Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

I’m faintly embarrassed to have to admit that for a long while I thought Vera Brittain and Vera Lynn were one and the same. I was really impressed that ‘she’ could both sing and write so well. Oh, my blessed ignorance! However, I will now never be confused again, after wading my way through the gargantuan Testament of Youth, which opened my eyes to so much, fascinated me, moved me, and yet also infuriated me. I haven’t read an awful lot about the First World War and this educated me immensely, which I greatly appreciated, as well as giving me a wonderful insight into the life of a ‘bluestocking’, a VAD, and a feminist pacifist in the early 20th century.

Vera Brittain had a remarkable youth, by virtue of being born at the fin de siecle, when the world was changing rapidly, war and revolution were brewing, and the lives of women were opening at exciting and unprecedented levels. As a wealthy middle class girl with enlightened parents and a good brain, she was in a perfect position to benefit from the advances of the Edwardian period. At the dawn of 1914, with an Oxford scholarship for the taking and in love with a handsome, intelligent friend of her brother’s, all seemed set for a charmed life of academia and romance for the young Vera. However, fate had different ideas for her, and by that summer, she found herself in a world at war, with all of her ambitions of an Oxford education suddenly meaningless and those she loved most facing almost certain death in the muddy fields of France.

Vera took up her place at Somerville College, Oxford, in 1914 as planned, though she had many reservations about doing this due to the war. Her youthful precosity and idealism is illustrated through the Dawson’s-Creek esque angst ridden letters she quotes from the time; it would be rare to find an eighteen year old today who included Latin poetry and religious discussions in her letters to her boyfriend! I greatly enjoyed her description of life at Oxford; the cocoa parties I read about in Bluestockings featured, as did the constant presence of chaperones, or ‘chaps’, and the myriad of rules, constantly being evaded, that the girls had to live under. The liberating independent environment and Vera’s enjoyment of studying meant that, despite the war, and her fiance, Roland, being on the front line, she still managed to enjoy herself tremendously, and she revelled in the stimulating atmosphere of Oxford and in the company of like minded women. However, before her first year was up, Roland was killed in action, and with him went Vera’s zest for life. Wanting to do something to feel that she was contributing to the war effort, and to keep her mind and body busy, she left Oxford and became a VAD, or voluntary nurse.

This period, from 1915 to 1918, takes up most of the book, and I found it absolutely enthralling. Vera started off her training in Camberwell, South London, was posted to Malta, and then to France. As a young girl with no experience of nursing, war, or naked men(!) she was suddenly thrust into a position where men with the most horrific wounds were dependent on her for their survival. Long days with barely a break were followed by freezing nights in inadequate accomodation, and VADs’ health or personal needs were not given a moment’s consideration. Exhausted, emotionally drained, grieving for Roland and also desperately worried for her brother and friends still at the front, Vera worked herself practically into the ground, relishing being busy and having constant rounds of tasks to do to take her mind off her personal troubles. She describes the draconian Matrons, the endless amount of pointless cleaning and polishing, the lack of supplies, the agonised cries of the men, the slow realisation that she has become numb to death and pain and blood. It was a terribly difficult, back breakingly exhausting job that Vera did for four long years, risking her own life in the process, as she crossed submarine ridden seas and lived in camps ever in danger of being bombed to smithereens, just yards from the front lines. I was in awe at her bravery, her tenacity, and her strength; despite the most crushing personal blows and being pushed to the limits of physical endurance, she found the ability, somewhere within herself, to carry on, driven by her desire to do something that made a difference.

By the end of the war, Vera’s world had changed beyond recognition. Most of the people she loved had been killed, and she found that people wanted to forget the war, and pretend it never happened, rather than confront it and learn lessons from it. When she went back to Oxford, she joined a year group of women who hadn’t directly experienced the war, and they mock her for her ‘survivor’ status. No one wanted to hear about her experiences or her losses. She is almost a harbinger of doom in the corner; the young women who, by virtue of being just two or three years younger than Brittain, missed having their lives uprooted by the war, just want to enjoy being young and free and independent.  Out of place, with no friends left, a growing sense of frustration, anger, loneliness and grief, and a determination to make the deaths of her beloved fiance and brother worth something, she resolves to dedicate her life to pacifism, and politics. As the book closes, she has met and moved in with Winifred Holtby, her greatest friend, and has a new lease of life as she takes on work for the League of Nations and learns that it is not dishonouring to Roland’s memory to allow herself a chance of love again.

