Testament of Experience

by Vera Brittain
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

In a sense, Testament of Experience is a self-contained memoir of a quarter-century’s private and public events, but the book is best read in connection with its predecessor, Testament of Youth, and Brittain’s biography of Winifred Holtby, Testament of Friendship (1940), because it contains many references to the people and events discussed in them. The premise of Testament of Experience, like that of Testament of Youth, is that one may profitably interpret recent history in terms of one’s personal life, using “the technique of presentation hitherto reserved for fiction.” In fact, there is little recognizable fictional technique in Testament of Experience, except that autobiography perhaps inevitably relies on the use of an unreliable first-person narrator. Brittain’s style is not novelistic but direct and relatively unadorned, except in a few reflective passages relating to the deaths of friends or the conclusions of momentous public events. She largely adheres to linear chronology in recounting her experiences, but a reader must be vigilant to follow the time-frames of the various chapters and sections. In an attempt to communicate her sense of the close connection between public and private events, she often shifts abruptly between them—a technique that is often but not always effective.

A number of significant themes emerge from Brittain’s account of her life and career. The first of these concerns the problems facing a well-educated and ambitious woman who sought, in the middle decades of the twentieth century, to live in a manner that was both personally and professionally rewarding. Unable to form and maintain fruitful literary connections from the obscurity of upstate New York, Brittain reluctantly left her husband of one year to pursue a relatively independent life. Although G. eventually negotiated an arrangement that kept him at Cornell only in alternate semesters, between his work on behalf of various journals, government departments, international agencies, and the Labour Party and Brittain’s political work, lecture tours, and need for solitude in order to pursue large writing projects, the two were seldom together. Similarly, the middle-class English tradition of the boarding school education, compounded by the dangers of World War II in London, caused Brittain to be separated from her son and daughter for extended periods of time—as long as three years when they lived with family friends in Minnesota at the height of the war. Concern, doubt, and self-questioning about this manner of conducting family life recur throughout Testament of Experience.

The second most prominent theme concerns Brittain’s dedication to the cause of peace. Testament of Youth, a poignant narrative that centered on Brittain’s loss of both her brother and her fiancé in World War I, was enthusiastically received, for it apparently expressed feelings that were quite common among the British public at the time of its appearance, and Brittain gained considerable prominence on both sides of the Atlantic. Fame turned to notoriety, however, when she began to speak and write against the legacy of the Treaty of Versailles and for policies that she believed would avoid a new war. Her highly visible membership in the Peace Pledge Union and her writing and publication of a personal Peace Letter with nearly five hundred subscribers led to her being held in suspicion by various government agencies and, during the war, to a suspension of her passport and a restriction on her movements within Britain. Her peace activities, together with her husband’s rather distant association with Sir Oswald Mosely before the latter left the Labour Party, even brought veiled accusations of treason, but she was vindicated when it came to light that both she and G. had been on the infamous Gestapo list of British subjects considered particularly dangerous by the Third Reich. After the war, with the election of a Labour government and the end of bureaucratic nervousness about security, Brittain began again to act as an official representative of her country to various international organizations, and she was at last able to undertake long-delayed visits to the United States, various European countries, and India. Testament of Experience is on this level a testament to and demonstration of the value of holding to one’s personal political convictions, however unpopular and self-damaging they might become. Brittain saw her work as writer, lecturer, and political activist as being always based on a desire to “enlarge the consciousness of humanity” in order to try to promote peaceful change toward humanistic goals: a self-image that is reflected in the seriousness of this autobiography.

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