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Testament of Youth (1933)

by Vera Brittain

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Vera Brittain's Testament (1)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
1,777466,758 (4.15)2 / 356
In 1914 Vera Brittain was eighteen and, as war was declared, she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life - and the life of her whole generation - had changed in a way that was unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, one of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain's account of how she survived the period; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world. A passionate record of a lost generation, it made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time.… (more)
  1. 10
    Testament of Friendship by Vera Brittain (jigarpatel)
    jigarpatel: Testament of Youth is almost required reading for Testament of Friendship. The former a memoir of Vera Brittain, the latter a biography of her closest friend Winifred Holtby. Although focusing on individuals and their relationships, they also powerfully describe the "state of the times". In particular, causes such as feminism, pacifism and racial equality are brought to life through the eyes of the protagonists.… (more)
  2. 10
    The Ghost at the Wedding: A True Story by Shirley Walker (cushlareads)
    cushlareads: Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain's very moving autobiography of her life and loss of loved ones in World War One. The Ghost at the Wedding is about Jessie Walker, born in Australia in 1899, and numerous family members who went off to fight in World War One and later Two. Both books were great.… (more)
  3. 00
    The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai (bjappleg8)
    bjappleg8: Both books describe the decimation of a generation of young men as seen close up: from WWI in Testament of Youth and in The Great Believers the ravages of AIDS in the 1980s.
  4. 00
    The Man from St. Petersburg by Ken Follett (LiteraryReadaholic)
  5. 00
    Chronicle of Youth: War Diary, 1913-17 by Vera Brittain (VivienneR)
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English (43)  Italian (2)  Spanish (1)  All languages (46)
Showing 1-5 of 43 (next | show all)
This is the sort of book that shakes you. It puts a face on what Britain lost in the war and why, almost 100 years later, all of Britain pauses on November 11th at the eleventh hour. I can't even begin to imagine what it would be like to lose almost everyone you loved and have to carry on. This needs to be read before you read any history of the war. As you read remember that Vera was typical of her generation. Thousands of young woman who lost lover, cousins, and brothers due to the war. ( )
  Steve_Walker | Sep 13, 2020 |
While this is one of the classic war books and written from the almost unique perspective of a woman, if you can find an abridged version to read, get that instead of the full text.

Brittain has written an extremely self-focussed work here. Where it deals with the life and times of women in the early years of the 20th century and, in particular, the impact of the war on them, it is very interesting.

Where Vera describes her own life and, in particular, what she gets up to after the war, the book is little more than a diary and thus, IMO, not worth reading. She does go on a bit, and when she does, its all me, me, me.

Whereas novels like Storm of Steel are written almost completely from the front line, Brittain could not write Testament from that point of view. Although this makes for a less gripping read, it conveys an important aspect of the war and one which is far less frequently described.

It’s also less frequently read. Brittain does herself no favours by not sticking to where the action is. A judicious editor would have realised that bits needed trimming off. She tells us that her mother is in Cornwall on holiday. It’s not immediately apparently that this is entirely useless information to the reader as it has no bearing on anything. As I say, if you can pick up an abridged version, do read it. Otherwise, be prepared for some blah.

What’s more, be prepared for her to come across strongly with her humanism and atheism. The former is very much a product of its time. At one point she claims that

"So long as the spirit of man remained undefeated, life was worth having."

This comes after living through a world war which was instigated and fueled by nothing less than the spirit of man. Vera should have lived to read The Kindly Ones which gets this absolutely right:

"There was a lot of talk, after the war … about inhumanity. But, I am sorry. There is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity." (The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell)

As for the atheism, throughout the novel, Brittain addresses those she has lost as if they still exist somewhere but seems to think this in no way contradicts an atheist view of there being no afterlife. Curious.

While this is an important book, and will remain so for years to come, it won’t get any easier to read. ( )
  arukiyomi | Sep 5, 2020 |
“To look forward, I concluded, and to have courage—the courage of adventure, of challenge, of initiation, as well as the courage of endurance—that was surely part of fidelity. The lover, the brother, the friends whom I had lost, had all in their different ways possessed this courage, and it would not be utterly wasted if only, through those who were left, it could influence the generation, still to be, and convince them that, so long as the spirit of man remained undefeatable, life was worth living and worth giving.”

Simply put, Brittain’s book is a triumph. Though perhaps I didn’t recognize it for such at first — my knowledge of the First World War was rusty, though became well-oiled over time — the author’s prose, poetry, narration and diary entries combine to give a powerful, truly moving and inspiring story of a war that marked a generation. While the war itself was plenty of the book, what I found truly informative and remarkable was that Brittain’s story continued afterward — watching her movement to pacifism and work with the League of Nations in the wake of war.

The reader, like Vera acknowledges of herself, grows from naïve belief in “heroism in the abstract” to the hopelessness of a war and lives lost in vain, to belief in the power of peace for the future, and that humanity need only remember the horrors of their past to want to strive for a world with less war, horror, and senseless death. While Brittain explains this herself in the prose of hindsight, it’s plain, too, in the moments which she does nothing but recount her story — her despair at losing the bright brother and lover close to her, and the changing, increasingly war-torn world she found herself in. It’s these personal touches, along with the inspirational speeches (nearly, reading Brittain’s prose it’s clear why she became a speaker!) that effected me as a reader of this book.