One of the things I found most interesting is Vera’s description of the mentality of Roland, Edward and their friends. They were of that public school boy set who believed in duty and honour and the glamour of war, signing themselves up to fight as soon as it started. Before long, these still adolescent boys, with no experience of life beyond their school grounds, found themselves on foreign shores, living in trenches, in command of other men, and having to fight for their lives in muddy fields, often with inadequate equipment and a woeful lack of training. Their intelligence, idealism and knowledge of classical languages proved to be no use on the battlefield, and a disproportionate amount of young men of this age and social background – the ‘officer class’ –  were killed compared to their lower ranking comrades. This was not down to incompetence, but instead their idealistic willingness to put their lives on the line; they had grown up with the belief that honour and duty were everything, and so it was they that were first ‘over the top’, and the first to be gunned down.

This massacre of the future great and good led to the popular eulogising of the ‘lost generation’, something that Vera Brittain clearly believed was true. All of the first rate men of her generation, she repeatedly insists, were killed, leaving a world full of incompetent young men to rule the next. This rose tinted view of the unknown future prospects of those she loved best began to grate on me after a while; for all of her liberal, socialist ideals, Vera Brittain was still very much a middle class snob, and her opinions of the great unwashed compared to her view of the almost god like magnificence of Roland, Edward and their classmates, was more than a little condescending. Her belief that these public school boys possessed intelligence, talent and skill enough to change the world into a better place if only they had lived made me intensely angry in places, as if those who had fought and came back were second rate citizens, and didn’t deserve to survive. Her tone of superiority and snobbery throughout the book – as if no one else had lost anyone during the war and could possibly match up to her level of grief –  did leave rather a lot to be desired, in my opinion, and this did slightly mar my impression of her.

However, despite these misgivings, it would take someone with a heart of stone not to feel for Vera Brittain, and for how the best years of her youth were taken from her, along with those she loved most dearly, by a war she never wanted, and that turned out to be futile. I found myself close to tears in many places as she described her grief, and the personal qualities of those who turned out to be killed just pages later, and I really have so much admiration for how she coped, pushing herself to face her fears, intolerable discomfort and dangerous situations in order to do her bit as those she loved had done theirs.  Her story sheds a light on what life was really like during the first war of this scale mankind had ever known; the perpetual fear, the uncertainty, the complete eradication of a former way of life, practically overnight.  At 18, with the world your oyster, suddenly to see it all crumble and turn to dust, must have been devastating. Feeling like an old woman, at just 24, when it was all over, Vera had lost the chance to be young, irresponsible, foot loose and fancy free. She carried the burden of griefs too heavy for young shoulders to have to bear, and was haunted by experiences that had changed her forever. This fate must have applied to so many of her generation, both men and women, and how they found the strength to go on with their lives afterwards is beyond me. Testament of Youth is astounding in how it demonstrates just how enduring the human spirit can be, and how much we can find to live for, even when everything worth living for seems to have gone. It also shows how in war, there are no true victors, and Brittain’s powerful description of post war Europe hammers that point home well and truly.

Vera Brittain went on to become a very influential pacifist, to marry, and to have children, and though marked by her losses for the rest of her life, she used them to do good, to bring about change, and to improve the lives of others. I found her story so inspirational, and I would be very interested to read her other two volumes of autobiography, Testament of Friendship, and Testament of Experience, to see how her life developed after the period she documents in Testament of Youth. Overall, I think this book should be required reading, so that everyone growing up now can understand the pointlessness of destroying one another due to the greed and ignorance of men. The sheer scale of young men who were led like lambs to the slaughter, gunned down before they had even a chance to live, made me so furious in places that I wanted to scream with frustration at how this is STILL happening today. It makes me so angry that nearly 100 years on from 1918, we are still failing as a society to understand that wars are pointless, and such a futile, needless waste of precious lives. They achieve nothing, and never have done; all they leave behind is devastation and bitterness.  If only those who ordered their countries to go to war were actually on the front line themselves, then perhaps things would be different. I’m sure those in power would think twice if they were the ones facing the barrel of a gun.


