain’s circle were educated, lost about one in five of every old boy that served. The Bishop of Malvern, dedicating the war memorial at another public school, Malvern College, said that the loss of former pupils in the war ‘can only be described as the wiping out of a generation’.31 The existence of a lost generation is not literally true, and is entirely unsupported by the statistical evidence; 32 but, given the disproportionate death rate among junior officers, it is perhaps no wonder that Brittain believed that ‘the finest flowers of English manhood had been plucked from a whole generation’. Robert Wohl has shown how this cult of a missing generation provided ‘an important self-image for the survivors from within the educated elite and a psychologically satisfying and perhaps even necessary explanation of what happened to them after the war’.33
Vera Brittain had another aim in writing her book: to warn the next generation of the danger of succumbing out of naïve idealism to the false glamour of war. This gives Testament of Youth a significant difference of tone that sets it apart from the work of the war’s male memoirists. Whereas a writer like Edmund Blunden tries to evoke the senselessness and confusion of trench warfare by revealing the depth of the war’s ironic cruelty, Brittain, contrastingly, tries to provide a reasoned exposition of why the war had occurred and how war in the future might be averted. The publication of Testament of Youth at the end of August 1933 exactly matched the mood of international foreboding. It was the year in which Hitler had become chancellor of Germany, the Japanese had renewed their attack on Manchuria, and there had been difficulties over negotiations for disarmament at the League of Nations in Geneva. As a result, parallels between the tense world situation and the weeks leading up to the outbreak of war in 1914 were endemic in the press. Yet while Brittain often referred to Testament of Youth as her ‘vehement protest against war’, she was, at the time of writing it, still several years away from declaring herself a pacifist. In 1933, as the final chapters of her autobiography show, she clung to the fading promise of an internationalist solution as represented by the League of Nations. However, the process of writing her book undoubtedly hastened her transition to pacifism in 1937, for looking back at the tumultuous events of her youth, she could for the first time separate her respect for the heroism and endurance of her male friends from the issue of what they had actually been fighting for.
Testament of Youth has been so often adduced as an historical source in studies of the First World War that it might be easy to forget that it is not history but autobiography and, moreover, autobiography that at a number of points uses novelistic devices of suspense and romance to heighten reality. This is particularly true of Brittain’s treatment of her relationship with Roland Leighton, where rather than dealing with the complex web of emotions that existed on both sides she creates a conventional love story. She had carefully researched the background to the war in historical records, like the Annual Register and in the collections of the British Red Cross Society and the Imperial War Museum, and also employed a patchwork of letters and diaries to bring the characters of her major protagonists alive, which provide the backbone of the finished book. But she was fearful of ‘numerous inaccuracies through queer tricks of memory’,34 and inevitably some mistakes slipped through the net. Her narrative of the period she had spent as a VAD at the 24 General at Etaples, from August 1917 to April 1918, does not possess the reliability of precise chronology and detail of earlier parts of Testament of Youth. She had ceased to keep a diary after returning from Malta in May 1917, and had only some letters to her mother, a few rushed notes to Edward, and a sometimes hazy recollection of events some fifteen years or so after they had taken place. For her – highly inaccurate – description of the Etaples mutiny, which had occurred in September 1917 while she was at the camp, she had been forced to rely on little more than the memory of Harry Pearson, an ex-soldier and friend of Winifred Holtby, who had had no direct involvement in the events either.35
The publication of Vera Brittain’s wartime diaries and correspondence has revealed the extent of the complexity and ambivalence underlying her contemporary responses to the war. The evidence of these private records demonstrates that while at times she could rail against the war with anger and distress, at others she took refuge in a consolatory rhetoric rooted in traditional values of patriotism, sacrifice and idealism of the kind espoused by the wartime propaganda of both Church and State, or the sonnets of Rupert Brooke. In her letters written after Roland’s death, for instance, her need to continue believing that the war was being fought for some worthwhile end – manifest in such gung-ho sentiments as, ‘It is a great thing to live in these tremendous times’,36 or her conviction that war is an immense purgation37 – is perhaps entirely understandable. But equally, in Testament of Youth, it is not surprising to find that this kind of ambivalence is largely absent, and that Brittain is reluctant to confront her own susceptibility as a younger woman to the glamour of war, and unwilling to probe too deeply the roots of her own idealism in 1914.38 For by the time she had completed her autobiography, Vera Brittain was ready to reject anything that identified war ‘with grey crosses, and supreme sacrifices, and red poppies blowing against a serene blue sky’.39
In 1989, while writing Vera Brittain’s biography, I travelled to the Somme to pay a visit to Roland Leighton’s grave at Louvencourt. Our party of four, including two of Vera Brittain’s grandchildren, spent the night in Albert, at the Hotel de la Paix, where Brittain herself had lunched in July 1933 during the second of her two visits to the cemetery where Roland was buried; and the next morning, which happened to be Remembrance Sunday, we made the hilly drive to Louvencourt. On the south-east side of the village, a large stone cross dominates the skyline, surrounded by acres of tranquil farmland. It is a small cemetery, of 151 Commonwealth and 76 French graves, beautifully cared for, as are all the military cemeteries of the First World War, by the Commonwealth Graves Commission. Roland’s grave is in the middle, not far from the memorial cross and cenotaph, and its inscription includes the closing line from W.E. Henley’s ‘Echoes: XLII’, ‘Never Goodbye’.
I found the visitors’ book in a little cupboard in the wall. Among its messages, I counted no fewer than ten people from around the world who, in the period of just two months, had come to this relatively out of the way area of the Somme in order to pay tribute to Roland Leighton – and to pay tribute to him because they had read about his brief life and early death in Testament of Youth. As Shirley Williams, Vera Brittain’s daughter, says in her preface, it is a precious sort of immortality.
More than seventy years after its first publication, Testament of Youth’s power to disturb and to move remains undiminished.40 Vera Brittain’s ‘passionate plea for peace’, which attempts to show ‘without any polite disguise, the agony of war to the individual and its destructiveness to the human race’,41 is one that, tragically, still resonates in our world today.
London, February 2004
London, February 2004
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