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: Dear Lupin…Letters to a Wayward Son by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son; by Roger Mortimer and Charlie Mortimer, published by Constable

Dear Lupin is a collection of letters from former Sunday Times racing correspondent Roger Mortimer to his son, Charlie – who is not so much wayward as completely a drift in the sea of life for most of the correspondence.

The letters begin during Charlie’s truncated time at Eton, when Roger took to addressing his son as ‘Lupin’ after The Diary of A Nobody’s Mr Pooter’s equally flighty son. Roger, we learn, is never one to let an opportunity of wordplay go especially if it means having a little dig at one’s family.

Roger has a wonderfully endearing, old-fashioned narrative voice that can make finding a dead rat in the garden entertaining and amusing. He has, as he points out several times to his son, a great sense of the absurd and finds the humour in the smallest domestic detail, even if he’s not looking for it.

Dear Lupin reads like P.G Wodehouse with a hefty dose of Evelyn Waugh melancholia. The collection is hugely nostalgic, in all its gritty glory and includes some toe-curling Enid Blyton-style off-colour remarks (Roger Mortimer has as much time for political correctness as he does for the woman from the Inland Revenue who is continually pestering him).

Much of the humour in the book comes from Roger’s stream of consciousness, his juxtaposition of news that slips between fatal pile ups on the motorway, his wife’s current cantankerousness barometer reading, sage advice to his son (“in other words, try and have a good time without making a fool or a shit of yourself”) and spot on observations (“except for the first fortnight at preparatory school a honeymoon is for most people the least happy experience of their life”).

As funny as this collection is (and it’s very, very funny for the most part) there is something rather sad underneath the tales of Hot Hand Henry (his daughter Louise’s much disapproved of husband) and the un-housetrained dog. There’s an edge of darkness that hovers around both Roger’s letters and the snippets of Charlie’s life we hear in his father’s replies. Rather than diminishing the book, it serves to make this less a wot-ho rah-rah tale of upper middles out Bertie Wooster-ing Bertie Wooster and more a tale of one man’s bafflement at life.

Roger’s comfortable, if eccentric life, is at odds with the bleaker moments of his past. He spent five years as a prisoner of war after being captured in Dunkirk in 1940. His only mentions of these years are off-the-cuff remarks and tales of his fellow POW-pals, several of whom he still sees on a regular basis. For someone who endured such horrors, no wonder a pile up on the A3 is as trifling as a cold snap.

Plus, even more than the artery of sadness and the blistering humour, it’s the warmth and tenderness that spills from the pages of Roger’s succinct letters. Charlie can’t have been an easy son to love with his restlessness, boisterous and a drink and drug problem serious enough to land him in hospital for two months and, later, a rehab clinic.  But Roger, despite his penned-ticking offs, remains incredibly patient with his son and never abandons him to the vagaries of life without his emotional – and occasionally – financial help. And, of course, plenty of snortingly-funny anecdotes.

by Suzanne Elliott

Book review:  Love, Nina: Despatches from Family Life by Nina Stibbe

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe published by Viking

This year’s literary hit, the much celebrated Love, Nina is a book worth all its plaudits. It’s a wonderfully heart-warming book with a rapier-sharp wit that cuts through any smugness, a potential hazard in a book where it’s normal for Alan Bennett to pop round for tea and people sprout ancient Egyptian when discussing a dog hanging out by the bins.

The Nina of the title moved to 55 Gloucester Crescent, NW1 from Leicestershire in 1982 to work as a nanny to Sam and Will Frears. Their mother, Mary-Kay (MK) Wilmers was deputy editor of the London Review of Books; their father director Stephen Frears (the couple were divorced and Frears has only a cameo in Love, Nina). Alan Bennett (AB) lived across the road and would often pop round for dubious sounding 80s suppers. Inspired by her booky surroundings, Nina goes on to study for an English A Level while minding S&W and later enrols at Thames Poly, but she’s still a regular visitor at 55 (she even ends up moving back into the nanny quarters, even when she’s no longer the nanny).

