Twenty years old when World War One began, Vera Brittain was a well-to-do first-year student at Oxford and very much in love with young Roland Leighton, a friend of her brother Edward. In her work, Testament of Youth, first published in 1933, she ably recounts the many horrors of the conflict, how she joined up as a nurse-assistant to keep her from somber thoughts after the dearest men in her life had gallantly, if somewhat naively, marched off to war. With the help of her diary and a collection of letters, she articulately reconstructs with precision the sentiments that drove her onward through the next four turbulent years of hell.
Vera Brittain must have suffered tremendously. She lost both her love Roland and her only brother Edward. She also lost her Victorian innocence; she deftly paints the transformation from girlhood easily abashed by discussions of an adult nature to war-scarred nurse who sees the best parts of men amputated and thrown into bloody waste piles. She studied History at Oxford after the war and found work in journalism. Due to the intense emotional upheaval that she underwent, it took her fifteen years to detach herself enough from the experience to document it. After the war, she would evolve slowly into a writer of some import, a political speaker and a champion of feminism with a highly intellectual voice. She was eerily insightful about the future, and her struggle to be both a career woman and a mother was as intense as her fight to maintain her sanity in the slaughterhouses of war-torn France. She honestly retells incidents of post-war bouts with insanity, where she pulls frantically at an imaginary beard that appears temporary handicap placard every time she looks in the mirror, a sure sign of what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder. The book is articulate and detailed, so much so that we’re left amazed that she so accurately reconstructed such involved hypothetical internal dialogues so many years after the events. If not a post-event concoction, she must have been an extraordinary woman.
The narration, though it has an important message to convey, is written in a style meant to curry favor with her former black-mantled dons of Oxford English. Get your like-named dictionaries ready for a steady assault of inanity with the likes of propinquity, asseverate, fecundity, propitiation, and supererogation. These verbal gymnastics aren’t helped by consulting the O.E.D. since the enforced expansion of diction leaves an after-taste that far outlasts the intended message. Her style is frequently cumbersome and pedantic, and through intellectual snobbishness, accomplishes the complete opposite of what was intended; it bores rather than inspires. Expensive erudition, like nudity, should only be exposed in tantalizing glimpses until the desire for more has been stoked by careful degrees to full flame.
In comparison to other important works of the day that deal with the personal costs of the war, such as Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, it doesn’t have the same emotional impact. Although hers was a true account, his a work of fiction, Vera doesn’t punch our lights out with her moving story mostly due to stylistic reasons. For example, a visual observer and reporter, she seems more concerned with the League of Nations delegates’ descriptions of white fluffy eyebrows topped by Bromberg hats than the thoughts and deliberations that took place behind them. Of the former we receive much and the latter none. Be prepared for many descriptions of purple and pink flowers set against lurid multicolored sunsets. As a result, we never get the much needed helicopter view of the wider events in which her life unravels.
Distractingly, she parades her erudition and horticultural knowledge in the style of grotesque Edwardian epaulettes-and-bemedaled patriotism, making the reader painfully aware of her Oxford robes, copiously employing phrases of Latin, Greek, French, and German (all without translation!), ten-dollar words, sprinklings of ‘deep’ poetry quotations (many of them curiously her own), and assumes quite wrongly, that the reader is familiar with the terms of elitist English lives. It clouds and handicaps the emotional message which should give the writer cause to take up the pen and the reader the motivation to sift through the 650 page result. Unfortunate, because the work at times simply becomes a historical curiosity in which the background conveys more than the foreground. We become amused, not only by the fact that that a twenty-year old did not know the sexual functions of male and female bodies, but that it took her twelve pages of circumlocution to express it. In this regard, her writing is important only if to reflect the spirit of her times. Her Victorian morals were destructive to the individual in that they suppressed the expression of the beauty of human experience in which sex plays the leading role.