Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Testament of Youth Analysis
The epigraph to part 1 of Testament of Youth is also the final quotation in Testament of Experience. Briefly, it is a fairy tale about a girl who was permitted to choose between happiness at the beginning of her life and happiness at the end of it. Reasoning that it would be wiser to have something pleasant in the future than in the past, the girl chooses happiness in old age.
When Brittain completed Testament of Youth in 1933, she was happily married and the mother of two children. She could not be certain that her later years would be happy; she did know, however, that she had lost her golden years, along with her idealism and innocence, to the forces which produced World War I. Testament of Youth is Brittain’s own story; it is also the story of the women and the men of her generation.
Brittain was a child of the Victorian period, born into a lesser branch of a prosperous manufacturing family, reared in a pleasant English country house, educated by a governess, at day school, and finally at boarding school. In 1912 and 1913, she lived the life of a debutante. Only when she determined to go to the University of Oxford did she begin to suspect that there might be disadvantages to her stable society. While it was assumed that her brother, Edward, would go to Oxford, her family could not imagine why Vera would wish to get a college education. Even after she had convinced her father to send her, Brittain had to overcome the fact that her preparation was inadequate; meanwhile, her mother had to contend with the scandalized community. Clearly, a stable society could be stagnant. In this first confrontation with society, Brittain set a pattern for her life. Thereafter she would question what others took for granted, she would act to change whatever social institutions she found to be flawed, and she would honestly record the internal conflicts and the external struggles in which she was involved, not merely as personal matters but also as reflections of the larger problems of her generation.
By deciding to go to Oxford, Brittain was asserting her intellectual equality with the male sex. Yet, before she could become involved in the struggle for women’s rights, which later became so important in her life, her country had become involved in another struggle, which the idealistic young people of Brittain’s England considered a crusade for freedom. By the end of World War I, Brittain was to believe that those young people had been tricked and betrayed, and as a result, she was to espouse her second cause, that of pacifism.
While Brittain was at Oxford during the first months of the war, she had become friendly with Roland Leighton, a brilliant and talented young man who appreciated and applauded her need for intellectual development. Although she knew that her society demanded that a woman lose her identity in marriage, she was certain that Leighton would never desire such a sacrifice. By the time Leighton left to fight what was expected to be a short war, he and Brittain were engaged. Believing that she, too, must help in the war effort, Brittain went into nurses’ training in June, 1915. At Christmastime, Leighton was to return on leave. The day after Christmas, she rushed to answer the telephone, certain that he was calling to say that he arrived. Instead, she received a message informing her that he was dead.
During the next four years, Brittain discovered another weakness in that society which had seemed so comfortable. As she nursed maimed and dying men, as she received word of the deaths of Edward and all of her young male friends, she thought of the safe civilian leaders who were so quick to declare war and then to prolong the butchery as long as possible. Brittain had discovered that the German soldiers were not monsters; they had been lied to as thoroughly as had the young men of the Allied forces. Clearly, the war had been a horrible fraud; the society that justified it with patriotic slogans had been deceitful and hypocritical.
When peace came and Brittain returned to Oxford, she took her experience and her message with her. Yet she was once again disillusioned. The society that she had hoped to undeceive did not wish to hear her message. What she did not realize was that her bitterness was driving...
(The entire section is 1762 words.)