Posted in #20 Books of Summer 2016, Book Review, Books I have read

Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain #20Booksofsummer

Book 15

Non-Fiction 3*s

An alternately moving and exasperating memoir written by a woman who moved from childhood to adulthood during the lead up to World War I, this book published in 1933 uses her diaries and letters from that time to give us a picture of what the realities of war meant for a young woman of her generation.

The book opens with Vera’s desperation to go to Oxford despite her family’s, particularly her father’s objection to this course at odds with the opportunity to study being freely offered to her brother, Edward. It is exceptionally hard to picture a life of the fairly privileged, intelligent and inquisitive Edwardian young lady whose life was still mapped out by the strictures of the Victorian Era. Funny also to read her comparison to the young people of the day when she was writing this memoir who she viewed with envy for the freedom offered to them. Of course from my perspective the generation she envied for the easiness of their lives; the freedom to court without chaperones, to receive degrees even as women and to be employed despite being married, appears to be wildly exaggerated compared to the freedoms we have nowadays. This is just one example of why I’m glad I finally made time to read this book as it demonstrates how feminism wasn’t one wild gallop to get the vote, the struggle was long and incremental and yet women like Vera appreciated the progress made towards a better future.

The book covers Vera’s coming down from Oxford to join the VADs nursing in England, Malta and France throughout the war whilst she simultaneously worried about her brother and her friends fighting in the conflict which as the war progressed she began to hate with a vengeance for its waste of life at the behest of political masters. She saw through the treaties for the young to become heroes to give up their futures for egos. She also records one of the rarely recorded views of the older generation, those who had to live without servants for the first time in their lives, the men and women who had given their children to the fight both on the battlefields and to other war-work thereby forgoing the previous right to call on their unmarried daughters when required.

Following the end of the War Vera retakes her position at Oxford this time to study History rather than English becoming ever more interested in international politics which I’m regretful to report I found in the main a struggle to read as they referenced matters that my knowledge simply wasn’t great enough for me to fully appreciate. With my interest far more keen on the politics relating to women’s lives, this section wasn’t a complete right-off as the considerations proposed for women during the War were under attack following the conclusion of it – to have these put into wider context was enlightening.

My exasperation with the book was in part with her condescending tone which covered whole swaths of the population; the locals from her teens, those women who wanted to seize life rather than study or grieve, those who hadn’t worked through the war because they were too young, men, in general who weren’t her brother or her friend etc. etc. and whilst some of the earlier sections can be considered a faithful recording of her younger self, this continual holding herself up as a paragon of one whose life has been more meaningful than those that didn’t share her experiences, her political ambitions or her daily preoccupation with being taken seriously by everyone got a little wearing.

This is a huge book at over 600 wordy pages with parts, such as the experiences of nursing during the war that I found exceptionally interesting and poignant and those latter pages which detail her work with the League of Nations that frankly I found less so. That said, with a book full of detailed accounts of life before, during and after the war I felt that I truly put flesh on the bones of what I understood life to be like in the UK during this time and even more when right at the end of the book Vera and her friend Winifred take a tour of Europe to have a taste of what those nations lives looked like a decade after the war started compelling reading.

A worthwhile book to read and one that although this short review merely highlights a small proportion of its content, has broadened my knowledge of the time period, albeit for one section of society in particular. At times desperately sad and a reminder of quite what an entire generation went through in the hopes of forging a better future at others I was cheering Vera on with her ambition to make the world a better place. Sadly my overall feeling when I reached the end was discomfort as I couldn’t help but consider Vera’s hopes for peace were to be dashed with the Second World War already looming on the horizon at the time of publication.

First Published UK: August 1933
Publisher: Virago
No of Pages 640
Genre: Non-Fiction (Memoir)
Amazon UK
Amazon US


A book lover who clearly has issues as obsessed with crime despite leading a respectable life

28 thoughts on “Testament of Youth – Vera Brittain #20Booksofsummer

  1. Really interesting, Cleo! You make a well-taken point, too, that feminism hasn’t just been about one incident or one person. It’s about progress – incremental progress – over time. I know what you mean about that condescending tone. Still, it sounds like a fascinating look at an era.

    1. It is great for the bits that I knew enough about for it to add to my knowledge, sadly my interest waned somewhat towards the end of the book where it was far more about the politics at the level of politicians rather than the general population. That said what I gained from the bits I enjoyed was outstanding.

