Group Read, November 2014: Testament of Youth

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Group Read, November 2014: Testament of Youth

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oct. 31, 2014, 3:43pm

With the ongoing commemoration of the centenary of WW1, it is perhaps fitting that we have this autobiography as our Group Read this month. Enjoy the read!

oct. 31, 2014, 4:44pm

I am concentrating on Testament of Youth as my main read as I have to return it on the 3rd and there are two others waiting on it so I can't renew. I'm not going to review it yet as I haven't finished but I will say that there really couldn't have been a better pick for this time of year. Poignant and aching with loss this is a true war story. Don't expect to be able to read it all in one hit unless you are made of sterner stuff than I am; I am needing 'time out' sessions at regular intervals to allow the latest griefs to be absorbed before I continue on.

I picked up some Saki as a break and began reading The Square Egg in the bath only to find out that they were war stories. Then I reread the introduction and was reminded that Hector Hugh Munro was killed in the war...

nov. 2, 2014, 2:40pm

Got notice today that my copy is available at the library. Glad to finally be in on a group read and for what sounds like a 'good' book.

nov. 2, 2014, 4:54pm

Finished Testament of Youth tonight after a' final push'. It will expire tomorrow so I was cutting it a bit fine!

The novel is in three main parts; the first deals with her life up to the outbreak of war, the second with The Great War itself and the third with the after effects which ends a bit before European relations really break down and World War II comes along. Each of these 'parts' is excellent in their own way and they are all extremely interesting as to what they reveal about a time of life far removed from the now, but it is the section on the war which forms the central core of the book and is definitely its emotional heart.

There are no surprises as such, we all know what is going to happen ahead of time, who is going to die and where Vera's life will go after the war - it's the journey not the destination that matters here.

As a young woman with a high opinion of her intellectual abilities Vera Brittian fights hard for the life she wants, and that means going to Oxford. Whatever your views on her personality I personally had great admiration for the grit and determination that she showed and also for her candour in being able to portray herself in rather an unflattering light at times.

After the outbreak of the war the true test of courage began and I'm unhappily aware that I wouldn't have shown the same moral determination that she did. Even with the rosy spectacles of youth Vera holds few illusions about what signing up as a VAD would entail and good grief they were worked hard!

Up til this point the novel was mostly about struggle; from here on, although the struggle continues, the personal losses begin to pile up one after the other. It was at this point that I had to put it down and walk away several times. I don't really have anything to say other than the personal strength that it must have taken to continue to work even though your very life as you know it is over is something outside my experience. I am going to go and see the poppies around the Tower in a few days, I'll remember just how many lives were blighted when I do so.

Once the war is over in many ways it became harder. Vera didn't really celebrate the Armistice; for her it came too late. For two years she lives in a bleak wasteland that was painful to watch before a human reaches out to her and ignites a warmth that begins the healing process and slows and reverses the mental breakdown that she was experiencing.

The part of the book immediately following this was the least interesting in a way as, along with Vera's life, there is a lack of clear direction and purpose that has driven the narrative up till then. Slowly, like a cold automobile on a snowy day, she picks up speed and begins to truly put her life back together. This later work contains a wealth of information about the Feminist movement, something I personally found very interesting.

There's a lot more to talk about but I'll wait until some others have finished it. But I would like to thank those who nominated and voted for this superb book during the 100 year remembrance 'celebrations'. It really couldn't have been better chosen.

nov. 3, 2014, 8:38pm

>4 M1nks: I skipped over your comments. My Oct & Nov books came in the wrong order, so I've been reading this book for the last couple of weeks, and will read Paradise of the Blind later in November. Testament of Youth has been excellent so far - I'm somewhere in the middle. It's not difficult reading, but I'm finding it hard to pick up. Not sure why that is - maybe it's just so long, and reading for 30 minutes or an hour won't advance me very far.

nov. 4, 2014, 2:32am

No, I read it in fairly large chunks where I could.

Editat: nov. 4, 2014, 4:23pm

At 100 pages in (we're at Oxford now) I'm enjoying this book, but wondering how others find it. Part of why I like it is the intense flavor it gives of life in England before the war -- 25 years too early for my interests but still really fascinating. Brittain is harsh on herself but also self-justifying, an interesting balance that reveals a lot of her character. Sometimes it rather annoys me, the way she's constantly in there saying "if I'd only known xxx" or "I was so terribly yyy."

