Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain
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Analysis

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Last Updated on July 15, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

In Vera Brittain's memoir Testament of Youth, the negative aspects of early- to mid-twentieth-century Western society are examined in depth. Brittain dissects the patriarchal society that limits women to certain jobs, restricts their opportunities to higher education, and overall controls women's lives and their ability to take part in politics and the global economy.

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Such an environment provides Brittain with various obstacles, as she is an ambitious young woman. Brittain relates the outbreak of World War I in vivid detail, and because women like her have limited power in politics and global economics, she has no choice but to be dragged into the wars of powerful men. However, she portrays the men of her generation as being victims, too. Like women in her society, non-wealthy, non-powerful men are also dragged into war—a war whose horrors Brittain sees firsthand through her work as a nurse.

She also sees the larger picture of a corrupt society, which is the root of both institutionalized sexism and war. She concludes that it is the powers that be who control the trajectory of society—such as labeling who is or isn't an enemy and dictating what women can or can't do. Brittain nurses both English and German soldiers, which allows her to develop a deeper understanding of humanity and see past the labels of war and politics.

This macrocosmic view of humanity reinforces her feminist and pacifist beliefs, as well as her advocacy for cooperation among all people in general. Her wartime experiences also allow Brittain to gain new perspectives on England. Although the English soldiers are heroic, the British government uses propaganda—developed from centuries of imperialist practices—to paint the Germans as savages that need to be destroyed. This evil side of England is a window that leads to further illumination about negative aspects of British society. For instance, Brittain cites the flaws in supposed "progress" in the English suffrage movement, such as the government imposing limitations on which demographics are allowed to have political power (i.e., through voting).

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 596

Testament of Youth is the story of the loss of an entire generation’s youth and innocence to the shattering tragedy of World War I (1914-1918). Though often remembered as one of a very few World War I memoirs written by women, Testament of Youth contains only one section devoted to Vera Brittain’s wartime experiences as an Army nurse and two equally long sections dealing with her childhood and her experiences as a writer, lecturer, and activist in the postwar years. Woven into the narrative of wartime tragedy and peacetime frustration are consistent threads of puzzlement and irony over the political, social, and sexual double standards that relegated women to ancillary roles in all areas of life. Born into a middle-class British family near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign (1837-1901), Vera Brittain, like many women of her generation, chafed against the restrictions imposed on women by the strict morality of the late Victorian and early Edwardian eras. In Brittain’s day, any girl might be—as Brittain herself was at the age of eleven by her mother and aunt—severely chastised merely for chatting with boys her own age, and the education of women consisted chiefly of preparation for marriage. Throughout her narrative, Brittain attacks the various legal and social constraints that kept women from becoming equal partners with men in politics, social life, and even in such personal institutions as marriage and parenthood.

Part 1 of Testament of Youth chronicles Brittain’s sheltered childhood and her growing awareness of feminism, an awareness that was powerfully influenced by her study of two books by the South African feminist Olive Schreiner (1855-1920), The Story of an African Farm (1883) and Woman and Labor (1911), as well as by the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797), the English author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792), the first great feminist manifesto. Brittain won a scholarship to Oxford University’s Somerville College, where in 1914 she began her study of English, then considered the “woman’s subject” at Oxford. While at Oxford, Brittain continued her developing romance with Roland A. Leighton, a brilliant and sensitive young man she had met through her brother, Edward. Soon after the war began in August of 1914, Edward and Roland both joined the army, and Brittain followed in 1915, lying about her age in order to be accepted for training as a nurse. This section closes with Brittain’s posting to the First London General Hospital, which in 1915 was beginning to receive casualties from the front in France, and with the death of Roland.

Part 2 details Brittain’s experiences as a VAD (member of a Voluntary Aid Detachment) stationed in London, Malta, and France. In all three locations, she endured deplorable living conditions, worked long hours, and struggled to harden herself against the suffering of the wounded. Like many people in England, France, and Germany, Brittain suffered the loss of those closest to her, and with them the loss of her sense of purpose.

In part 3, Brittain recalls her postwar efforts to advance the causes of world peace and equal rights for women while beginning to establish a career as a writer. Brittain worked for the establishment of the League of Nations, an organization conceived by President Woodrow Wilson in 1918 to promote international cooperation. Brittain also joined the Viscountess Rhondda’s Six Point Group, a women’s organization that sought to improve the lot of women by establishing widows’ pensions, equal parenting rights, improved legal protection for rape victims and unmarried mothers, equal compensation for women teachers, and equal opportunity for women in civil service positions.

Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 169

A best-seller by the standards of the 1930’s, Testament of Youth sold 120,000 copies in its first six years and generated 1,300 letters to its author, who suddenly found herself famous. As part of a rising tide of popular feminist literature, Brittain’s story helped her generation to establish a new definition of women and their roles, a definition that included not only marriage and motherhood but also careers and, above all, self-determination.

Vera Brittain wrote twenty-nine books and countless essays and poems during a writing career that spanned half a century. Other autobiographical works include Testament of Friendship (1940), the story of her close relationship with Winifred Holtby, and Testament of Experience (1957), a memoir of the years between 1925 and 1950, including her uncomfortable experiences as an avowed pacifist during World War II. She wrote several collections of poetry, including Verses of a V. A. D. (1918), and her novels include Dark Tide (1923) and Account Rendered (1945). A notable work of history is Lady into Woman: A History of Women from Victoria to Elizabeth II (1953).

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 877

The three autobiographical books written by Vera Brittain owe their popularity to the fact that they represent more than personal history. They are interpretations of a time when a secure old world was dying and a cruel, horrifying new era was being born. As a young woman who lost those she loved in World War I, who dedicated herself to the causes of pacifism and feminism after the war, and who then survived World War II, once again to plunge into the fight for peace and for the rights of women, Brittain represents the victories and defeats, the hopes and fears of her generation.

