Vera Brittain’s autobiographical account of the First World War is one of the most moving tales of suffering and determination. ‘Testament of Youth’ has been popular since it was first published in 1933 and it endures as a eulogy for the “lost generation” of the war.
On the outbreak of the war in 1914, Brittain, aged twenty, was beginning her degree at Oxford University. After many years striving to convince her father that sending his daughter to university was worthwhile, her decision to give this up in order to become a VAD nurse was not taken lightly. She served as a war nurse both at home and abroad, and her descriptions of long working hours and dire living conditions are one of the best accounts of a VAD nurse’s reality that I have thus come across. Through her war-work she keenly felt that she was experiencing the same horrific effects of the war on a par with her fiancé Roland at the Front. Their communications to each other contain many poems which detail the unimaginable horrors of war experienced by them both.
The book contains most of the letters that she wrote during the war and through this we gain a keen insight into how the war affected both those at the Front, those waiting to be sent out to the Front and those left at home fretting about the fate of their loved ones. For Brittain, the war brings its tragedies. First, her fiancé is killed at Christmas in 1916, her friends Victor and Geoffrey the following year, and finally her brother in the last months of the war. Each of these deaths takes something away from her and at the end of the war she is left a broken woman feeling significantly older than her years.
Vera Brittain’s work serves as one of the best insights into how the war affected women, in particular, but also how vast the changes were to British society after the war. Upon resuming her studies in the early 1920s, she discovers that her fellow students, who are a few years younger than her, do not care to share or relive her memories of the war. This leads her to wish that the war had taken her too. However, it is through her friendships with other members of the lost generation that she finds strength to rally on, and strives to achieve a first class degree, a career and rights for women. Throughout the book, her courage and determination are both admirable and inspiring.
Whilst Brittain’s privileged middle class upbringing is apparent from the outset, her first hand experiences of the war show how class barriers were broken down somewhat, and British society was forced into dramatic changing after the war. ‘Testament of Youth’ is a timeless account of one woman’s experience during the most cataclysmic years of the twentieth century. The changes that the Great War ushered in were immense and on a scale that is difficult to comprehend today. Furthermore, it resonates as an anthem for the lost generation. Those taken away and those who survived.