Testament of Experience Critical Essays

Vera Brittain


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 748 words.)