Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Close Encounter with Vera Brittain

Mini review - Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

The purpose of remaking the BBC's old film 'Testament of Youth' as a brand new feature film is to encourage people to read Baroness Williams' mother’s book during these centenary years of The First World War. It is one of the outstanding literary works of the 20th century as Vera Brittain ranks alongside our greatest women writers.  Its long narrative carries one straight into the heart of the world of the First World War, which was always remembered as 'winter'. Vera Brittain had the descriptive power to recreate, in poetic and atmospheric prose, the flavour of World War One itself, even its sounds - such as the distant explosions in France, faintly heard in London. One experiences a very ‘close encounter’ with this able, honest, single-minded young woman.

The book is not just the romantic love story of Vera Brittain and Roland Leighton, killed in 1915, in France. Both were 'golden' youths; both had won scholarship places at Oxford; both were poets and budding professional writers. Vera thought her fiance, Roland, would be editor of The Times, or another Rupert Brooke. The book's backdrop also includes the vestiges of the Edwardian world, Oxford life for women, Red Cross nursing in Camberwell, Malta and Etaples on surgical wards, the depressing attitudes of the complacent population left at home, nursing in sunny Malta among torpedoed sinking ships, train travel in 1917 across Italy and France and the massive effort after the war of survivors to remake their lives.

Vera Brittain was among the 'first wave' of feminists, some of whom had outstanding creative abilities, which, is some ways, have not been equalled since. Where is the modern Vera Brittain bending the English language to carry true and passionate emotion today? Where is the modern Ethel Smyth composing for the Proms? These 'first wave women' were so focused. For example, Vera was fiercely determined to become a leading women writer, from her teenage years. She kept a descriptive diary throughout the War, pouring out her loves and losses, which she used as material in this biography, published in 1933.

Vera also possessed physical beauty, both a blessing and a curse. What she calls her ‘pretty prettiness’ attracted to her youthful English scholars, the junior officer class that was so cruelly cut down in the War. 'Plain Jane' would not have suffered so much.  Among her three male companions known as 'The Three Musketeers' including her talented brother Edward, none remained, by 1919. Yet dogged Vera managed to carry on nursing the mutilated and gassed as a volunteer VAD (Red Cross nurse) in London, Malta and Etaples in France. Spiritually, she feels dead by 1919, only to begin again in an unappreciative Oxford University, as a jaded older student, trying to find out what caused the War by switching from English, to read History. A lifelong liberal, she blamed the treaties of the 19th century for World War One, rather that the Enlightenment, and its focus on human reason, science and technology.

She worked tirelessly during the 1920s for the doomed League of Nations, travelling each summer to Geneva, to try to prevent further wars. She was dangerously vocal during World War Two, trying to mitigate the blanket bombing of Dresden. She co-founded CND, the movement against nuclear weapons and she brought up Shirley Williams, potentially our first woman Prime Minister - only beaten by formidable Margaret Thatcher. Basically, Vera was usually on the right side of history.

Her book is really the grief-stricken lament of a non-believer, nevertheless full of poetry and beautiful descriptions. One can take from the book sheer honesty. There is irony in that her fiance, Roland, converted to Catholicism, just before he died. In spite of this, Vera throws away faith and Anglicanism and, as a result, has to face despair, rage and bitterness. By 1920, she is emotionally exhausted, having a mental breakdown, subject to delusions that her face is changing shape, going on long lonely walks and seeing ghosts, too drained to get the First Class degree they had hoped for her.

She is saved by the friendship of a fellow woman writer, Winifred Holtby, with whom she lives platonically, even after she marries academic George Catlin, the father of Baroness Williams. He lived in America half the year. This book justifies a debate Vera put on at Somerville College, Oxford in which she claimed that “Experience outweighs Scholarship” (which she lost). Of course, it does, when expressed by an artist, for, as she rightly says, academia is just ‘synthesis’ but art is pure creativity (and therefore superior).

The precious insights in this book jump, like lightning, from the page answering questions one has long suppressed. For example, she shares her perception that it is not what women have to do that grinds them down in this life, but the perpetual strain of trying to balance a serious career with the anxieties and guilt of endless family cares, and other social responsibilities.

In 1933, Vera suddenly realises that the shadow of World War One will outlast her own generation’s lifetime and their efforts to rebuild Civilisation. World War One will shape the future century and all its generations: its bottomless wounds will not heal. Healing from the Great War was a task, she says, hampered by the fact that the best men were killed. Tired old men driven on by the anger and pain of public mass losses, led Europe into the disastrous Treaty of Versailles, which ripped from Germany its colonies, navy and territories, leaving it floundering in the Depression - which led to the rise of Adolf Hitler.  British politicians were drawn from the second and third rate men.

She writes prophetically in 1933: “The best that we who were left could do, was to refuse to forget and teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came, would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt and shattered generation. If only somehow, the nobility which in us had been turned towards destruction could be used in them - for creation. If the courage which we had dedicated to war could be employed in them for peace, then the future might indeed see the redemption of man, instead of his future descent into chaos”.

The notion of universal peace is idealism: Jesus Christ teaches that there will be wars 'always' due to human sin. However, the War generation's children did put in place structures, which so far, have held up in Europe at least. Let us hope peace continues, for when war comes, as it did in 1914, it can come out of a clear blue summer sky.

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