Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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.