Testament of Youth

by Vera Brittain

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

I remember him, at the age of seven, as a rather solemn, brown-eyed little boy, with beautiful arched eyebrows which lately, to my infinite satisfaction, have begun to reproduce themselves, a pair of delicate question-marks, above the dark eyes of my five-year-old son. Even in childhood we seldom quarreled, and by the time that we both went away to boarding-school he had already become the dearest companion of those brief years of unshadowed adolescence permitted to our condemned generation.

Writing about her youth many years after the fact, Vera Brittain recalls her warmth for her brother, Edward. Though he has died, she sees his continuity in her son, in the form of his arched eyebrows. Her loving relationship is one of the bright spots in her childhood—which, in retrospect, she sees as a road leading an entire generation to the doom of World War I. Edward later perishes in the war.

It never occurred to me to count on marriage as a possible road to freedom. From what I already knew of men, it seemed only too probable that a husband would yet further limit my opportunities.

Even as a young girl before World War I, Brittain endorses feminist ideas and does not want to simply find a husband. Instead, she lobbies her father intensely until she is allowed to study at Oxford. She never wants to follow the traditional route of marriage, though her views are unorthodox for the time. To some degree, the war allows her greater freedoms than she might have otherwise been allowed.

"I do not know," I wrote in my diary, "how we all managed to play tennis so calmly and take quite an interest in the Insult. I suppose it is because we all know so little of the real meaning of war that we are so indifferent."

Brittain writes that on the day World War I breaks out, she and her friends are playing tennis. She does not yet grasp the significance of what is to come, in part because she has led a sheltered life. The juxtaposition of her merry game of tennis and the outbreak of the war shows how naive she is. She is soon to be stripped of her innocence by the deaths of her boyfriend, brother, and friends.

Huddling into a coat in my cheerless cubicle, I watched the snowflakes falling, and wondered how ever I was going to get through the weary remainder of life. I was only at the beginning of my twenties; I might have another forty, perhaps even fifty, years to live.

After the death of her fiancé, Roland, Brittain feels despondent, as if she cannot go on. She is only in her early twenties, and she dreads living. The falling snow symbolizes her weariness and the coldness in her soul as she grapples with Roland's death.

"The gods are not angry forever. . . ."
It came, I thought, from the Iliad and those quiet evenings spent with my Classical tutor in reading of the battles for sorrowful Troy. How like we were to the fighters of those old wars, trusting to the irresponsible caprices of an importuned God to deliver us from blunders and barbarisms for which we only were responsible, and from which we alone could deliver ourselves and our rocking civilization!

Brittain recalls a line from the Iliad that she had included in a letter to her brother, Edward. She believes at the time that the war is the fault of some higher power, and she believes that this higher power, or fate, will deliver her and others from the war. Later, as a dedicated pacifist, she believes that the war is caused by people and that it was the fault of society that barbarism and war had erupted. Her book is as much an account of her wartime experiences as it is an account of her transformation from innocence to experience and from patriotism to pacifism. Her experiences convince her that war is wrong.

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