  1. Verity says:

    I LOVED this book too – I read it in my first year at Oxford and it was wonderful reading about the places that I was experiencing. But it is also a valuable lesson into war etc and its futility. And also the growth of feminism. A truly inspirational woman.

    Reminds me that I have her massive tome Honourable Estate to read for my VVV, should start to tackle that 🙂

    1. bookssnob says:

      I bet it was lovely reading about a woman who enjoyed Oxford as much as you but several decades earlier! I wish I could find a book written about my university! She was inspirational indeed and I would very much like to read some of her fiction. I’ve heard it’s not fantastic but I am still intrigued! Enjoy Honourable Estate, when you get around to it!

  2. An excellent review, as always, of a book filled with so many ideas, so many experiences that it’s hard to put into words. I remember being overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information and emotion there was to be processed when I read this a few years ago – it took me almost a month to read, if I recall correctly. But as far as WWI memoirs from a female perspective go, I think you’d be hard pressed to find an author who captures the spirit and the details of the time as well as Vera Brittain. I’m not sure I came out of the reading experience liking her (as you say, her habit of canonizing Roland and her brother grates, though I do subscribe to the belief that the loss of so many young, intelligent, public school boys/men left a leadership vacuum throughout Europe that impacted the way the 20th Century evolved, not for the better) but I couldn’t help but admire her for all she had been through and how she had risen to the challenges presented.

    Clearly, a book that needs to be on more required reading lists.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks Claire. It was difficult to sort of ‘sum up’ a book of this scope, that encompasses so much. It took me over two weeks to read, and I needed to take the time over it to let it sink in and really effect me in the way it was meant to. It’s definitely a book to savour. I’m glad I’m not the only one who found her a little difficult to like at times – I thought I was being unkind! Personally I think leadership vacuum argument has been rather overestimated. These wealthy well educated men almost certainly would have been in positions of power, yes, but simply by virtue of their wealth and social status. They wouldn’t necessarily have been the best people for the job, or any more skilled for those positions than the people who had them. Wealth and public school educations don’t compensate for natural aptitude and especially in the early 20th c you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in positions of leadership who was there for their personal qualities rather than their personal connections. I don’t necessarily think they would have made the world a significantly better place. I think that was something that generation needed to believe, if I’m honest.

      However I am always open to other interpretations! I’m glad this was a book that affected you as much as it did me. Definitely required reading.

  3. Jennifer Dee says:

    I read this book many years ago and it is one of a handful of books that affected me very much. After this I could never get enough of books written at this time. You must try ‘Chronicle of Youth’ and ‘Letters from a Lost Generation’, which are the letters from and to Vera Britain from her brother, her finance and their two friends. In addition a biography ‘Vera Brittain a Life’ by Paul Berry and Mark Bostridge. Also try reading Winifred Holtby who was a close friend of VB’s.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Jennifer, thanks for your comment. I am very interested in all of these books you mention and am kicking myself that I passed up on a copy of VB’s biography in the charity shop the other day, as I’d love to read a more objective account of her life.

      I have read and greatly enjoyed some of Winifred Holtby’s books and am anxious to read Testament of Friendship now.

  4. Well told, Rachel, and you close with compelling, universal arguments against war.

    Loss is hard at any point in life, but, I think the loss of peers is particularly difficult. To lose them at any early age and in war with all of its horrors marks one, I think, for life. You can get beyond, go on to do good things and lead a good life, but, it is always there. I can understand your grating annoyance with Vera. Having myself lost a childhood friend to the Viet Nam war, an unforgivable waste of lives on all fronts, just months after finishing high school, I can understand her.

    The fact that so much of Britain’s youth, as well as much of Europe, was killed or injured in WWI made the advance of Hitler’s army easier is well chronicled. In any war, it is always the young, always the poor and notably the middle class that are sacrificed. I can empathize with your annoyance with Vera at her canonization of her brother and Roland, but, I can also understand her feelings, which I would suspect are common of her generation and place and time.

