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: Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

Toby's Room by Pat Barker

Toby’s Room by Pat Barker

In her latest novel, Pat Barker re-visits the same time and territory that she captured so compellingly and powerfully in her Regeneration trilogy.

Regeneration, The Eye In The Door and the Booker Prize winning The Ghost Road told the story of First World War soldiers, amongst them war poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, receiving treatment for shell shock at Edinburgh’s Craiglockhart hospital. Toby’s Room, a non-sequel sequel to her 2007 novel, Life Class, shifts the attention from the mental anguish of the Great War to its physical impact, and focuses too on the fallout for those left behind in Britain.

The Toby of the title is a doctor and an officer who is ‘Missing, Believed Killed’ on the battlefield. We first meet him in 1912 at the rambling family home in the bucolic English countryside where we’re also introduced to his sister Elinor. The pair have a claustrophobically close relationship that becomes inappropriately intimate one scorching hot summer’s day (English summers are always so wonderfully hot in novels, oh, if only life imitated art more often).

Skip forward five years to 1917 and Elinor and the Brooke family receive the telegram that everyone with a son or brother in France dreaded. Elinor, a starchy, tenacious and rather unsympathetic character, finds grief almost impossible to succumb to without knowing how, or if, her brother died.

She sets out to unearth the truth and in the process becomes entangled in a war she was hoping to ignore. In her search for answers, she is also forced to rekindle a dying friendship with the abrasive, and now, nose-less, Kit Neville, a contemporary of Elinor’s at the famous Slade art school where they studied under the tutelage of the formidable Henry Tonks. Elinor also enlists the help of her ex-boyfriend Paul Tarrant, now a war artist, all three lives now fated to be forever messily and painfully intertwined in Elinor’s search for answers.

While Elinor may never end up on the frontline of the Sommes, she is forced to confront the horror of the Great War when she becomes an artist for Queen’s Hospital in Sidcup, an institution that specialised in re-building the shattered faces of soldiers, including Neville’s.

As in Barker’s previous First World War novels, real life people get walk on parts. Elinor briefly spends time in the Sussex home of Vanessa Bell where she does little except insult the ‘conchies’ and annoy Virginia Woolf who looks on with her acerbic eye. There’s also a nod to the poets Siegfried Sassoon and Rupert Brooke, whose face has a particularly startling starring role at one point.

Unlike Sasson and Brooke, Barker is no poet. Sometimes her prose is plain banal and clunky. Eleanor’s diary, a rather odd occasional narrative device that serves little purpose other than to fill in some unexplained (if you haven’t read the unofficial prequel, Life Class that is) background, is a jarring change in pace and tone.

But complaining about Barker’s occasional heavy hand is like moaning at Woolf’s aversion to full stops. Barker has never been about delicate prose; her power for storytelling and unflinching truths is what draws you in and sucks you in like a quagmire on a battlefield. The pace (bar the slight derailment at each of Elinor’s diary entries) is cracking, the story fizzing along with growing expectation. In anything, rather than stripping the novel of emotion and tension, Barker’s no nonsense style heightens the drama. Importantly (and this is far rarer than it should be) Barker doesn’t disappoint as the novel reaches its climax. The characters remain solid; they may never reach Mrs Dalloway levels of realism and depth, but they are people you can believe who don’t dissolve in a weary puddle as the author panics at the looming deadline.

Toby’s Room may not hit the high notes of the Regeneration trilogy, but it’s still a wonderfully evocative, gripping novel that is taut and tight and utterly compelling.

by Suzanne Elliott