Sometimes the most haunting and palpable accounts of war are not the sweeping explanations of historical background and strategy, but of a singular person’s experience, encapsulated in a memoir. This is certainly true of World War I, which comes most terribly alive in Vera Brittain’s home front account, Testament of Youth. Brittain writes with the skilled, articulate prose of a woman who had previously been interested in being a novelist, which lends a vivid dynamic to her retelling of real events. The outcome is a memoir that allows the reader directly into the mind of its narrator in a way that is reminiscent of fiction and makes the work all the more page-turning.
Brittain begins her story a little before the war, describing the hopeful life she had as a young woman who loved to write poetry and read the Romantics, entirely unaware of the impending carnage to her country and her life. Her cast of friends are introduced early, her parents, her brother Edward and his friends, particularly his schoolmate Roland Leighton, who takes an interest in Vera as she does in him. The novel starts with Brittain’s struggle to get accepted to Oxford and her romance with Leighton, both of which are heartbreaking to a reader who knows of the bigger problems to come. Brittain, of course writing in retrospect, often ends her chapters with dark foreshadowings of the war that render the problems of these earlier accounts rather inconsequential in her mind. This is where the power of the work comes from—the comparison of what Brittain’s life was before, to the life she had during and after the war, because it allows the reader to intimately understand the devastating effects of the first modern war not only for the soldiers in the trenches but for everyone on the home front as well. Brittain forces us to understand how the war changed people’s philosophical outlooks, their optimism, and their belief in the glory of death.
Brittain’s story finds its strength not only in her superior narration and her juxtaposition of before-and-after but also, unfortunately, due to circumstance. The reader flips the pages in horror as they realize that Brittain loses almost everyone she knows to the war. She hears of Roland’s death right before their wedding, an incident that is so devastating in part because Brittain recounts in earlier chapters how much he pushed to go to the front lines, and how frightened he was once he finally made it there. This, coupled with some of Roland’s poems about the war and about her, which Brittain includes in the book, prove almost as emotionally ravaging for the reader as it must have been for Brittain herself. Even the most ardent war hawks will have to think twice when they read of Brittain’s cruel loss. Furthermore, when Edward dies, the reader is reminded of 1914, the start of the war, when he asks Vera to help convince their parents that he should be allowed to join the army, to which she agrees and manages to succeed in. Brittain confides in the reader the guilt she feels upon hearing of his death, as though she herself sent her brother to die in the trenches.
It is common knowledge that at the beginning of World War I, no one understood just how catastrophic a fight this would be for all involved, and numbers can tell you just how many young men lost their lives, but Brittain really makes you feel the pain of finding out that the assumptions about a quick fight directly led to the loss of brothers, fathers, lovers, and friends. She speaks beautifully for a generation of young men and women who grew up during a devastating time that forever impacted their outlook on a much grimmer world. Brittain touches on the emerging pacifism, the skepticism, the spirituality or lack thereof, of the people who came of age from 1914 to 1918, while also giving voice to the experiences of those who were not lucky enough to make it past those dates. Her memoir is a reminder of the consequences of war, one that is relevant not only to the First World War, but even to the wars we continue to wage today.
Testament of Youth
Author: Vera Brittain
Publisher: Penguin Classics;
Publication Date: Reissue edition (May 31, 2005)
Reviewer: Sarisha Kurup is a senior at The Harker School in San Jose, CA.