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Losing & Finding During The Great War

Carl Sagan in his essay “The Path to Freedom” co-written with Ann Druyan, said that “Books are key to understanding the world and participating in a democratic society.” If there is book that stands for understanding the world and a democratic society, then it must be Vera Brittian’s Testament of Youth. This book which has been in my TBR list for many years now and was supposed to be my December Read for The Official 2018 TBR Pile Challenge 2018; until Jillian came along with her Read Along and her enthusiasm and some amazing pre-challenge activities that tempted me to move this book up in the TBR Challenge pile and start on it on priority!

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Testament of Youth is a memoir of Vera Brittian’s life capturing the years, from 1900 to 1925. Ms. Brittian who would achieve great success with publication of this work, was a nurse, a writer,a lecturer, a pacifist and a feminist and in this book, we get a glimpse of of events and happenings that went into her making of all the above! The book opens with a brief overview of Ms. Brittain’s family history – a well to do, upper middle class family. Her father, a Paper Manufacturer, and her mother a home maker as were most women at that time. Two years after her birth, her brother Edward was born and he would remain her closest companion through the years! The first Chapter captures her growing years and her schooling at St. Monica’s where she was introduced to History, feminism and politics through an energetic teacher. Chapter 2 continues the narrative where Vera describes her “coming out” year and her dissatisfaction with the lot of young women in those days that limited their lives to home and hearth and her battle with her father to go to Oxford University, in an effort to escape such a future and see more of the world. It was during this stage of her life she would meet Roland Leighton, a senior and a close friend of her brother Edward and with whom she would eventually become engaged. Chapter 3 follows Vera’s first year at  Somerville College, Oxford,  studying English Literature as England is drawn into World War 1 and both Edward and Roland and her other close male friends join the army to support the British war effort. As the fighting gets more and more intense and the hope of a quick victory diminishes, Ms. Brittain decides to delay her degree and starts to work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse. The next few chapters deal with her VAD years, which takes her to Malta and France, her personal struggles and both her own and her peer’s griefs; those who belonged to that “war generation” as they struggle to come to terms with the loss of their youth, idealism and what was supposed to a promising future and finally the deaths of their loved ones! The final chapter of the book, deals with the close of the War, the after effect on the survivors and Ms. Brittian’s evolution as a writer and lecturer, the friendships that helped her heal, her completion of her delayed degree and finally her ability to close the door on the traumatic years and moving on to finding happiness.

There are some very few books in this world, that effortlessly draw you in, force you think and then, challenge you to be a better person. To me, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee was one such book and now Ms. Brittain’s Testament of Youth, joins that rank! Rarely does one come across writing that is strong and fierce and at the same time so poignantly heartbreaking; but Ms. Brittain achieves this feat and more. In some of the most powerful prose ever, the author takes us through some of the most transformative events of her life, from school years, to her college life to her engagement and the war and her final evolution as a Feminist and Writer; we are moved as readers, we are concerned at the well being of all involved in the narrative and when we close the book finally, we know we have an obligation to feel grateful, that our generation was spared of the searing pain and loss that our predecessors went through first 100 and then 80 years ago. In yet another marvelous first for me, this is the only memoir I have read, whose writing carries a “what-happens-next” feeling with the close of each chapter. Despite being relatively verbose, the pace of the books never slacks and the reader never feels bored with the events as they come through, one after the other! The characters are beautifully drawn and brought to life by Ms. Brittain and you cannot help but wish that you had known them in person. They are all realistic and wonderful, portrayed without any rancor, even the German POWs or the more difficult Matrons, and mankind is shown in some of its most minute lights, with all the kindness, joy, brilliance, anger and vulnerabilities! This book has often been described as a War Memoir, but I felt that it was too narrow a definition; for this book is so much more – it is a history of things we must never repeat so that lives are not needlessly lost, it is a history of epoch making events in Women’s Movement, it is a story of love and friendships and finally it is the story, that once again affirms that even in our deepest, darkest, most traumatic moments, we are not alone and what we are going through has already been experienced by someone else and from that experience also comes the final assurance, that things do pass and get better! To end, all I can say, is that this book makes us attempt to be more more humane and to read it, is critical in our evolution to be better! Read it!!! Read it now especially in this era of mindless chest thumping overt and agrressive nationalism that goes back in time to distinguish between Us and Them instead of an all encompassing understanding that we are all linked and my brother’s loss is my loss!

P.S. Adam I hope you will forgive the disruption in the order list of my TBR, but this one was just too good to pass up!

