It’s a wonderful if sadly too rare feeling you get when you read the first sentence of a book and you know immediately you are going to love it. It’s like meeting an old friend and you suddenly remember how well you got on, especially in comparison to the fools you have been socialising with lately.
Such it was with Testament of Youth. There’s not a whole load I can say that has not already been said, other than it’s a fantastic book — but I’ll say it anyway.
The wonderful thing about being a human being is that we all have different views on everything, and not everyone loves Testament of Youth.
Firstly, some people do not like the writing style. It’s not what you’d call tight.
In that it’s Vera Brittain’s life story, and it is an incredibly dramatic story, I imagine the book almost wrote itself. Earning a place at Oxford and then delaying it to work as a nurse in World War One would be enough for most autobiographies, but Brittain witnessed the unnecessary and meaningless deaths of her fiancé, brother and two close friends.
She then went back to Oxford, became a journalist and writer, and turned towards the women’s movement, pacifism and socialism.
I imagine the book just poured out of her, and while to say it could do with some editing is true, you would also lose something. Great books don’t all to be great in the same way, and the slightly undisciplined style, and length, of Testament to Youth is actually one of its strengths.
Others have objected to the politics.
Out of the many things that irritate me, high on the list is people who only read things they already agree with. To be constantly searching for ideas that reinforce your prejudices suggests to me that you’re not all that sure about them yourself. Either that or you are stupid.
Also high on that list is people who do not respect the political views of others, for much the same reason. We all have different experiences of life, no one’s more valid than anyone else’s, and you draw on them to form your philosophy.
Therefore, Testament to Youth is exactly the book for people who are not feminists, pacifists and socialists. Not because it will change their views, but because you will see Brittain could hardly be anything else after what she went through.
There are some criticisms about it being a story of rank and privilege. There is truth in this and a certain unintended humour, 100 years on, about how her Oxford connections helped her join the London literary set, written as if everyone was in that situation, and how her parents casually took a flat in Kensington, one of the most expensive parts of London.
However, those advantages are completely outweighed by the huge blows life rained down on her. One of the main feelings you get from the book is how bitter she was that what we call our best years were taken from her and her generation.
For me, the best thing about Testament to Youth is not just what’s in it, but what hangs over it.
Desperately so in the early pages, when we hear about her brother and fiancé, knowing as we do in advance they are going to be killed in horrifically meaningless circumstances. In literary circles that is known as foreshadowing, and this must be the greatest example because Brittain didn’t even do it deliberately. She just told the story.
Even less deliberate, and great, is what happened after the book. Brittain wrote it with her young daughter running about the house, under strict orders not to bother her mother while she was writing. That daughter was Shirley Williams, who went on to be one of the UK’s first female cabinet ministers.
So when you are reading about Brittain’s desperate struggles, at least we know her ideas did not die, and in some small way served to make this imperfect world a better place — subject, of course, to everyone having a different view on that.
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