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Tuesday, May 1, 2012

TESTAMENT OF YOUTH - VERA BRITTAIN




I had been reading this book for a very, very long time. It started out for me very slow and it was only after about 200 pages that I really got into it and began to understand why Vera Brittain wrote the way she did, her philosophy and the way she lived her life. Set just before, during and after WWI it gives you an insight into the world of nursing, and more specially the world of a young educated woman trying to veer away from the traditional husband and marriage and to the world of one trying to combine and have it all.

Vera was passionate about what she felt was the right thing to do and in this case it became her war effort to be a nurse to the best of her ability, to serve her country in the very best British military tradition. Her experiences and thus her life became one - as a voluntary nurse, the lowest of the low she became the odd job man of all the little bits and pieces no one wanted. Even when she came back to active service, the very fact that she had broken her earlier contract made her petty Matron give her the jobs of polishing the silver, or cleaning the wheelchairs whilst her massive experience in post trauma, post surgery, wounds and operative surgery went unheeded and not used.

Throughout her story we find the pettyness of human beings who wanted the power and the glory - who were determined to keep the young ones down and the strict rules that separated the sexes at a time when loneliness and desolation had to be kept at bay, was pitiful though whilst reading it - it made me quite angry. That no one thought of the feelings of these nurses. They were just cogs in a machine and not to be taken much notice of.

The period was particularly bad for women - in Oxford Vera was humiliated again and again and it is only her strong resolve and unwavering spirit that kept her on. This same spirit took her through the war and through the death of her fiancee, her beloved friend and then finally the huge loss of her brother Edward. The pathos of these losses and how she weathered them, mainly on her own (one thing being far away from England) and secondly she did not seem to be very close to her own parents, is admirable. Vera just gritted her teeth and again I am being general, with typical British resolve and stiff upper lip, just got on with it without breaking down which would have been the very normal reaction to such losses.

When her mother fell ill (as she says she did not know whether it was fictional and an excuse to get her out of the war zones), she went back breaking her contract as a dutiful daughter should despite her heart telling her no. Self sacrificing throughout but not prissy she knew she had no choice but to get back to England and the drabness of a domestic life till things were sorted out. I did not envy her at all.

Vera was different from her own background even. Born into a middle class provincial family who looked on a son going to university as normal but were horrified when Vera wanted to do the same. Even a trip unaccompanied was a no no and when she and her boyfriend had to go on a single train journey together, it became stiff and very painful because neither of them knew how to cope with each other all alone.


Her literary bent took her on a journalistic career with pitfalls and humiliations galore. Apart from rejection slips of her books, she had to face a barrage of criticism on her political assertiveness and views. This she took in her stride, never faltering in her views of what she considered was right.

Till the end of the book I thought Vera had done with love and all the grief it had brought her, but I am glad, so very glad that she succumbed to the pleadings of a young man and there was a happily ever after.

By the end of this book I was entranced with this character! This was a chunkster of over 650 pages - I think that and the small print put me off at the beginning.

8 comments:

JaneGS said...

I've heard of this book, but didn't really know what it was about. Sounds like I would like it, and like you would need to read it over a long period of time.

Glad you got your happily ever after in the end, and it sounds like Vera definitely earned it.

Audra said...

I've read Brittain's novel (the name escapes me) and liked it enough -- it needed polishing but gave me a sense of what her life is like -- but everyone has said this is her masterpiece. I'm dying to read it -- I hadn't realized it was such a chunky book!

Anna said...

I've heard great things about this book. Thanks for the warning about the slow beginning. I'll keep that in mind.

Marie said...

Wow, I think I've heard of her somewhere but I'm not sure where though. The book sounds really interesting; I'll add it to my list of things to keep an eye out for. :)

(Diane) Bibliophile By the Sea said...

This sounds like a compelling read. For me to stick with a 650++ page book, either the writing or story must hook me in order for me to stick with it.

DCMetroreader said...

I hadn't heard of this novel before and 650 pages does overwhelm me, but glad you enjoyed it!

chasingbawa said...

I watched a documentary about Britten last year which was amazing. I've got this one and the sequel but have yet to get to it (I seem to be collecting rather than reading books at the moment...) It's such an interesting period because so many things were happening especially when it came to women's place in society.

chasingbawa said...

I watched a documentary about Britten last year which was amazing. I've got this one and the sequel but have yet to get to it (I seem to be collecting rather than reading books at the moment...) It's such an interesting period because so many things were happening especially when it came to women's place in society.