I’ve always been described as an “old soul,” and while never a war history nut, I felt close to every action Brittain described, saw the horrors with my own eyes, and feel that I have come away from this book with my soul much older than it already was. I have a feeling I’ll return to this book — though perhaps when current events don’t make me wonder too much whether a senseless war, like the one Brittain catalogues here, will happen to my own generation. If it does, may a few of us keep this book and it’s incredible persevering, emotional, passionate spirit, in mind and heart. ( )
  priorfictions | Jun 24, 2020 |
Vera Brittain's memoir is as much heartfelt plea for pacifism and feminism as passionate indictment of war and misogyny. It establishes a link between pacifism and feminism in an engaging style which avoids the pitfalls of moralism and academia. Readers with expectations of war-related non-fiction need to keep an open mind: this is more about the psyche of a nation rather than military action on the front line. What makes Testament of Youth so powerful is you know how it will end, yet the twists and turns draw you into a world, private and public, never known since the Great War. Publishing this volume 15 years after Armistice, Brittain strikes an attractive balance between perspective and emotion.

The narrative begins with a description of Vera's provincial middle-class upbringing: how the beginnings of war did little to disturb her sheltered life, closely supervised and restricted, the company of her brother one of her few comforts. She becomes influenced by feminists of the time and bemoans her family's reluctance to encourage her further education. Securing admission to Oxford, she talks of the impossible struggle of women to assert themselves as equals of men. She has interests in poetry, drama, debate, tennis and, of course, the growing women's suffrage movement. Amidst all this, she becomes close with Edward's friends: Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow and future fiancé Roland Leighton. A disillusioned Roland Leighton, the first to begin active service, describes his experiences at the front as "a mere trade". Tragedy strikes.

The second part delves into the psychology of the young soldier driven by duty and honour whose world view is shattered by the realities of trench warfare. Vera, meanwhile, cannot fathom an academic life while her closest friends risk their lives, and becomes a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse, taking positions in London, Malta and France. Her exertions help her face recent shocks while fuelling her pacifism. She is particularly affected by her spell nursing German prisoners of war, and describes in detail the challenging conditions, only worsened by the uneasy relationship between VADs and professional nurses. This section includes poignant excerpts from her diary and correspondence with her closest friends. Further tragedy strikes.

The final part dwells on her return to Oxford, political developments, and her activism. In particular, equal work opportunities for women and their enfranchisement become a hot topic. I recall my headmaster claiming the greatest tragedy of the Great War was that it was the very best who were first sent to the front and lost to the world. Yet Vera observes that whether or not one received a medal was as much a matter of chance as of individual merit: whether a soldier survived the countless and senseless avenues to death for the opportunity to exhibit their bravery. The gaping hole nonetheless left in post-war Britain, a figurative lost generation, was only slowly and partially filled via recognition of the active part women could play in the nation's recovery. Vera returns to Oxford, graduating in History instead of English in an attempt to better understand what had happened. She befriends fellow aspiring author Winifred Holtby, with whom she tours occupied Germany and Austria.

Despite the losses she feels so deeply, Vera finds ways to live but not forget. Indeed, to live and be active in life is a way for the "war generation" to give purpose to those who perished. Beautifully crafted, I have read few books, fiction or non-fiction, which capture so vividly young people's attitudes to war. ( )
1 vote jigarpatel | Nov 14, 2019 |
This book was written in 1933 by a feminist who attended Oxford, left to serve as a VAD in WWI and returned to earn her degree and move on to peace activism and feminist advocacy with her writing. It is a long, grueling and terribly sad memoir of her experiences during the First World War. Her writing is magnificent and the agony of her grief is real. Although this was a tough read, it was so important to soldier through it for the sake of the author and those she lost. The last portion of the book was devoted to her struggle with combining marriage and a career. It was fascinating to read her perspective from 1925. The issues are not much different from today’s issues. The greatest difference is that she was a pioneer. She was enormously fortunate to find a partner who totally supported her career and was willing to buck the system with her. Today’s women have many sisters to share the challenges of work/life balance and many allies to walk the path with them. Highly recommend. ( )
  beebeereads | Jun 12, 2019 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Vera Brittainprimary authorall editionscalculated
Bostridge, MarkIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Williams, ShirleyPrefacesecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them. But those were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten... Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore. The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.
--Ecclesiastes 44
Dedication
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R.A.L. and E.H.B.
In Memory
First words
When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.
Quotations
The impulse to put what I felt into verse -- a new impulse which had recently begun both to fascinate and torment me -- sprang up with overwhelming compulsion.
Absorbed in Unseen Translations and the Binomial Theorem, eagerly looking forward to seeing Roland once more at Uppingham, and mitigating the interval by a heartless retrospective flirtation with my would-be suitor of the previous summer, I entirely failed to notice in the daily papers of June 29th an account of the assassination, on the previous morning, of a European potentate whose name was unknown to me, in a Balkan town of which I had never heard. (pg 85/661)
Whenever I think of the weeks that followed the news of Roland's death, a series of pictures, disconnected but crystal clear, unroll themselves like a kaleidoscope through my mind.
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In 1914 Vera Brittain was eighteen and, as war was declared, she was preparing to study at Oxford. Four years later her life - and the life of her whole generation - had changed in a way that was unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war era. TESTAMENT OF YOUTH, one of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is Brittain's account of how she survived the period; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world. A passionate record of a lost generation, it made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time.

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In 1914 Vera Brittain was eighteen and as war was declared she was preparing to study at Oxford.  Four years later her life - and the life of her whole generation - had changed in a way that was unimaginable in the tranquil pre-war peace.  Testament of Youth, one of the most famous autobiographies of the First World War, is her account of how she survived the period; how she lost the man she loved; how she nursed the wounded and how she emerged into an altered world.  This passionate record of a lost generation made Vera Brittain one of the best-loved writers of her time.
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