Testament of Youth
It was a read-along, started on Twitter, by Jillian.
A young woman's coming of age experience is shattered and transfigured over night by World War I. This is the passionate, true story of Vera Brittain, who fought to further her education at Oxford, only to postpone her attendance to serve as a volunteer nurse during the Great War. In only a few short years, she had experienced traumatic suffering, sacrifice, and loss, which altered her life mission forever. She wrote in order to share her story and the story of her generation.
DETAILS (POSSIBLE SPOILERS)
This story is well-written, though at times slightly wordy; nonetheless, Brittain tells a captivating story, 600+ pages long. The reader will sense her bitterness towards the stifling expectations of her time, especially the traditions of her parents and their generation. Brittain was never meant to fit or follow those customs. She was born before her time and blazing her own trail.
It may seem obviously outlandish to 21st-century readers, but for Brittain's generation, and more specifically for provincial young ladies, such as herself, marriage and motherhood were supposed to be her only options for the future. But she fought the status quo and won her chance to enter Oxford, though many doubted her success.
Then WWI began. Brittain referenced her journal to retell the events of the War as they occurred in her time. Her brother and his friends, including one young man whom she developed a romantic relationship, patriotically went off to fight for England. Determined to sacrifice herself for her country, Brittain also left Oxford and volunteered as a nurse.
She was stationed in England, Malta, and France (even close to the front line - as per her request), and experienced the ravages of war. She lost her fiancé, two other male friends, and finally, her brother. It devastated her conscience and transformed her life course.
After the War, Brittain was understandably discouraged and bitter about life and the world. She reluctantly completed her education at Oxford, focusing on history, and soon after, worked as a journalist and became a speaker for the newly formed League of Nations. She also struggled as a frustrated novelist. She secured a best friend, who lovingly reminded her of her brother and fiancé; and she also gained a romantic admirer, attracted to her intellect, whom she committed herself to marriage.
For the remainder of the story (which ends in 1925), Brittain wrote about her fervent development of socialist ideals and the ambitious quest to end war for good and maintain peace in the world.
|The men Vera loved (L to R: her brother, fiancé, and friend)|
OF A PERSONAL NOTE
Brittain's story resonated with me because I like to know people on a personal level where I can better understand why they think the way that they do, whether I agree with them or not.
Her story reminded me of my mother's story (who was a young girl during World War II). She, too, desired to attend college; yet even in 1960s America, her parents never heard of such an idea. Instead, she was sent to work . . . to help pay for her brother's college tuition. This unjust decision burns my mother even today.
It was not until her marriage that she put herself through community college, to at least obtain an associate's degree. And my grandparents still thought her behavior outrageous, especially as a wife and young mother. But they were of a different time, and lived with different life experiences, just as Brittain's parents and their peers did. Future generations often look back on previous generations as primitive and benighted.
One looming question Brittain often asked was this (in my words): How are women to find satisfaction in education and fulfilling careers, yet, still make room for marriage and motherhood? In her words:
Could marriage and motherhood be combined with real success in an art or profession? If it couldn't, which was to suffer -- the profession or the human race?This is an essential question for women even today because, yes, finding time for a successful career is time-consuming. But more women are doing this today, completing college and developing a career; yet, the truth is, adding a husband and children complicates everything. Or dare I say . . . pursing education and a career complicate marriage and family? I guess it depends on your priorities.
Not all women want to pursue education or career, as some are just as desirous to focus solely on family; hence, the human race will go on regardless; but, in truth, I think more are doing it all, though something is suffering -- if not the career, then the family, and if not those, then the woman is burdening herself beyond her control, which is the frustrating struggle of a woman's life, as Brittain identified.
Brittain also understood that marriage was an emotional risk, something she was not willing to experience, given the pain she had endured during the years of the War. She admitted that women do desire male companionship, including intellectual and romantic, but marriage is certainly a risk. I cannot repeat that enough. Even Scripture says (again, my words): singleness is good, but if you cannot remain single, get married (though this is in reference to spreading the gospel).
Now, other hot topics included nationalism, patriotism, heroism, and pacifism. Brittain believed that a world organization of leaders would solve the war problem by reigning in man's desire for control, conquest, and possession. That is why she adopted the socialist ideology because they claimed to have the answer to ending war, poverty, and inequality -- issues closest to her heart.
