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!
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!