Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain
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Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces Testament of Youth Analysis

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1762

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 people away. It was an outspoken fellow student, Holtby, who made that unpleasant truth quite clear to her, and who later became her closest friend. Gradually, Brittain moved back into society; she worked for peace by lecturing on behalf of the League of Nations, she wrote a novel, and she fell in love again. At the end of Testament of Youth, with her wedding to Catlin just a few days away, Brittain once again could hope for happiness.

Brittain had delayed writing about her wartime experiences because, as she commented, the memories were simply too painful to recall. When she did write Testament of Youth, she had distanced herself enough to understand her own experience. In those traumatic wartime years, she had seen a new vision of her world, as a battleground between idealism and greed, peace and war, love and death. She had also come to the realization that women must often decide between preservation of the self and loss of the self in conventional marriage.

The fact that Brittain, unlike her friend Holtby, did not have to make that choice is one source of the optimism of Testament of Experience. Catlin, whom she calls G., shared her vision of the world, her passion for change, and her assumption that women’s goals were as important as those of men. During the twenty-five years of marriage which are chronicled in the book, Brittain and Catlin were frequently separated, while one or the other traveled or lectured. Brittain makes it clear that the periods when they were apart were difficult; however, every reunion renewed their relationship. At the end of Testament of Youth, Brittain had met Catlin on a train; at the end of Testament of Experience, she meets him in a customs shed, rushing to him as enthusiastically as she had twenty-five years before. Her expectations for their future are indicated by her reprinting the fairy story with which Testament of Youth had begun. Clearly, she expects to have a happy old age with her husband.

The political events of which Brittain and Catlin were a part during that quarter century gave them less reason for optimism. Even while they worked for peace and freedom, they saw the rise of Fascism and the spread of war. When he went to Spain during the Civil War, Catlin realized that he was watching a dress rehearsal for the attack on Europe. At last the air war came to England, and at that point, once again, Brittain had to worry about those she loved. Fearful for their young children, Shirley and John, she and her husband sent them to the United States. The price she paid was the loss of three formative years in their lives. Still, she was more fortunate in World War II than she had been in World War I; those closest to her, her husband and children, all survived. When she traveled after the war, Brittain saw the devastation of Europe; she visited India and Pakistan; she met leaders from all over the world and heard their hopes and fears. Certainly she realized that atomic weapons posed a greater threat to the world than anything that had existed earlier. Nevertheless, the absence of personal tragedy makes Testament of Experience a much happier book from Testament of Youth.

Where Testament of Youth and Testament of Experience alternate between personal and public events, Testament of Friendship moves in parallel lines, alternating between the two women whose relationship is the subject of the book. After an initially hostile encounter at Somerville College, Oxford, Brittain and Holtby became close friends. Both women had war experience; the fact that she, too, had seen the war at first hand enabled Holtby to convince Brittain that she must move out of the bitter self-righteousness that was isolating her from her classmates. Both women were feminists, aware of the dangers of marriage. Both women were writers, struggling to make reputations for themselves. Both had a strong sense of social responsibility.

Their personalities, however, were quite different. Brittain was serious and emotional; she profited from the contact with high-spirited, outgoing Holtby, who regularly aided strangers and ended up their intimate friends. On the other hand, Holtby, whose writing was less polished than Brittain’s, needed her friend’s critical help. It is a testimony to the depth of their feeling for each other that it could transcend Holtby’s success when Brittain was still unpublished and later occasions when the situation was reversed.

Because both women saw the need for social reform and yet were driven to write, they could talk about the conflict that is a major theme of Testament of Friendship: the opposition between the demands of the artistic self and those of the social self. The result may have been a dilution of effort, yet neither Holtby nor Brittain could exclude either drive from her life.

In another area, Brittain and Holtby took different paths. Persuaded that Catlin would enhance her career, not destroy it, Brittain left Holtby, with whom she had lived for three years, in order to marry, and then went to the United States with her husband. Initially, it seemed that Brittain’s marriage would end the friendship, but after she returned, she and Holtby once again became close, and the latter also became fond of Catlin. For Holtby, marriage did not seem to be indicated, perhaps because she had chosen not to risk it, perhaps because the man she loved, who was charming and irresponsible, insisted on disappearing for months and years whenever he took a fancy. Only when she was dying did he seem to recognize her need; summoned, he came, and she died believing that they were to be married at last.

Although both Holtby and Brittain were public figures, this book is primarily an account of a private relationship. Antifeminists who insist that women cannot maintain close friendships should be convinced by this tribute that they are wrong. Neither college disagreements nor personality differences, neither one’s early success nor the other’s marriage, neither frequent separation nor final death could break the bond that is honored in Testament of Friendship.

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