Staff review by Chris Saliba
Vera Brittain's memoir of the First World War is enormously moving and tragic.
Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth is perhaps one of the most famous memoirs of the First World War. Published in 1933, it describes in intimate detail the tragedy, heartbreak and terrible human losses of that enormously destructive European war.
Before the war broke out in 1914, Brittain was studying English Literature at Oxford. Born in 1893, she was a young feminist who resisted the typical path women were expected to take. In 1915 she enlisted as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D) nurse and worked in Malta and close to the front in France. Part of the reason she volunteered for nursing was because her fiance Roland Leighton was serving at the front: if he suffered for the war effort, so would she.
Her war service would bring her into direct contact with the worst of war casualties. She would see death and appalling injuries right up to 1918, when the war ended. In the midst of this unending work she would lose those she loved most. Her fiance Roland, her brother Edward Brittain and two friends, Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. All died in the war.
Testament of Youth has a palpable sense of grief. What highlights the agony and terrible waste of it all is the extensive use of letters and diaries. Every aching moment is fully brought to life. This is a book that makes you feel what it must have been like to walk in Brittain’s shoes.
When the war ended, Brittain was numb with the pain of loss. She had no one left from her own generation to talk to or who could understood what she had gone through. The next generation after her, who hadn’t experienced the war as she had, were a foreign country. She often didn’t speak about the war to the older and younger generations because it brought out the anger in her.
Brittain would go on to find personal renewal in the pacifist movement, journalism and marriage. It seems a miracle that she did, after being broken so comprehensively by the war. Some books are genuine time machines, taking us back in time. Testament of Youth takes us back to one of history’s most hideous wars and describes the deep and lasting scars it left on the young generation who had to fight it.
Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9780349005928 RRP: $22.99
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