Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

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.

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).

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