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jillian #

    Beautifully, beautifully said. I’m so happy you read & appreciated this book! I can’t believe it isn’t paraded around on all those “must read” lists people print. I think this is a book that cannot help but challenge people to think, reflect, and become better. I’m so glad Ms. Brittain wrote it. xx

    (Can you believe this book isn’t in my entire county’s library system? I even went through the formality of requesting they order it two years ago. Vera Brittain & her peers should never be forgotten.)

    June 15, 2018 was one hundred years. I feel we are the generation she wrote for. x

    June 19, 2018
    • Jillian, I cannot thank you enough for the kindness in introducing me to this work! I completely agree with you – it should be in those “must read”/”books which change your life lists” but sadly it is nearly forgotten! Only 5K ratings on GoodReads….that is telling! But the fact remains this is such an important story and to not read it is foolishness! It is not available in my country’s library system either and was kind of expensive to buy, when actually books like these should be accessible by the dozen!
      I know we are the generation she wrote for and it is symbolic that we are again besieged with illiberal leaders all most all around the world, who have never understood one thing about the brutality of conflict and uber nationalism!

      June 20, 2018
      • Jillian #

        “Uber nationalism” — yes. To combat that alone, this book must be read. Patriotism can be dangerous. The world would be a more compassionate place, & a more awake place, if more people read this book.

        It was an honor to introduce Brittain to you! ❤ x

        June 20, 2018
    • Jillian, it’s not in my entire library system either! I think I will have to suggest that they purchase several copies, too.

      June 25, 2018
      • Jillian #

        I work in a bookstore & got them to stock it. Now I’m bullying everyone there to read it. 😀

        June 26, 2018
  2. mudpuddle #

    this sounds like a thoroughly excellent book; just the sort of work that, if enough persons read it, could turn the world around from it’s present disastrous course… great review, too…

    June 20, 2018
    • It is beyond excellent! It is a book that should be mandatory reading for everyone in the modern world! Especially in today’s world which has gone mad and lost all sense of kindness and humanity!

      June 20, 2018
  3. I’m glad to hear you loved this book so much! I read it a few years ago and I found it both moving and inspirational. My heart broke for Vera every time she received more bad news.

    June 21, 2018
    • I know what you mean! It was heart breaking to know someone in real had to survive all that and inspirational as well to know that despite all the losses, you can still triumph!

      June 21, 2018
  4. This sounds really good; I love a well-written coming-of-age story, and actually I am not sure I ever read one by a female writer. 😦 Thanks for sharing your thoughts! I think I’ll go ahead and purchase this one so I can take my time with it.

    June 21, 2018
    • Marian I wholeheartedly recommend this book to everyone! It is critical for us to read texts like this for to remember the past and make better future! Hope you enjoy your read! 🙂

      June 21, 2018
  5. I read this years and years ago, and it made such an impression. I still have a copy, and you remind me that I really should read it again,

    June 22, 2018
    • This was my first read ever Jane and I am still reeling from its impact! It is magnificent and I think it is one of those books which says something new everytime we read it!

      June 22, 2018
  6. I’m so thrilled that this book is getting the love and respect it truly deserves. I was soooo tempted to reread it for this readalong, but just had too much going on to do it the justice it needs.
    Instead, I’ve just been sitting quietly on the sidelines cheering on all these glowing reviews and enthusiastic posts.

    I’ve now picked up a copy of Testament of Friendship to extend my knowledge of Brittain further.

    June 24, 2018
    • You know I have been saying this for a while – I have no idea why more people are not reading or have not read this book! It belongs right up there with those “must read” / “life changing books”. I absolutely loved it! I must re-read it again. I am trying to find a copy of Testament of Friendship, but as always, Vera Brittain books are hard to come by! 😦

      June 24, 2018
  7. I’m almost done. Lack of reading time is what keeps me from it, but I’ve been reading it during car rides, swim lessons, and even at the movie theater, waiting for a movie to begin. I have to fight for my reading time these days. Ugh! But, yes, the story is completely engaging! I think the expose of it will spread, and you will see, it will become an important book in time.

    June 25, 2018
    • I saw the Movie Theater Reading …..lol! But yes, the story is very engaging and I hope that it continues to become more popular gaining the kind of importance it should!

      June 26, 2018
  8. cleoclassicalcarousel #

    I’ve still just begun but it’s becoming more captivating. It will be interesting to get a view of WWI from a woman’s perspective. Glad you enjoyed it so much!

    July 2, 2018
    • Hello!!! So good to hear from you! Yes, it is a wonderful account from a woman’s perspective and such a powerful book!

      July 3, 2018

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