Book review: Testament of Youth: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925 by Vera Brittain

A stunning, vital, often gruelling memoir that retains its stiff upper lip while punching you in the stomach

Kit Harington and Alicia Vikander in the 2015 film of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

Kit Harington as Roland and Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain in the 2014 film adaptation of Testament of Youth

 

Reading a first hand account of the war that was meant to end all wars just as the UK steps into another conflict made Vera Brittain’s fascinating, terrifying, heartbreaking memoir even more poignant.

Written 13 years after the end of what became the First World War, Testament of Youth records not only the huge loss of life that affected Brittain and Britain (and her allies), but captures the lives that were left shattered – by grief, by injury, by despair and shell-shock – in cool-headed yet determined prose.

Brittain’s story begins in the almost pastorally perfect, peaceful Edwardian era. Even as a teenager, Vera is not content to stay contentedly within the very narrow boundaries set out for middle-class women in the early 20th century. As a woman in pre-War Britain, Brittain was expected to keep house and keep quiet, but Vera never intended to do either. From the beginning she is a fearsome force – resolute, self-possessed, tenacious – her fierce intelligence drives her to Oxford, overcoming the many hurdles thrown in the way of women at the time.

Vera has a close relationship with her kind, musical older brother, Edward who sees her as an equal in a way women were rarely viewed by the opposite sex. Men aren’t hugely romantically interesting to Vera, she sees her future in literature not love, but despite having her head in a book, she falls in love with a friend of Edward’s, Roland, a serious, poetic young man cut from that almost cliched, chivalrous, romantic  Edwardian cloth. Their romance is intellectual rather than lusty, only revving up a gear, much to Vera’s distaste, after Roland is sent to the Front. She is not a woman for whom an engagement ring is a replacement for a matrimonial lobotomy.

Her first enrolment at Oxford doesn’t last long after the outbreak of War. With Roland and Edward – along with their friends who Vera becomes increasingly connected to, Geoffrey and Vincent – away doing their bit for King and Country, Vera becomes dissatisfied with a staid academic life and longs for a practical role in this new world. She signs up as a VAD (voluntary aid detachment) nurse. Her training takes her first to London, but after the first of a steady stream of tragedies, she asks to be transferred abroad, into the heart of the blood, mud and danger, and is sent to Malta and then France.

The fact that the First World War and it’s revenge-driven rubbish peace process were a monumental fuck up that had catastrophic and far reaching results, both personally and worldly, is news to no one, but Vera’s great skill is building the suspense in her stiff yet ornate prose, so that we’re standing in her sensible nursing shoes, experiencing a little of her seemingly endless punches to the stomach. I cried several times reading this book, yet Brittain was never trying to manipulate my emotions; her writing is level-headed, free of histrionics or wallowing. The sheer, startling facts are enough to have you bawling on the bus. Sure, there are bitter laments, Vera is angry, not just at all she’s lost, but how the War – started by and badly managed by an older generation –  left her generation shattered, their youth – along with their brothers, lovers, friends and husbands –  snatched away from them.

Brittain’s book teaches us so much more about war than history text books. The sheer wastefulness of it somehow feels even bigger told from someone who saw the fallout of the trenches without being in them (she rather plays it down, but the injuries Vera stoically treats are staggering). Her personal assaults are more harrowing than many a history book because they’re so personal and so all too easy to imagine.

Vera’s voice may grate on some, her tone is a little Downton’s Lady Mary side-eyeing Edith. She is unapologetically snobbish about her upbringing in conservative, uptight Buxton, although I relished her put-downs of small town life with guilty glee. Her prose is old-fashioned, but I found that her reserved, borderline priggishness only heightened the catastrophe that befalls her and her contemporaries.

This is not an easy read – I put it down a couple of times to read other, less painful, books. But it’s a hugely affecting memoir about a lost people who fought and lived through a War that for them never ended. Perhaps their on-going trauma is best summed up in this sentence Brittain wrote in 1933, recalling the dreaded telegram death knock: “Even now, I cannot work comfortably in a room from which it is possible to hear the front-door bell”.

This book should probably be handed to every MP faced with a war vote.

Testament of Youth is published by Virago Classic

Book Review: Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson’s second novel sees her sketching out ideas she’ll revisit again, but with less compelling results

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Human Croquet by Kate Atkinson (published by Black Swan)

What was meant to be my year of non-fiction also became my year of Kate Atkinson. During 2015 I rediscovered Atkinson after a nasty brush with her second novel, Human Croquet as a student. This year I was finally sucked into her magical realistic world via Jackson Brodie’s brooding presence in her more grounded Case Histories series.

I had read all of Atkinson’s work, including her latest (and, in my opinion, best), God In Ruins, by the fag end of 2015, only Human Croquet remained, the novel that had derailed me from Atkinson’s books 17 years ago.

Human Croquet was Atkinson’s second novel, following the success of her Costa Book Award winning debut Behind The Scenes as the Museum. She’s since published a further seven novels and this 1997 book has been repackaged by Black Swan in light of Atkinson’s more recent literary success (Life After Life won her a Bailey’s Prize nod and a South Bank Sky Arts award) .

It’s interesting reading an author’s work backwards, you can see the outlines of more recent books in the earlier works, see their craft in action, the sketches that will one day become their masterpiece. This is particularly apparent in Human Croquet where Atkinson examines themes she later revisits in Life After Life, and to a lesser time-traveller extent – God In Ruins.