  2. Fantastic review! I agree with your point about the condescending tone…it sneaks in sometimes, even with my favourites such as Woolf. If you are interested, there is a wonderful collection of letters between Brittain , her brother, fiance, and family friend during WW1, which I reviewed as part of a themed week to commemorate the anniversary of the Somme

    1. Thank you for your kind words and for pointing me in the direction of the collection of letters. I was most interested in the lives of these four young men (and Vera herself of course) and some of the excerpts in the book bought home the horror of war far more clearly than any textbook has ever done.

  3. Excellent review. As much as we wish today’s tone and opinions were always present, they weren’t. Just as you pointed out so well with feminism, today’s “don’t judge” feelings came to the fore slowly–especially in the middle and upper classes. That said, yours is one of the best reviews I’ve read on this book. Well done!

    1. Thank you of course today is very different than when Vera was writing this book and her views are just that, her views – but I have a feeling she would have thought the more modern generations terribly frivolous!! You are too kind – there was far too much in this book to cover without writing an essay!!

    1. Thank you Ann Marie – it sounds like she was a very competent nurse (although she seemed to be excellent at everything) but she did have lots to say about the management of hospitals at the time but then I suppose nursing dying men in field hospitals is an entirely different experience.

  4. I haven’t read the book yet so I was interested to see why you found it exasperating (and now I understand–she was a woman of firm opinions.) I saw the old miniseries some time ago and loved it.

    1. She was a woman both of firm opinions and fierce intellect and wasn’t afraid to share either with her readers – that said there were parts of this book which were outstanding and depending what period we were in and where Vera’s focus was had an impact on my enjoyment.

  5. It is fascinating to note that progress has been slow….and in my experience, even in the 1960s and 1970s in the US, there were obstacles for women, especially from males in authority. Thanks for sharing.

    1. It was good to have a view of feminism at this time, presumably because such great strides had been made in a relatively short space of time Vera was approving although scathing of the politicians who tried to rescind on promises made during the war.

  6. Great review. I think this is a fascinating book. For me, her account of the war years is the most outstanding in this book, the most personal and vivid. Like you I struggled with the section after the war – it’s more detached, the language in that section is more formal and so does not come across as fresh and immediate as in those on her childhood and war years. And I agree that it’s a worthwhile book to read, highlighting the appalling and devastating events of the War – just heart-breaking.

    1. I was really torn about this books, parts as you say made for outstanding reading whilst other parts held had me minimally interested – it is certainly a book that will stay with me and one that has helped to put some of the history in better context.

  7. I loved this book, though I think I too found the section after the war less enthralling. Overall it’s a fantastic portrayal of an extraordinary time in Europe, and the challenges and tragedies it brought.

    1. It has without a doubt enriched my knowledge, even in the last section. The part where the two women travelled through Germany gave a different perspective especially around how the conquering nations were perceived at the time.

  8. A really interesting review, Cleo. I thought about reading this book last year when the film came out but decided against it in the end, mainly due to lack of time. I suspect I might share your exasperation with the tone and certain sections of the book..

    1. Thank you Jacqui – the mid section of the book which covers Vera’s nursing is exceptional and really enlightening but I was disappointed by the last section where her overbearing tone got too much when combined with my lack of knowledge about the politics of the time – of course if I’d read it at the time it was published I might have had a better grasp of what points she was making. I’m really glad I read it despite my mixed reactions.

  9. This is a very unusual book I think – it has all the problems you mention,is quite dull at times, and she doesn’t always sound that nice. But – it is exactly as the title says, a testament. It is a unique and irreplacable document, with someone trying to describe truthfully the life she lived and the experiences she went through. I don’t want to read it on a regular basis, and it isn’t comforting or thrilling or exciting. But I’m glad it is there, and I respect its integrity.

    1. Absolutely Moira as a document by someone who was there it is irreplaceable and I was able to put into context most of what I knew which was fantastic. My review was supposed to put across that as well as the parts I struggled with which for the main part was down to my lack off knowledge in the post war period.

  10. Yes, I often find the tone of these early 20th century writers sets my teeth on edge. Dare I say, especially the women! Maybe it was just a reaction to them wanting to be taken seriously and finally being able to get an education, but they do often sound as if they think they’re better than everyone else – yuck! However, I’m glad you felt there were enough interesting bits to balance it up a bit.

    1. You said what I was thinking so well FF… the sneering tone was quite off-putting at times although there was some exceptionally interesting information in the book too – a hard one to rate as the good was exceptionally good but the ending went right over my head as I didn’t know enough about the politics of the day (which wasn’t the author’s fault as she didn’t know I’d be reading it so long after the event!!)

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