Love, Nina is a sharp and witty book of letters that she wrote to her Leicester-living, London-hating sister Vic. They are full of wonderfully witty observations detailing the everyday domestic dramas of her adopted family. Written like a script in progress, the letters often contain snippets of the day’s conversations at 55. The Frears/Wilmers family (+ Bennett) are a bright, liberal bunch and their supper chat reflects this – not that they discuss Goethe over dinner (it’s more likely to be the humming fridge), but there’s a captivating and charming intelligence even in their most banal chat.

This is a delightful book that shimmers with humour and warmth, showing a microcosm of brainy north London in a breezy series of incidents on Gloucester Crescent, a place where it’s routine to borrow saws from Jonathan Miller, and Shirley ‘Lace’ Conran annoys the neighbours with her dodgy burglar alarm. This is a world where the f-bomb is dropped over dinner as casually as discussing the right way to cook new potatoes (do not mash). Nina is an engaging writer and her ear for dialogue enables her to pick out the humour from the smallest of events (mislaying Jonathan Miller’s saw, AB fixing the fridge).

Love, Nina  makes you wish that you sitting around MK’s kitchen (MK sounds terrifying, but brilliant) eating badly cooked tarragon chicken, discussing the strange sexual preferences of Nina’s fellow students with AB (not with him, to him) while also inspiring you to re-read Chaucer (despite Nina finding it as frustrating as I did when I read it for my A Level).

A truly joyous book, read it on the bus at your peril.

by Suzanne Elliott  

Book Review: 1599 by James Shapiro

1599 by James Shipiro

1599 by James Shipiro

Shakespeare ‘the man behind the quill’ is notoriously elusive. He left so few clues as to the kind of man he was that he’s frustrated scholars, theatre buffs and the Warwickshire tourist board for years. He’s such an enigma that Shakespeare of Stratford-Upon-Avon’s very identity is the subject of great debate; was this provincial ghost-like fella simply a ruse for the Earl of Oxford Christopher Marlowe or even Elizabeth I?

The majority of scholars dismiss the anti-Stratfordian arguments on the basis that we don’t need letters and eyewitness accounts to understand Shakespeare; his  plays provide us with plenty of clues as to the man at the parchment. Amongst them is James Shapiro whose highly readable 1599 is a study of Will the man through four of his most important plays and the times he lived in.

Fifteen ninety-nine was a very eventful year both for Shakespeare and England and Shapiro weaves both their fates – deftly and convincingly – to create a book that is as much a history of a crucial time in Elizabethan history as a Shakespeare bio.

The final year of the 16th century, was a game-changing one for Shakespeare.  The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, the company Shakespeare wrote for and performed with for much of his life, built their own theatre, The Globe. Shakespeare had a major financial stake in the new theatre and so his fortunes were, in every sense, tied up with The Globe’s success.

As risky as the venture was, Shakespeare saw the opportunity to move away from writing tried-and-tested money spinning comedies. Shakespeare, no longer shackled by a theatre owner, used his freedom to write plays that would challenge his audience. He ditched the fool, littered his scripts with new words – or old ones used in a new way – introduced soliloquies and feisty female characters.

We’ve become so used to talking about Shakespeare as a playwright whose works transcend time, whose themes and concerns fit as neatly into our world as they did into his own, that it’s easy to forget that he wasn’t writing for us. He was writing for an Elizabethan audience, and to ensure that he had food on the table, these plays had appeal to 16th century punters enough to encourage them to part with their groats.

Shipiro grounds Shakespeare in his time, stripping him  of his future and allowing the man to come out from behind the legend. But despite Shipiro’s attention to detail and convincing arguments that attempt to lure out him out from behind his words, the Stratford man is still very much a bit part in 1599, a wisp of a character conjured up from the trail of breadcrumbs he left in his scripts.

Shakespeare the playwright has a far bigger role, and Shapiro does a convincing job of fleshing out the influences that informed four of Shakespeare’s great plays. During this year, Shakespeare completed Henry V, wrote Julius Caesar and As You Like It and began work on Hamlet. Not a bad 12 months work. Using the seasons as a marker, Shapiro weaves events, both major (England’s ill-fated war in Ireland) and less obviously seismic (the introduction of the essay to England), as factors that filtered through into these Shakespeare’s works.