I gave Human Croquet a through bashing in my university paper, but I don’t think I actually read past the first page. Already overburdened with modernist poetry and Virginia Woolf’s novels, the opaque opening page was too dense a word forest for me to venture into the story beyond it.

Human Croquet is the story of Isobel Fairfax, a sixteen-year old girl who lives in ‘Arden’, a damp ridden mock-Tudor house on the site of the ruined Fairfax Manor on a street of trees that was once a dense forest.

Isobel’s family are fairytale-like gruesome. Her mother ‘disappeared’ when she was small, closely followed by her father who at least had the decency to return albeit with an uninspiring New Zealand wife, Debbie. Her Aunt Vinny is a chain-smoking ugly sister while her brother Charles has dubious parentage and an unfortunate face.

Isobel discovers on her sixteenth birthday that she can slip between time when she briefly finds herself in what will become Hawthorne Close, a man running past her with house plans shouting “soon there are going to be houses. everywhere you look, there will be houses, young lady”.

The novel swings trippingly between the past and the present, Atkinson erasing some of the events for another scenario, although sometimes with the same results. As I’ve discovered during my Atkinson book binge, her novels are deceptive, she writes with a lightness, littered with literary references, puns and (sometimes annoying) asides, but the subjects she explores are the stuff of Martina Cole thrillers- murder, incest, child and domestic abuse, rape. Human Croquet is a rich stew of nasty ingredients wrapped up in a magical world and sparkling language.

Human Croquet isn’t Atkinson’s best work, at times it’s sluggish and, yet, jarringly, manically busy with characters and alternative realities that aren’t as tightly drawn as Ursula’s in Life After Life. The weaving in and out of other characters’ lives and the dropping into time pockets distracted from the far more compelling backstory of Isobel’s family and, if 2015’s taught me anything, it’s that Kate Atkinson is at her best when she’s writing about humans and our  funny ways that are every bit as baffling as time.

Theatre Review: Jane Eyre, Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre

A newly-realised adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s Victorian romance is invigorating and irresistible

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Jane Eyre at the National Theatre, devised by the Company from the novel by Charlotte Bronte

 

Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel can’t be an easy beast to tame for the stage. You have to grapple with the fact that everyone knows at least the outline of Jane Eyre (mad woman, attic, THAT wedding scene, fire) and, while the novel is so multi layered, so stuffed with action, it’s Jane’s internal monologues that are the book’s backbone. How do you bring a freshness to such a well-known tale while capturing Jane’s outward fierceness and inner delicacy?

Like this it would seem. This co-produced National Theatre and Bristol Old Vic adaptation of Jane Eyre has managed to harness the author’s – and the protagonist’s – energy and power and bring a fresh, original angle to this well-loved story that doesn’t diminish the source material.

The production was originally devised by the company without a script; improvised by the cast and then tamed by dramaturg Mike Akers. This fluidity and lack of constraint, wonderfully directed by Sally Cookson, really shines through in this production and lends it so much of its magic.

Akers, Cookson, a fearlessly talented and committed cast and a beautiful score by Benji Bower capture Brontë’s magic and Jane’s restless spirit – no narrative net or awkward theatrics ensnare Madeleine Worrall’s Jane as we follow her from a squawking baby to a contented mother. The whole production seems to spin around Jane’s musings near the beginning of her time at Thornfield: “It is in vain to say human beings ought to be satisfied with tranquility: they must have action; and they will make it if they cannot find it.”

I loved the restlessness of this Jane Eyre, the small company, multitasking in several roles, are rarely off stage (in Worrall’s case, never). Jane Eyre is a force of nature, brave and self-possessed, her self-awareness so complete that she’s beyond shocking with the truth. Worrall excelled in the part, giving Jane that fierce determination and vulnerability that Rochester and the reader fall in love with. Her inner monologues are spoken aloud by members of the cast like a chorus in a Greek tragedy, but they’re never overcooked, they feel part of the script not a convenient way around it.

Felix Hayes’ Rochester is every bit the striking, booming, self-righteous Brontë hero, perfectly walking the line between boorish posho and sensitive, repentant new (Victorian) man. Despite the worst proposal this side of Colin Firth’s Darcy, oh, and the small matter of his wife in the attic, we are rooting for these two to get together. There is humour too, some of it provided by Brontë’s own witty hand, some by Laura Elphinstone as Rochester’s hyper excitable ward Adele and a great deal by Craig Edwards’ brilliant comic turn as the hero’s dog Pilot. (On paper this role must have sounded like the stuff of an actor’s ‘back-end-of-a-pantomime-horse’ worst nightmare, but Edwards’ plays it so well, that it’s human equivalent of the scene-steeling goose in War Horse).

The set is integral to the play, a deceptively simple design of raised wooded boards and ladders that is as believable as a grand mansion on fire as it is a TB-ridden school. Wrapping all this up in a delightful aural package is composer Bower’s score that fuses jazz, soul and folk in original arrangements to beautiful effect. Melanie Marshall is both the ghostly form of poor Bertha in the attic and a captivating singer, crystallising Jane’s thoughts in song, her voice as clear and startling as a frosty Yorkshire morning.

You may think you know Jane Eyre, but this production is so full of surprises and such a stunning piece of theatre, that you’d do well to take a another trip to Brontë country.

Jane Eyre | Lyttelton Theatre at the National Theatre | Until 10 January 2016