    Vera Brittain’s story reminds me a bit of Alcott’s personal story. She to went off to war, to nurse. The American Civil War. She saw the same kind of horrors, was treated poorly and fell ill to exhaustion and illness that plagued her the rest of her life, much like Vera’s experience did. She went on to become a famed novelist and essayist.

    The book seems to be important on so many levels; the first quarter of the 20th century, the war, the plight of young soldiers and that of women who cared for them, how we have treated our injured men, and women, of war, the lessons we never seem to learn.

    I think I will add this to my list of books – a never ending one for sure. You may want to try Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, which is a novel; short, terse, and semi-autobiographical, about an American’s experience on the Italian front during the first world war.

    Might I add that I am so proud and inspired that those of your generation are reading such varied works and expounding on them, both here and in my own country. You all give me hope for the future.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Penny, for your, as usual, generous and enlightening comment. I’m sorry that you lost someone in the Vietnam War, and it’s interesting to hear from someone who’s actually experienced a loss like Brittain’s to help me understand what it must have felt like to be her.

      Yes, you make an interesting parallel with Alcott, though if I remember rightly, her health gave up after just a few weeks. How frustrating that must have been for her.

      Thank you for the recommendation of A Farewell to Arms – I will most certainly look this up. I know very little about the American experience of war and would very much like to learn more.

      Thank you Penny – I can’t claim to speak for my generation, but I certainly am appalled by the amount of wars instigated and encouraged by Western countries that take place far from our shores and don’t affect us, but destroy the lives of people in other nations where our heavy handed interfering causes nothing but misery. What good do all these wars do, and whose purposes are they really serving? Human lives are not disposable entities, and yet increasingly it seems that governments and other powers consider them as such. It saddens me that with all of our education and scientific advances, we still can’t value the sanctity of life enough to stop killing each other over who owns or believes what. It’s disgusting.

  5. James Lomax says:

    Something very poignant about that time and that topic, Rachel.

    Not read this but we did some Wilfred Owen and Robert Graves stuff at A Level. I think Owen’s work is some of the most powerful poetry there is.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes indeed James. I haven’t read much WW1 poetry as it makes me cry but I think it’s important that this sort of literature is taught and its impact felt by younger generations for whom war has become an abstract, remote word that they don’t fully appreciate the impact of.

  6. Helen says:

    I read this last year and loved it too – and I’ll admit that I also didn’t know who Vera Brittain was until I heard about this book. I agree that Vera came across as very superior and condescending at times, but as you said, it would be almost impossible not to feel any sympathy for her. It was devastating every time she learned that another of her loved ones had been killed.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Hi Helen, thanks for commenting! I’m glad you enjoyed this too. Yes Vera Brittain seems to have fallen off the fame-o-meter in recent years as I gather she was very well known in her day. This is a great shame as her work for the peace movement was quite significant from what I can gather.

      I definitely felt devastated each time another death came…at one point I couldn’t bear to read on because I knew Edward’s death must be coming and I didn’t want her to have to suffer that on top of everything else. Funny that – even in a factual book, I somehow think by not reading a page the bad stuff won’t have happened.

  7. Darlene says:

    Such heart-breaking experiences for a young woman! Until I read your review, Vera Brittain, was a name I associated with that era but I knew next to nothing about her. This is a book that I need to read! Thank you not only for your review but the fascinating history lesson, Rachel!

    1. bookssnob says:

      I think you would get a lot from this, Darlene – social history and also an entertaining and thought provoking story. I’m glad you enjoyed my review!

  8. m says:

    There was a wonderful television series of Testament of Youth years and years ago – actually, possibly before you were born, Rachel! Long before DVDs or even videos, unfortunately.
    But I read the other books in the series and found them rather dull and dry. Like you say, VB doesn’t always come across as very likeable. I always felt sorry for George Catlin, whom she married, for living in the shadow of all these ghosts … maybe I was over-romanticising, but he comes across in the books as being so much an afterthought. Of course, I could be totally wrong and VB was simply being discreet about their life together.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m going to have to look that up, Mary! I’d love to see it dramatised!

      Oh really? I do wonder whether I would find endless descriptions of the political world dull…I was beginning to drift off towards the end of Testament of Youth, I must admit. I totally see what you mean about George Catlin – knowing he could never hold a candle to the rather idealised Roland must have been hard.