Testament of Youth covers the period from Brittain’s birth in 1893 to her marriage in 1925. It is a book of 662 pages, with acknowledgments and a foreword by Brittain. Later editions include a preface by the author’s daughter, Shirley Catlin Williams, which stresses the importance of the work as the only representation of World War I written by a woman and also as a book describing the death of an era. The twelve chapters are separated into three unequal parts, each of which ends with a milepost in Brittain’s life—her fiance’s death, the end of the war, and finally, her marriage.

The thematic development of Testament of Youth is indicated by the epigraphs which introduce each part of the book and each chapter. The initial epigraph, a segment of a fairy tale, is repeated at the end of the later book, Testament of Experience, which takes Brittain’s life from 1925, the year of her marriage, to 1950. In Testament of Youth, however, it is the epigraphs preceding the chapters that are particularly moving, because all of them are quotations from poems either by Brittain herself or by her brilliant and doomed fiance, Roland Leighton.

Although it is somewhat shorter (480 pages), the third of Brittain’s autobiographical works, Testament of Experience, repeats the format and the subject matter of her first book. Again, her personal life is dominated by the love of a man, her husband, George Catlin (referred to as “G.”); again, her public life is dedicated to the struggles for women’s rights and for peace; again, Brittain and those she loves, her husband and her two children, are endangered by war, just as her fiance, her brother, and her close friends had been in Testament of Youth.

The structure is almost identical to that of Brittain’s first autobiographical volume. After a foreword, there are twelve chapters, grouped into three unequal parts, each of which ends with an important event. The first part takes the author from her marriage to the beginning of World War II; the second, to the end of the war; and the third, on travels throughout the world, ending in London with Brittain once again in the arms of her husband.

Testament of Experience repeats the pattern of epigraphs preceding each part and each chapter. These epigraphs, however, vary greatly in form. There are lines from letters by G. or by Brittain, segments of poems or prose by the author, and—when the writing and publication of Testament of Youth is described—even a book-jacket blurb by Brittain’s friend Winifred Holtby.

The second autobiographical work, Testament of Friendship, is different both in subject matter and in form from the other two volumes. While each of them concentrated on Brittain’s attempt to survive a war and to be reunited with those she loved, in this book the threat comes from disease, which did indeed bring death to Brittain’s closest friend, Holtby, when she was only thirty-seven.

Testament of Friendship covers a sixteen-year period, beginning with the initially hostile meeting between Brittain and Holtby at postwar Oxford and ending with Holtby’s death in 1935. It covers some of the same time period as Testament of Youth, which ends in 1925, and Testament of Experience, which begins in 1925, and therefore it deals with some of the same events. In this volume, however, Brittain’s perspective is different: She considers such events in her life as her relationship with G., her marriage, and her motherhood not in themselves, but as they affect and are affected by her friendship with Holtby. Furthermore, she shows the parallels between Holtby and herself, both of whom were torn between art and activism and both of whom, as women, were also torn between their desire to devote themselves to the men they loved and their need to realize their own potential.

Because the analysis of this relationship is so detailed, it is not surprising that Testament of Friendship is 442 pages in length, about the same as Testament of Experience, which deals with twenty-five years instead of sixteen. The book is divided into twenty-three chapters, with a prologue and an epilogue.

Like the other books, Testament of Friendship is elegiac in tone. Yet Testament of Youth and Testament of Experience derive their elegiac tone less from the descriptions of personal loss (though both do contain such passages) than from the evocation of the end of an era. In Testament of Friendship, the elegiac tone arises from the fact that the book is a tribute to a friend and an expression of personal grief at her loss, not in a cataclysm, but through disease.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 399

Higonnet, Margaret Randolph, et al., eds. Behind the Lines: Gender and the Two World Wars. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1987. These essays reassess women’s wartime roles in the light of the twentieth century’s development of total war. Lynne Layton’s essay “Vera Brittain’s Testament(s)” suggests that before the war, Brittain subscribed to an essentially masculine pro-war view, but that because women define themselves in part through relationships, her personal losses during the conflict caused her to move toward an essentially feminine identification.

Kennard, Jean E. Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby: A Working Partnership. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1989. While arguing for the literary value of the writings of Brittain and Holtby, this insightful book examines women’s relationships as part of the process of self-definition. Kennard suggests that during a fifteen-year friendship, Brittain and Holtby served as second selves, each helping to define and to empower the other.

Leonardi, Susan J. Dangerous by Degrees: Women at Oxford and the Somerville College Novelists. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. A study of six women writers, this work discusses the novels of Vera Brittain as variations of the traditional romance, although many of Brittain’s heroines are examples of the university-educated or “Oxbridge” woman. Ultimately, Leonardi insists, Brittain’s feminist themes are overshadowed by the genre of the romance.

Mitchell, Dale. Women on the Warpath: The Story of the Women of the First World War. London: Jonathan Cape, 1966. This book argues that the patriotic achievements of women not only played a vital role in winning the war but also spearheaded the drive for equality in England.

Spender, Dale, ed. Feminist Theorists: Three Generations of Women’s Intellectual Traditions. London: Women’s Press, 1983. Spender offers this collection of essays as a refutation of men’s right to “ownership” of the realm of theory. Muriel Mellown’s essay “Vera Brittain: Feminist in a New Age” argues for Brittain’s position as a feminist and an independent thinker who refused to be pigeonholed or swayed from her beliefs by either conservatives or radicals.

Strachey, Ray. The Cause: A Short History of the Women’s Movement in Great Britain. 1928. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1969. First published in 1928, this dated but sympathetic work provides important background reading for understanding Vera Brittain’s feminism in the context of the struggle for women’s rights in Britain.

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