Vera Brittain

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Fred J. Ringel

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 531

During the lull after a literary deluge of experiences of the last war and rising warnings against the coming chemical extinction of mankind, books [of the sort of Testament of Youth] assume a greater significance. They are written by that "lost generation," invisibly marked with the shadow of death and destruction. The whole tragedy of a hoary youth without the exciting self-assurance of a "barbarian heroism," the bitterness of its sorrow and frustration, carry far more striking agitation against a new massacre than do the glowing tales of trench moles.

Vera Brittain's story is the average story of a million individuals during the war: the conventional middle-class home in rural England, a meager adolescence, a short period at Oxford, and then the beginning of the war. Her fiance is drafted and killed, her brother and their friends follow soon after, and Miss Brittain enlists as a nurse. Her hospital experiences in London, Malta, and France take up the greater part of the book.

For fifteen years Vera Brittain, poet and author of several novels, intended to write the story of her generation, fully exposing all the horrors which culminated in a sullen determination "never to forget." But time and distance had to be gained for an objectivity which released repressions and enabled her to relate her modest experiences to the great catastrophe. We can understand therefore the expansion of this human document into a voluminous opus. For the shock of those four years proved too reverberating an experience not to create within the writer a constant fear that the omission of the slightest incident might weaken the impression upon the reader of the hopelessness of that time—a time, as it were, when nursing mutilated bodies back to life seemed far more comforting than the sheltered life between optimistic victory headlines and ever-growing casualty lists.

It is an ambitious work. The 660 pages are divided into many sections and chapters, mottoed with poems by the author, her fiance, and other writers, and span a period from early girlhood to the, after all, happy ending, many years after the war. Vividly written in passages, it contains much valuable material. There are descriptions of battle scenes in France and of the Zeppelin horror over London, accounts of active service in hospitals, college life in Oxford, post-war political activity, and travel for the League of Nations. Yet one can only state with regret that it has not the importance one would wish for such a book, nor does it remain a stirring, unforgettable experience. It is throughout a personal account of a personal life, full of trivial incidents and diffuse meditation; never does it penetrate and define the intoxication and morbidity of a whole generation. Neither passion nor inspiration touches the many pages of solid type; cold reasoning permeates all matters of sentiment and emotion. Indeed, the Testament of Youth has still to be written of a generation that stayed at home but was none the less the victim of mass murder and the moral collapse that followed in its train. (pp. 454-55)

Fred J. Ringel, "The 'Lost Generation'," in The Nation (copyright 1933 The Nation magazine, The Nation Associates, Inc.), Vol. 137, No. 3563, October 18, 1933, pp. 454-55.

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