  9. m says:

    PS Doesn’t she look like Shirley Williams in that photo?

    1. bookssnob says:

      Yes she does! Shirley Williams clearly took after her mother!

  10. Jenny says:

    But then she must have been at Oxford with Dorothy Sayers! Does she say? I know Dorothy Sayers went to Somerville, and I think she would have gone around the same time as Vera Brittain.

    It’s interesting what you say about the young men and their ideals of war. I was reading Juliet Gardiner’s Wartime, and she mentioned that in the First World War, there were something like half a million volunteers in the first [very short time but I can’t remember exactly] after war was declared. But after the Second World War was declared, the response was tepid – definitely speaks to the disillusionment of the country’s young men, I think.

    This sounds amazing, I love your review.

    1. bookssnob says:

      No Dorothy Sayers was a good couple of years above Vera so while Vera mentions her as an example of a successful Somervillian they never actually met or were friends while at college.

      I’d love to read that Juliet Gardiner book -it sounds fascinating. Isn’t it interesting how many men were willing to sign their lives away? Definitely a sign of how upbringings and morals changed after the first worlf war.

      Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. I’m sure you would love Testament of Youth.

  11. This has been on my list to buy and read ever since seeing a tv programme about her a while ago. Your review is excellent and I shall definitely put this to the top of the list now.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thanks! I’m certain you will enjoy it as much as I did!

  12. LizF says:

    This is an excellent review and I thoroughly agree that Testament of Youth should be required reading for future generations so that they never forget the human cost of war.
    My younger daughter has just taken her GCSE History which included both World Wars and I think that there is a tendency to concentrate on the numbers of those killed which are so huge, that it is easy to forget that behind each death there is a human story of lives changed forever.

    There are also a series of books which feature excerpts from diaries and letters of people involved in the war, on all sides of the conflict, which should also be required reading especially as WW1 recedes further into the past and we run the risk of future generations not understanding the sacrifices that were made.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Liz! Yes – you are quite right. In the scale of such events the individuals tend to be lost, and so the real impact of war never truly gets grasped. This is what I loved about Testament of Youth – understanding what it is really like to go through a war, and to have to live with the constant fear and uncertainty. That personal aspect is what needs to be understood.

      Something else that I think is really important, going on from your comment about having all sides of the war read about, is showing English school children the experiences of German soldiers, civilians and those from other ‘enemy’ countries. They suffered too, and it was no more their fault than British people’s. I think our history lessons at school tend to gloss over that part. The people of a country cannot be tarred with the same brush of their leaders.

  13. sue rosly says:

    I love the fact that you can admit to being confused re Vera Lynne/Vera Brittain. And then you go on to write a corker of a review about Testament of Youth. I read it years ago and I was very impressed that Vera Brittain really recorded the loss of a generation in an intensely personal and meaningful way. It lays bare the horror of war in a way that few books do. But what I really liked was Testament of Friendship and her loving and generous portrait of Winifred Holtby. A truly inspiring book about friendship.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Ha! Thanks Sue, I appreciate that! You have summed this up perfectly – Vera Brittain makes war personal, which is why I think this book is so important. It’s so easy to make war about something that happened in the past, or about something that’s happening in another country that doesn’t affect us, but its personal impact on people’s lives needs to be understood and appreciated if any improvements in the way we go about resolving conflicts is going to happen.

      I am longing to read Testament of Friendship now. It is so sad that Winifred died so young, and Vera had to deal with the loss of yet another beloved friend too soon.

  14. bibliolathas says:

    I thought she really captured how agonising the wait for news was in an age of letters (and the dreaded telegram). That scene at Christmas when she’s expecting Roland home on leave has stuck in my mind. So sad.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oh my goodness, that scene nearly made me cry. It was just awful, and I can’t imagine what she went through. Yes – the fact that someone could have died a thousand deaths in between their last letter and the day it was received really hit home to me how agonising it must have been not to be in frequent touch. Though I was impressed that letters managed to be sent so frequently despite the dangerous conditions they were operating in.

