Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Testament of Youth

Title: Testament of Youth

Author: Vera Brittain

Number of pages: 661

Started: 28 July 2008

Finished: 17 September 2008

Opening words:

When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans.

Plot summary:

In 1914 Vera Brittain was 21 years old, and an undergraduate student at Somerville College, Oxford. When war broke out in August of that year, Brittain "temporarily" disrupted her studies to enrol as a volunteer nurse, nursing casualties both in England and on the Western Front. The next four years were to cause a deep rupture in Brittain's life, as she witnessed not only the horrors of war first hand, but also experienced the quadruple loss of her fiancé, her brother, and two close friends. Testament of Youth is a powerfully written, unsentimental memoir which has continued to move and enthral readers since its first publication in 1933. Brittain, a pacifist since her First World War experiences, prefaces the book with a fairy tale, in which Catherine, the heroine, encounters a fairy godmother and is given the choice of having either a happy youth or a happy old age. She selects the latter and so her fate is determined: "Now this woman," warns the tale, "was the destiny of poor Catherine." And we find as we delve deeper into the book that she was the destiny of poor Vera too.

Summary taken from Amazon.

What I thought:

This was a fascinating and engaging account of a period of history that forever changed Britain (and other nations), namely the First World War. It was an account of one woman’s experiences and how she and others went from patriotism for King and Country and to a horror at the mass slaughter of so many for little purpose.

Her experience was perhaps quite extreme, she lost her brother, fiancé and two friends, which was a higher proportion than many will have experienced, but as it is a personal account that is the impact it had on her.

The book does need to be read with a few things in mind. First, the book was written a couple of decades after the war when many of the people and incidents referred to will have been familiar to many readers. If the First World War and the politics of that time are not all that familiar to you then it is worth checking who some of the people or incidents referred to are to understand the significance of them more. Second, whilst she did keep a journal, she did not always keep it at the time things happened (she refers to this herself at one point during the book) so the accuracy of all of her account may not be 100% - but it is a personal account so that’s not necessarily a massive fault. If the book creates an interest in delving more into this period of history, that is probably achieving what she wanted anyway, so it is a good thing to question what she says, if only to learn the true extent of the slaughter that took place.

No comments: