In the lead up to the centenary of the start to WW1 I agreed to (re) read A Testament Of Youth along with some other bookish Tweeters.
I first read the book in 1979 ( I know, say nothing!) following the fabulous BBC adaptation which was a huge hit at the time.
As a young woman hoping to go to University myself ( the first in my family), Vera’s story really spoke to me.
Testament Of Youth is a reminiscence written in 1933 by Vera Brittain, the mother of the politician Shirley Williams. It tells the story of Vera’s wartime service during World War 1 and the tragic fate of her generation.
The book opens before the start of the War and we find Vera desperate to get an education and attend university. She has encountered hostility to this from her parents although it is naturally assumed that her younger brother, Edward, will of course be sent away to school and then go to Oxford.
Vera was an early feminist and a socialist and she vividly recounts the stifling atmosphere of middle class life in Buxton where the family lived.
‘To me provincialism stood, and stands,for the sum-total of all false values; it is the estimation of people for what they have, or pretend to have, and not for what they are. Artificial classifications, rigid lines of demarcation that bear no relation whatsoever to intrinsic merit, seem to belong to its very essence, while contempt for intelligence, suspicion and fear of independent thought, appear to be necessary passports to provincial popularity.’
She longs for an education and to become involved in intellectual and political life but finds that for women society allows very few options.
‘ It feels sad to be a woman!’ I wrote in March 1913 -the very month in which the Cat And Mouse Act was first introduced for the ingenious torture of militants.’Men seem to have so much more choice as to what they are intended for.’
Vera achieves her dream and goes up to Oxford in October 1914. Over the summer she had fully expected to be there at the same time as her brother, Edward, and his friend ,Roland Leighton ,with whom she has a growing romance. At the outbreak of war both Edward and Roland sign up and so Vera goes to Oxford alone.
With all those dear to her away serving, academic life seems seems increasingly irrelevant to her and in 1915 she defers her studies to become a VAD or volunteer nurse seeing service in London, Malta and France.
At the end of the war, Vera returns to Oxford only to find that her once cherished ambitions feel empty to her now and she has little in common with her fellow students who have not experienced war service. She find she is also one of the ‘surplus’ women for whom no husbands or work can now be found in Britain. She reads a newspaper article that suggests such women should seek work abroad to better their prospects and writes to a friend ;
Personally I haven’t the least objection to being superfluous as long as I am allowed to be useful, and though I shall be delighted for any work I may do to take me abroad, it will not be because I shall thereby be enabled the better to capture the elusive male.
Vera finds solace through her work lecturing for the League of Nations and in her friendship with the novelist Winifred Holtby.
The book is divided into three parts with each section beginning with a contemporary poem or quote. Part Two opens with an extract from a poem by May Wedderburn Cannan which reminded me that at about the same time as I read Testament Of Youth I had come across May Cannan’s memoir in our local library.
Grey Ghosts and Voices has long been out of print but I managed to track down a second hand copy and read it as a companion piece to Vera Brittain.
May Wedderburn Cannan came from a similarly middle class home to Vera. Her family was , however, a more intellectual one. Her father was head of the Oxford University Press and a close friend of Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the novelist and academic.
May’s education was as intermittent and slapdash as Vera’s but she is less of a feminist and more accepting of the status quo.
WW1 offers May an opportunity to enter the world of work that was previously denied her. She serves as a Red Cross volunteer nurse and works briefly at a canteen for the troops in France behind the front-line . She then starts to work for her father at OUP to take the place of male employees now called up to fight.
As the war runs on she longs to get back to France and she ends the war in Paris using her office skills to work for British Intelligence.She relishes the freedom that working gives her and enjoys earning her own living.
Just as the war ends, Bevil Quiller-Couch, Sir Arthur’s son, arrives in Paris to propose to her. They had known each other from childhood but their whirlwind romance in Paris really captured my teenage imagination. May returns to England to prepare for her marriage.
Sadly May’s wedding never takes place. Weakened by four years in the trenches, Bevil dies of pneumonia in February 1919 leaving May staring into a future that seems void.
Her postwar years are very close to Vera’s. She struggles to find a meaning to her life and also feels alienated from the younger generation who did not experience the war.
She too suffers the stigma of being one of the ‘surplus’ women but is determined to stay in work and earn her living. During one interview she is asked rather snootily if she has a degree :
I thought, ”Well, I’ve lost it”‘ and I thought “surplus two million”; and I collected my bag and my gloves and I looked at them all sitting round that long table and I said “If I had got a Degree it would have been between 1914 and 1918 and I preferred to be elsewhere. And what is more Gentlemen” – I got up now and I pushed back my chair and made them a little bow-“I still prefer to have been elsewhere”
She gets the job!
May’s story is perhaps more conventional than Vera’s but it was great to reconnect with it after all this time. The title of the book is a quote from one of her moving poems summing up her feelings as the war ends and she finds herself alone :
Now we must go again back into our world
Full of grey ghosts and voices of men dying,
And in the rain the sounding of Last Posts,
And Lovers’ crying;
Back to the old, back to the empty world
This First World War reading was an emotional journey but one I am glad I made both books are well worth the effort and the tissues. Thank you to Claire from claire.thinking.blogspot.co.uk for coming up with the idea.