  15. savidgereads says:

    Blimey this sounds like quite a book and one that I hadn’t heard of. (Is it even worth me saying ONCE AGAIN that you have written a marvellous review – it almost makes me vexed lol) Whoops.

    I always feel like because I have read so much second world war fiction I have read loads of first world war fiction and its so not the case. I mix them up though. Like your Lynn and Brittain, hee hee.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Ha! Thank you Simon – you flatter me!

      Yes I know what you mean – my knowledge of WW1 is sketchy at best but I always assume I know loads about it because I have read loads about WW2. Not the case! You would love this, definitely try and get hold of it!

  16. Lyn says:

    TOY is now available on DVD, it’s just been released in the UK. I bought the videos as soon as thjey were available years ago as I loved the series. TOY is one of my favourite books, I’ve read all Vera’s published journals & letters & her story is one of the most poignant of WWI. She isn’t always likeable but I found her courage admirable.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Oooh, I will have to get that! Thanks Lyn! I want to read more of Vera Brittain – as you say, she’s not always likeable, but her experiences are so remarkable and well told you can easily overcome that.

  17. chasing bawa says:

    I’ve had this book on my shelf for a couple of years but haven’t read it yet (it’s so big as well!) But I love reading about this period, fiction and non-fiction. There was a documentary on telly about Vera Brittain either at the end of last year or beginning of this year. Did you get a chance to see it?

    1. bookssnob says:

      You should read it soon – it does take a while to slog through but it’s totally worth it. No I didn’t see the documentary unfortunately! Maybe it’s available online somewhere…

  18. JOHN MCGEE says:

    In my quest to amend the pathetic education the state had provided me with, I set out in my late twenties on a knowledgeable journey, which has for the past thirty years continually added supremacy the word serendipity. Having swallowed up the pleasurable works of Dickens’s, Shakespeare, English History was a pleasant revelation, somehow in 1982 just before the Falkland’s conflict A Testament of Youth, halted me in my tracks. My grandfather was killed on the first day of the Battle of Loos, almost certainly gassed by his own colleagues, Vera Britain’s descriptive images of such horrors is never far from my thoughts. The consequences of my grandfather’s death left my father an orphan, who was to face a life of anguish. Thus on summer’s day back in 1998 travelling aboard a TGV express just south of Lille, the spoil heaps of the mining town Loos came in to view, instantly the sad insight of Vera’s suffering became reality to me. Thousands of men like my grandfather were to die in a foreign land, in a war which achieved nothing but misery, Vera Britain epitomised in her book the saddest exposure of what futility means. In my free time the book never left my hands until every page was read, on visiting the isle of Malta I couldn’t help but reflect upon Vera’s exquisite view of the island, so peaceful in its shady days, when serving VAD’s comforted wounded soldiers. Critiques have and will summarise their views upon the book, according to their intellectual prowess, however having worked with a serving officer from the Great War, spent many hours discussing with my uncle, his exploits from D-Day until the destruction of Germany, I like to think that has working class lad, I understand the horrendous destruction of Vera’s early life. Her book is awesome, explicit and includes her personal touches, whatever descriptive words her critics may use, she was telling the truth from personal experince.

    1. Jennifer Dee says:

      I have just read the comments left by John McGee. You have written such a lovely post with everything that I feel about this book. A close friend of mine thinks that Vera Brittan’s writing is too morbid and she thinks that she wallows in her experiences of WW1. But how could she not with all that had happened to her. I lost my youngest brother in Northern Ireland back in 1975 at the age of 18, so perhaps I come with a little knowledge of what VB went through.I’m a great admirer of all of her writing of which I think I have most of it.

      Thank you for putting your thoughts down of this book so succintley.

    2. bookssnob says:

      Thank you for your wonderful comment, John. It is always so powerful to hear people’s personal experiences of war and its effects. Your exploration of Vera’s own journey must have been a truly amazing experience – I’d be honoured to have the same opportunity. Vera Brittain’s moving depiction of the destruction of her early youth and the lives of her friends and relatives due to a completely pointless war really affected me and I wish more people would read this to understand the eternal pointlessness of wars.