But she soon learned that the League of Nations was full of hot air. Sadly, I am not sure (yet) she discovered that Socialists have their own desires for control and power because, in all of human history, small groups of men always gain power over and control the masses. It does not matter what label is given their ideology; they always make similar promises, and the end result is always misery for everyone else. She quotes Ecclesiastes:
So I returned, and considered all the oppressions that are done under the sun: and behold the tears of such as were oppressed, and they had no comforter; and on the side of their oppressors there was power; but they had no comforter.Furthermore, I disagree that patriotism is what causes war, although Brittain may have switched patriotism and nationalism. She may have clarified that patriotism was used to fuel men to rise up and fight for their country. Patriotism -- a love of one's own country -- is good and healthy for citizens; but nationalism, in which greedy, power-hungry men, who seek to dominate because they have a higher view of their place in the world over others, is dangerous and does cause war. I believe Brittain did discuss that her generation was duped into patriotism when it had nothing to do with the War.
As for heroism, Brittain found it unnecessary and reckless; but I disagree. Heroes conquer fear and confront evil; heroes stand for righteousness. Heroes risk their lives for the weak. And this is even more prevalent in men because they are designed by God to be protectors of their homes and families.
However, the fact that saddened me the most is the author's spiritual hopelessness in the future. Unfortunately, Brittain's parents did not train up Vera and her brother in the knowledge of Christ. She had zero hope in the resurrection and everlasting life. She did not know the Lord.
And then I remembered, with a startling sense of relief, that there was no resurrection to complicate the changing relationships forced upon men and women by the sheer passage of earthly time. There was only a brief interval between darkness and darkness in which to fulfill obligations, both to individuals and society, which could not be postponed to the comfortable futurity of a compensating heaven.Why do I bring this up? Because she talked about this a lot. It was a source of bitterness for her, as if she knew there was a God, but she was really angry with Him. Everyone suffers to some degree in this life because there is a purpose and point to suffering. Brittain begrudged her parents generation because they enjoyed a seemingly peaceful world; but her own coming of age was shattered with war and political upheaval.
The middle-aged and the old had known their period of joy, whereas upon us catastrophe had descended just in time to deprive us of that youthful happiness to which we had believed ourselves entitled.No, it was not fair; but if she had any understanding of the way of the world, she may have better understood that it really was not about her or her generation, that much of it was out of her control, and that war was and is always to be because of sin and wickedness that abounds on earth, which began at the very beginning of time, in the Garden.
. . . but at least I can begin by trying to understand where humanity failed and civilisation went wrong.Her hope was in man-made solutions, which also makes me sad because man is utterly corruptible. Man will never have peace on this earth, so long as he is at war with God in his heart.
We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence; our lives, and our children's lives, will be rational, balanced, well-proportioned, to exactly the extent that we recognise this fundamental truth.So when you combine a group of godless men and call them the League of Nations, or the U.N., or have leaders sign peace treaties, they are only temporary fixes to the world's problems. But Brittain could not known this because her hope was solely in man.
By the way, while I hate war, I also strongly believe that God does permit men to go to war, especially to restrain evil, even if it means a loss of life. Hence, I am curious what Brittain's opinion was of World War II and if she ever wrote about it.
There is much more to this story, so many struggles and conflicts on this personal journey. Brittain is very raw and truthful about her youthful ignorance and emotional disappointments. I know I had a lot of disagreements with the author, but I absolutely appreciated this momentous work of insight and discovery. No one can discount her experiences; this is her unique story.
The demonstration would not . . . be easy; for me and my contemporaries our old enemies -- the Victorian tradition of womanhood, a carefully trained conscience, a sheltered youth, an imperfect education, loss of time, blasted years -- were still there and always would be; we seemed to be forever slaying them, and they to be forever rising again.IS THIS BOOK FOR YOU?
If you enjoy biographies, stories about World War I, especially in a woman's voice, and particularly prefer works on early feminism and pacifism, this is an essential story for you. There is also an intellectual feel about the work, and a sweet romance that blossoms in the early part of the story. But beware because it is heart-wrenchingly devastating, though there is a sense of recuperation at its end.
In one sense, I was my war, my war was I; without it I should do nothing and be nothing. If marriage made the whole fight harder, so much the better; it would become part of my war and as this I would face it, and show that, however stubborn any domestic problem, a lasting solution could be found if only men and women would seek it together.