Testament of Youth is a touching autobiography. As a wartime memoir, it illuminates the extraordinary courage of Vera Brittain and her contemporaries: the heroic young men who lost their innocence in the mud and the gas of the trenches, and the heroic young women who lost theirs in the blood and the antiseptic of the military hospitals. As a feminist document, it exposes the inconsistency and unfairness Vera Brittain saw in the laws and customs of her society.
The wartime memoir reveals aspects of World War I which are often neglected in less personal histories. Like most Britons in June of 1914, Brittain thought little of the assassination in far-off Sarajevo, Bosnia (later Yugoslavia), of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the event that triggered World War I. She perceived the outbreak of the war as an interruption to her personal plans for an education and a career as a writer. It proved instead to be a tragedy both personal and global. The war claimed her fiancé, two close friends, numerous casual acquaintances, and her brother, Edward. It also claimed eight million dead in battle and twenty-one million wounded. Vera Brittain’s response to the tragedy was human, not nationalistic. She nursed both English and German casualties during the war, and afterward she grieved not only for the English dead but also for the hungry, shivering children of a defeated Germany. The intelligence and compassion of Brittain’s narrative lead the reader to a deeper understanding of the human tragedies on both sides in any war, and to an awareness of the need for international cooperation.
As a feminist document, Testament of Youth attacks institutionalized sexism, which Brittain saw as riddled with inconsistencies. For example, although women in England had been granted the right to vote in 1918, that right was extended only to women over thirty. Prevailing wisdom in postwar England was that, with the male population decimated by the war, suffrage for all adult women would give women a political majority. Brittain herself, although she had a university degree and four years of national service, could not vote until five years later. Although Oxford University admitted women before the war and subjected them to the same rigorous curricula and examinations as men, it did not grant degrees to women until October of 1920. Brittain’s puzzlement over such paradoxes at first seems to be genuine. As more paradoxes come to light, that puzzlement changes to irony.
Brittain’s struggles to advance women’s rights after the war show how sexism affects even those in the highest seats of power. As a member of the Six Point Group, Brittain worked for the fair enforcement of the Sex Disqualification (Removal) Act of 1919. The Act was intended to remove legal distinctions between men and women, but women were still routinely dismissed from jobs when they married, a state of affairs that forced the best and the brightest to choose between marriage and career. Brittain worked also for the passage of such landmark legislation as the Criminal Law Amendment Bill of 1922, which raised the age of consent in sexual assault cases from thirteen to sixteen and disallowed the previously admissible defense that the attacker believed the victim to be of legal age. Brittain’s ironic bafflement over the opposition’s argument—that better protection for teenage girls somehow constituted a curtailment of British freedom—swiftly unmasks the sexism behind that argument. The same ironic bafflement lays bare the inanity behind objections to other major pieces of legislation enacted in postwar England. Brittain complains that a bill to give mothers equal rights of guardianship was regarded as an insult to fathers and,...
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inexplicably, to God. A bill to give women equal rights to divorce and to extend the grounds for divorce to insanity, drunkenness, and incompatibility instead of limiting those grounds to adultery (chiefly the wife’s adultery) was opposed because male members of Parliament considered adultery, which perhaps threatened a man’s “ownership” of his wife, far worse than wife battering or other types of abuse. Again, Brittain’s ironic puzzlement lays bare the foolishness she perceives behind such sexist thinking.
Missing from Brittain’s narrative is venom. Although she is occasionally sarcastic and frequently ironic, she disinfects each and every discriminatory law and attitude with the aplomb of the veteran nurse. In 1921, prevailing wisdom insisted that the shortage of marriageable men created by the war had rendered large numbers of women “superfluous” and that these “superfluous women,” for their own domestic happiness and for the good of the nation, should emigrate in search of husbands and so ease the strain on England’s disabled economy. In a letter to Winifred Holtby, Brittain sadly complains that people simply do not understand that not all women want or need husbands, and she points out several times that women should not be forced to choose between marriage and careers. Keeping married women out of the professions, she argues, very nearly amounts to race suicide because it wastes both the professional talents of women who choose marriage and the maternal talents of women who choose careers. The same intelligence and compassion that guided her through the tragedies of the war also guide her through the tragedies—and the tragicomedies—of peace.