Shapiro’s research is impeccable – his bibliographical essay at the end is the size of a novella – and that he then distils this library’s worth of academia into a enjoyable, pacey, often gripping, read is impressive. That he deftly dances around all he doesn’t know with  believable speculation, padding it neatly with the stuff he does know, is even more so. We may never know if Will was a mead or a beer man, but 1599 is a brilliant companion read to some of Shakespeare’s greatest works.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Book Review: The Life of Charlotte Brontë by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

Charlotte Brontë: A Life by Elizabeth Gaskell

If there’s one skill an English degree equips you with, it’s the ability to devour even the fattest novels in the hours between bed, the student union bar and your next seminar. But despite my ability to read fast, it took me six months to read Elizabeth Gaskell’s biography on Charlotte Brontë. I reached a point, around 400 pages in, just as Anne Brontë breathed her last in Scarborough, when I had to take a break from the relentless gloom of this family’s life. Anne was the sixth Brontë to die within these pages and her death left Charlotte with only her morose father for company in their parsonage in the middle of a graveyard.

My spirit broke along with Charlotte’s. But while Charlotte valiantly rallied herself to write her final masterpiece, Villette, I put Gaskell’s biography down until I felt ready to face the grieving Charlotte and the Yorkshire moors again.

What a terrible life those girls led, constantly sick with a succession of Victorian diseases, cooped up in a pokey vicarage with the dead rotting away under the flagstone floors, embroidering themselves blind (the Brontës, not the dead). No wonder the moors held such an allure for them, what freedom it must have been to stride out across the open countryside and to feel the power of nature. Hooray for the NHS, a good diet and feminism.

There were chinks of light in the darkness; the success of her novels (under the pseudonym Currer Bell) meant Charlotte was the toast of London literary society for a time; she even got to travel to the capital and hang out with her hero Thackeray. She also got to chum up with Elizabeth Gaskell who may not have been a big bag of fun, but was certainly a loyal and generous friend to Charlotte.

Although, there is some debate about Mrs Gaskell’s motives in her account of Charlotte and her family. It’s widely believed that she tweaked Charlotte’s story and character to suit her own view; the figure in Gaskell’s account is often a mousy, fearful sprite, whereas it’s thought that the Jane Eyre author was feistier, more passionate, less pious than the one portrayed in the pages of this book. Noticeable by its absence is Charlotte’s unrequited love for a Belgium professor during her time as a governess in Brussels, an episode that was the inspiration for Villette. But this was the Victorian era, when ladies worried about the propriety of any kind of fun. As a woman with one-eye on God, Charlotte would no doubt rather her prof-crush wasn’t the subject of posthumous tittle-tattle.

But I thought I caught enough of a glimpse of Charlotte’s voice and her formidably strong and intelligent mind to make this account well worth reading if you’re a fan of Charlotte’s novels. This woman had a lot of shit thrown at her, but she never whined, you could feel her loneliness in the letters she wrote, but she never allowed herself to wallow.

When I finally went back to the last few hundred pages of Charlotte Brontë: A Life I polished it off in no time, my intrigue newly fire-up by the now lonesome figure of Charlotte and the progress of what would be her last novel, Villette. I enjoyed Charlotte’s bemusement at the excitement the figure of Monsieur Paul Emanuel created in her the book. He quite got those Victorian ladies’ bloomers in a twist. One of Charlotte’s friends told the author that her ideal man was no longer Jane Austen’s Mr Knightley, but Monsieur Emanuel. I love this 19th century fan-girling; Colin Firth and his wet shirt didn’t invent literary lust. Although, I’m reading Villette now and struggling to see the attraction, he takes brooding to corners Darcy would never dare go.

Like a walk on a muddy moor Gaskell’s account of the Charlotte is slow and sometimes difficult, but it’s invigorating and illuminating in its portrayal of a woman who produced some of literature’s most enduring characters.

by Suzanne Elliott