  19. Kate says:

    What a really beautiful review, Rachel. I sobbed my way through this during a history class in college, and I’m not sure I could bear to read it again, but you’ve brought to mind how moving it was. I have Testament of Friendship sitting in the small stack of books I didn’t pack…I may bump it to the top.

  20. Marie M.C. says:

    You’ve done a wonderful job of summarizing this (massive) important book. I first read it 40 years ago. It left me stunned. I read it again maybe 20 years ago. I wish it was required reading. Oh — for those of you who don’t know –Vera Lynn was a very popular singer in World War II. One of her hits was “We’ll Meet Again”. You can see it on YouTube. Every time I watch it I think of all those beautiful young men who will never come home.

    1. bookssnob says:

      Thank you Marie! I’m so glad you loved this. It’s actually required reading in English schools for A level which is good, but it should be more widely read!

  21. Jo M says:

    I just read this book, and I loved, loved, loved it. It has set me off on something of a WWI binge since I didn’t know much about WWI before reading it. If you have any reading suggestions, they would be greatly appreciated! Thanks for a great review!

    1. bookssnob says:

      It’s fantastic, isn’t it? I didn’t know much about WW1 either and it set me off to find out more about it. You should read Rebecca West – The Return of the Soldier – it’s very good at bringing that era and the aftermath of war to life. I have heard that Robert Graves and Siegfried Sassoon’s memoirs are excellent, though I haven’t read them, and there are a lot of novels written by women about the aftermath of WW1 – E M Delafield, Winifred Holtby, Enid Bagnold and Cicely Hamilton come to mind. Persephone Books probably has a few books by women writing about WW1 in their list – they have Holtby’s The Crowded Street and Hamilton’s William – An Englishman, and I have heard that Helen Zenna Smith’s Not So Quiet and Irene Rathbone’s We that were young are very good. Virago also publishes a couple of women’s writing of WW1 anthologies. Hope that helps – you’ve got me thinking that perhaps a WW1 reading project beckons for me!

      1. Jo M says:

        I definitely want to read West, but I’ve had trouble finding her at a reasonable price. I loved South Riding (which is actually what led me to Testament of Youth; a fellow blogger recommended it after I finished South Riding). The memoirs are definitely ones I’ll check out.

        And if you decide to do a WWI reading project, I would definitely be interested in collaborating/participating/reading along!

        P.S. Congrats on your job!

  22. PeeWee says:

    It was wonderful to read your review of one of my favorite books and great to see that so many other people have loved it too! My mother first gave me ths book in 1979 when I was 18 and it had a huge impact on me. It is the one book I keep returning to and I have reread every 10 years. I agree Vera is not always likeable but she is always admirable and I would aspire to her strength, values and honesty especally in the face of so much loss and sorrow, a truely inspirational woman. I agree with a previous reader, this book should be required reading. I aslo hugely enjoyed the TV drama of it in the 70’s and wish they would rerun this as a repeat instead of some of the things they do! Have you read Testament of Experience yet?- another hugely enjoyable and insightful book.

    1. bookssnob says:

      That you Penny! What a wonderful story and I totally agree – Vera was an incredibly brave and determined woman and I have the utmost respect for her. I hope to be able to get hold of the TV series soon and I no, I haven’t read Testament of Experience but I shall get my hands on it very soon as you recommend it so highly. It’s about time I read more Brittain. Thank you for the nudge!

  23. epbeaumont says:

    To begin with the lighter note: for many years I had Ayn Rand the novelist confused with Sally Rand (the fan dancer).

    I’ve read Brittain’s memoirs several times, and I still feel the blows of all those deaths, in spite of my own annoyance at her idealization of the ‘lost men’ of her generation and class (What about the women? I asked, because the ones who came through experiences like hers were surely tempered steel as much as any soldier).

    For memoirs of a contemporary who lived through a very different face of war and social transformation, see also Marina Tsvetaeva’s Earthly Signs (Moscow diaries of 1919) and the collection Captive Spirit. She writes about WWI, the Russian revolution, and the civil war that followed.

    1. bookssnob says:

      I’m glad you also love this Ekaterina – it moved me immensely when I first read it, despite the somewhat annoying tone.

      I love Tsvetaeva’s poetry and those diaries sound marvellous – I will certainly look out for them, thank you for the recommendation!

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