Drawing upon her teen-aged diaries as she does is effective but almost painful. I feel that some of the naivete for which she castigates herself, or that she presents as unique to her as a sheltered provincial girl, is really the universal adolescent condition.

p.s. just got to where she knows Dorothy L. Sayers at Somerville. Love it!

Editat: nov. 6, 2014, 11:26am

Beyond everything else, what came to me through Testament of Youth was how lonely Vera Brittain was. She doesn’t dwell overly much on it, often passes it off as a blessing in some cases but there are so many instances where you can see that, unlike many women, she has no close friends. Of her two school friends one turns on her with a vicious diatribe (there is no background so we can’t judge at all how justified this was) and another parted ways a little further down the line with no overt anguish on either side.

At home she doesn’t seem to have a particularly close relationship with her parents, I think largely because her particular intelligence sets her apart from them and her personality is not suited to bridging the gap – something which I see repeating throughout the book. She has an ally of sorts in her brother but it seems her home life is one of at least partial conflict as she fights for the right to gain a higher education.

Once she gets to university she again seems isolated and later as a nurse. Betty is her one female friend and even with her she recounts a story about how they drifted apart as Betty was livelier and didn’t share in her interests in walks and the such like. This was presented as a good thing but I think it was putting a brave face on things. If I was in Vera’s situation I would have given much for one good friend to be able to pour my heart out to.

I think it was this loneliness which made her losses the more devastating. She didn’t make close friends easily and those who came up to her standards she loved passionately. Without the comfort of religion, without the support of close friends, each loss smote at her heart but she bottled everything up and ‘soldiered on’, something which eventually had an almost inevitable impact on her mental health.

I knew now that death was the end and that I was quite alone. There was no hereafter, no Easter morning, no meeting again; I walked in a darkness, a dumbness, a silence, which no beloved voice would penetrate, no fond hope illumine.

nov. 7, 2014, 7:37pm

Starting it now!

nov. 8, 2014, 12:44pm

Once they go off to war -- Roland to the front, Vera to be a nurse -- things get much better with this book. I'm beginning to understand the power of this story and what has made it an enduring classic. When Vera and Roland are young, naive, and idealistic, I just found their letters (and her voice) hard to take -- a combination of self-importance and self-castigation on her part. Also, it's hard to get excited about the views on Life of two teen-agers although I do understand why it's important to the book that we hear about their youthful illusions.

Last night I reached the first major death. I don't want to give anything away but I will say that even though I knew it was coming, I felt shattered. I couldn't sleep. The whole circumstance was so remarkably awful.

nov. 8, 2014, 7:22pm

I've been thinking today about Vera's later pacifism, and how she caught a lot of flack during the next war for being so vehemently against it, even to the extent of expressing skepticism about stories of concentration camps etc. as being nothing but anti-German propaganda. Some readers of her diaries/autobiographies of later years really take her to task for this.

I'm not sure how to formulate this exactly but I am thinking that once her idealism about fighting for what's right, and patriotism etc. had been so utterly shattered in 1914-18, she couldn't retrieve any bit of it when the next war arrived. Also, to us in historical hindsight it is so simple to see WWI as the useless, pointless war and WWII as the one that was right and just. But I can imagine how, to somebody who'd been overwhelmed by the useless and pointless one, that distinction was not so easy to make in real time.

nov. 9, 2014, 2:54am

Starting it now as well.

nov. 9, 2014, 8:34am

I think it is easier for those of us involved in neither to separate the two wars, though they are bound up so tightly together. To see her peers go off to war and then later her children's generation to go again must have been devestating. There is a naivety to her writing, some of which coukd be explained by attitudes and education of the day, her remark about women hating teachers and homosexuals certainly struck me as this. Of course I noe can't find the quote, but it was at her brother's speech day.

nov. 9, 2014, 9:24am

I'm following this discussion, having read this twice now. I had very different reaction the second time of asking than the first. B interesting to see if anyone else has the same experience of it as I did.

nov. 10, 2014, 2:46pm

I'm enjoying this book so much. Just past the mid-point, I'm ready for chapter 8. She has just come back to England from Malta. The writing is so descriptive and so expressive. I'm quite envious of her letter-writing and diary-keeping abilities. Of course, she is a talented writer and I'm not. But I think she also grew up in a time and place that placed much more value on the written word than we do here and now. Our loss, I think. She is really going through a wringer, emotionally. That, more than anything, is what is slowing down my reading. These events deserve to be considered at a stately pace. I'm so grateful that the university library where my ILL copy came from gave me an extended check-out period and I don't feel I have to rush. That would only have led to the book being return unfinished. Which would have been a shame.

nov. 10, 2014, 5:09pm

She is really going through a wringer, emotionally. That, more than anything, is what is slowing down my reading. These events deserve to be considered at a stately pace.

