Brittain, Testament of Youth

Brittain’s war memoir was written as her response to the male dominant canon and her belief that “any picture of the war years is incomplete which emits those aspects that mainly concern women” (Brittain, Nation and Athenaeum). Whilst her style does not necessarily thrill me in the same way that Borden’s or Ford’s does, see the reviews of The Forbidden Zone and Parade’s End, her intent to write a book “as truthful as history, but as readable as fiction” (Brittain Experience 77) propelled the testament into the war’s original canon as the only female text. What compels me in my reading then rather than her style, are the frank expressions of emotion and the sense when reading the text that you are reading something genuine. This comes not only from her, but also from her loved ones too through her implementation of their words and lives into her narrative and it is this aspect which is here going to be explored.

The reader at times feels as though Brittain is confiding her deepest emotions to them, and, in many ways, she is. In a section covering a stage written soon after she has begun working with wounded soldiers, Brittain exchanges a series of confidences with Roland Leighton, her soon to be fiancé. It is through these exchanges that the reader is presented her soul: “personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the War does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh” (191). In a responding letter Leighton picks up on the changes he has observed in her, showing how he – who knows her intimately – is struggling to see the Vera Brittain he once knew in her: “You seem to me rather like a character in a book or someone whom one has dreamt of and never seen. I suppose there exists such a place as Lowestoft, and that there was once a person called Vera Brittain who came down there with me” (191). Of course, this also reflects Leighton’s own sense of transformation at the hands of the war, feeling detached from the world he used to know to the extent of not fully believing whether past incidents in his life are real or fiction. During peacetime Leighton was at University and was at the height of established respectability, according to Brittain’s descriptions he was editor of the school magazine, captain of his house and winner of academic scholarships (63). However, this respectability is crushed in his sense of self during the war, shown through his intimate confession to Vera in a letter that “I feel a barbarian, a wild man of the woods, stiff, narrowed, practical, an incipient martinet perhaps” (191).

The other key man in Brittain’s wartime life was her brother, Captain Edward Brittain. Whilst Testament of Youth is largely read as text against the war – read as a result of her anguish at the war’s destruction to lives and family trees, her depiction of the agony endured by wounded men at the front and her proclamation that “I have only one wish in life now and this is for the ending of the war” (191) – in a poem dedicated to her brother she also presents a pro-war stance. This poem’s inclusion in the memoir, for me, is again an engrossing bearing of the soul by Vera Brittain to her readers. This is because rather than it being a work written with an intent to turn people against or for the conflict she presents, at different times, different impressions and reflections – a more genuine human reaction. Brittain wrote this poem as she felt moved to write her brother a poem that would tell him how greatly she esteemed him for the brave endurance that he had shown on that day and so many times since (Brittain 396). The first two stanzas discuss the injury he suffered in the line of duty and her pride at his courage:

Your battle-wounds are scars upon my heart,

Received when in that grand and tragic ‘show’

You played your part

Two years ago,

And silver in the summer morning sun

I see the symbol of your courage glow –

That Cross you won

Two years ago.

(Brittain 397).

Whilst there is pain in the wounds of war she can then be seen to present them as being received not in vain, but for a purpose of which he was awarded for: “I see the symbol of your courage/ That cross you won” (397) – referring to his awarding of a military medal. The poem ends with her hope that he survives in order to lead Britain to victory at the end, writing “May you endure to lead the Last Advance” (397). For Bostridge, “with its profusion of militaristic imagery, its martial excitement, and its hero-worship, ‘To My Brother’ is essentially a pro-war poem” (79) and by including works which can be read as pro-war alongside her anti-war pennings in the text, I feel as though I am reading a genuine, human impression of varied responses and not the monotonous singularity present in some others.

It is these techniques of collaging impressions together and the bearing of her soul to the reader that holds together Testament of Youth’s pages and holds the reader’s interest. The result of doing such is that numerous lives are twined into the reader’s interest, compassion, and, sadly; ultimately, sadness as both Lieutenant Leighton and Captain Brittain are killed at the front. For these reasons, Testament of Youth is a gripping and genuine account of the wartime experience and is a recommended read. 7/10.

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