Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

First published in 1934 and in print ever since, this book is considered to be one of the finest memoirs of the Great War. After an initial term at Somerville College (Oxford) in 1914, the author served as a V.A.D. (Voluntary Aid Detachment) nurse at home, on the island of Malta and in France for the rest of the war, during the course of which her fiance, brother and two of her closest male companions were annihilated. "Only a short time ago," she writes about half-way through the book, "sitting in the elegant offices of the British Red Cross Society in Grosvenor Court, I read in the official Report by the Joint War Committee of the British Red Cross Society and the Order of St. John the following words - - a little pompous, perhaps, like the report itself, but doubtless written with the laudable intention of reassuring the anxious nursing profession:

'The V.A.D. members were not...trained nurses; nor were they entrusted with trained nurses except on occasions when the emergency was so great that no other course was open."

And there, in that secure, well-equipped room, the incongruous picture came back to me of myself standing alone in a newly created circle of hell during the 'emergency' of March 22nd, 1918, and gazing, half hypnotized, at the disheveled beds, the stretchers on the floor, the scattered boots and piles of muddy khaki, the brown blankets turned back from smashed limbs bound to splits by filthy blood-stained bandages. Beneath each stinking wad of sodden wool and gauze an obscene horror waited me - and all the equipment I had for attacking it was one pair of forceps standing in a potted-meat glass half full of methylated spirits,. For a moment my sword of Damocles, the ever-brooding panic, came perilously near to descending on my head. And then, unexpectedly, I laughed, and the danger disappeared... I had to bombard the half-frantic dispensary for nearly an hour for surgical instruments, tourniquets, bandages, splints, wool, gauze, peroxide, eusal and saline. When I returned to the ward and its forty desperately wounded men I found to my relief that a Sister had been sent to help me. Though only recently out from England she was level-headed and competent and together we started on the daily battle against time and death which was to continue, uninterrupted for weeks, for what seemed an eternity."

For Vera Brittain the war was a shattering experience- senseless and incompetent slaughter on a massive scale- its conclusion no cause for celebration, but of infinitely renewable anguish, anger, sleeplessness and despair. But she returned to Somerville, obtained her degree in History and embarked haphazardly into a life of journalism and political action.

By the end of 1922, after three months in Kensington, I had had more than enough of being the unmarried daughter at home. It was not, certainly, as an exasperating experience as it would have been in the provincial town of Buxton where I grew up, where my mother's acquaintances would have expressed an endless patronizing solicitude for my failure to achieve marriage ten years after 'coming out', combined with charitable references to the fortunate compensation of my literary interests. But I was clearly enough aware that parents brought up in the nineteenth century tradition would have preferred, not unnaturally, a happily married daughter producing grandchildren to a none-too-triumphant Oxford graduate floundering unsuccessfully in that slough of despond which lies just inside the gateway of every path to a literary life. So I welcomed the late December day when I could remove my disappointing spinsterhood, together with my typewriter and rejected manuscripts, to the penurious but un-humiliating independence of Bloomsbury.

The Doughty Street studio consisted of one large room lighted only by windows in the roof, and divided by thin matchboard partitions into two tiny bedrooms, a minute sitting room, and a 'kitchen' so small that two of us and the gas-cooker could not comfortably inhabit it at the same moment. As the partitions reached only just above our heads, every sound made in one room was completely audible in all the others, so that when I coached my Welsh graduate in the sitting room, Winifred, temporarily banished to her bedroom, had to sit perfectly still for an hour without rustling her papers, sneezing or coughing. As the roof was so high, and the sunless rooms were fitted only with infinitesimal penny - in - the - slot gas stoves, the studio was always freezing cold unless we lighted a fire in the huge 'passage' grate, which consumed a sackful of coal in an afternoon and emitted volumes of smoke that covered ourselves and everything else with a black layer of sooty dust.

Each morning a scanty breakfast was brought to us on a tray by the blowsy, henna-haired housekeeper from the lodging-house off which the studio was built. Luncheon was always 'eaten out' in a restaurant in Theobald's Road, but we bought and prepared our own supper and tea. Every moment not required for meals or cleaning was strenuously devoted to work, and hour after hour, for weeks on end, we crouched with cold feet and red noses on either side of the flickering, sitting-room gas-fire, drafting the final sections of our novels, getting up for speeches, preparing classes, correcting childish essays, and writing scores of permanently home-less articles.

Superficially it was a supremely uncomfortable existence- and yet I felt that I had never before known what comfort was. For the first time, I knew the luxury of privacy, the tranquil happiness of being able to come and go just as I wished without interference or supervision. There had been no privacy in Victorian or Edwardian childhood, and from the age of thirteen to that of twenty-seven, I seemed to have lived in public. At school I had gone to bed and got up in dormitories, walked in 'crocodiles', read and worked in the company of others; nothing, perhaps, is still so oppressive in traditional boarding-school life as the inability of a boy or girl ever to be quite alone.

Buxton, no doubt, could hardly have been called community life, for I had the physical seclusion of a bedroom to myself, but it certainly did not allow privacy of any other kind; no member of that pre-war provincial 'set' could hope to live to herself even if adult, and local and family searchlights had played upon the dearest hopes, the most intimate relationships, of every 'young person.' As for the next seven years, four in the Army and three in college, they had represented community life at its most complete. Astonished relatives who occasionally dropped by to see me wondered 'how on earth I could stand' such 'Bohemian' discomfort, but to me it was Paradise.


It was, ironically enough, as much my experience in the Bethnal Green constituency as my trip to Central Europe which was responsible for our decision to quit the Liberal Party. For the first time, during those elections of 1922 and 1923, I came into contact with the homes of the poor, and learnt, as my provincial middle-class upbringing had never permitted me to learn, the semi-barbarous condition - - intensified beyond calculation by the War and its consequences- under which four-fifths of the population are obliged to lie in a confused and suffering world. I saw the men fighting one losing battle against economic depression and increasing unemployment, while to women waged another against excessive procreation combined with an accumulation of wasteful, interminable domestic detail, and the babies fought yet a third against under-nourishment, over-clothing, perpetual dirt and inadequate fresh air and sunshine.

I realized, with a shock of poignant revelation, the kinship between the men and women in these wretched homes, and the Tommies whom I had nursed for four calamitous years. The same brave, uncomplaining endurance were there, the same rough, compassionate kindness to one another in circumstances under which a complete absence of courage and humor and compassion might well have been understood and forgiven.

This new knowledge did not make me philanthropically minded - the attempt to alleviate such anxious misery with soup and blankets seemed to me mere self-deception, an endeavor to delude one's intelligence into a sense of having done one's duty and being thenceforth absolved from further responsibility. But it made me politically minded once and for all; I knew that for the rest of my life I could never again feel free from the obligation of working with those who were trying to change the social system that made this grim chaos possible, and I began to turn more definitely towards the Party which represented [ in those days] the spirit as well as the substance of that democracy to whose future I was forever bound by the common experiences of War.

1 comment:

  1. Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London, 1933, 2009

    In one of our desultory conversations last week my mother mentioned that she had read and was greatly influenced by this book when it was first published. My grandmother served as a VAD nurse during the Great War, my grandfather as an ambulance driver in France.