That is exactly how I felt.

nov. 10, 2014, 6:27pm

My reading pace has slowed as well, it is a very captivating style of writing and I don't want to miss anything. I am reading about the Malta section now.

nov. 11, 2014, 2:51pm

I've only just gotten to the start of Vera's work as a nurse, but I have to say I'm really enjoying this one. So glad it was picked for a group read, as it wasn't on my radar at all.

Editat: nov. 14, 2014, 12:07am

I have finished the first part and am really quite moved by it. Like most of you, I think this is a book to read slowly. Partly because so much is happening and the effects of it on Brittain are painfully clear, thanks to her perfect memory and her style of writing, partly because I don't want to know yet what or who is next. I am taking a break now, also happy somehow that I have still 2/3 to go!

Editat: nov. 14, 2014, 12:12am

I've read Testament of Youth a couple of times, first inspired by the PBS television production around 1980, and then recently when I remembered how much I had admired it. And also recently, I discovered Vera Brittain's more personal--if you can believe it--recounting of her story in Chronicle of Youth.

I was so deeply moved by her story of youthful innocence, followed by her experience nursing in WWI and later life, that I am really enjoying reading your comments as you move through the book. Hope to continue following this thread.

nov. 16, 2014, 6:01pm

I just completed part 2. The war has just ended and she concludes chapter chapter 9 with a tirade about the way professional nurses are treated by society and by the hospitals where they work. Very valid points, but I hope this isn't how the rest of the book - the post-war section, apparently - is going to go.

I couldn't help feeling a bit of patriotic pride when she described the American soldiers entering the war at the end of section 14 in chapter 8.

nov. 17, 2014, 2:05am

I found the final section started slowly. I saw parrallels with Vera's own life in the writing; as she was fragmented and lost so the book felt that way. The sense of abandonment, frustration, anger and resentment at the war clouds everything giving a bleak hopeless picture. Fortunately it doesn't stay that way :-)

Editat: nov. 18, 2014, 11:45am

I'm almost through the section "Piping for Peace" and have found it extremely slow going. She seems to assume that you know all sorts of events and names in 1920s international politics, which probably readers in the 1930s did but I do not. And if you don't, then this part is simply not very interesting. It doesn't even have the descriptive texture of the earlier parts. There are nice personal moments, like where she stands up for herself at a political meeting, and once you get to the women's rights issues there are some fascinating insights. Like, who knew that the age of consent was 13 until 1923?! But on the whole I am looking forward to being done with this part.

nov. 19, 2014, 5:27am

I am so glad I finally read this book. It took me quite long and I feel awful to say that I enjoyed the first and last part less than the parts set during war. Especially that last part is so very important, it was just hard to read, for the reasons annamorphic mentions.

I am however determined to read the two sequels as well and I am going to rate this one with 4.5. As a German, I could just hug her for her understanding and very clear and intelligent views on the political situation of post-WWI Germany, and on the same time go into hiding for shame that she was so let down by that country again, just after ToY was published. Reading her careful optimism and realizing the book was published in 1933 of all years almost made me cry.
What an inspiring extraordinary woman she was!

This is also a great example that war books written by time-witnesses reach their objective better without getting too drastic. I often thought that most modern authors, writing historical fiction about VB's life, would put the focus elsewhere. We would have to go through the odd half-passionate love scene, then through all the desperate grief (the way the author imagines it) and on top get all the blood and gore details from hospital life. Women's rights and pacifist movements would probably fall flat in comparison to all the emotion.

So while the book has some lengths, retrospectively it all made sense, even more if it is seen as part of a comprehensive life work (also the parts about writing and publishing - it will be interesting to see if that gets any easier).

nov. 21, 2014, 9:01am

Boy, it took me a long time to get through Testament of Youth but I really enjoyed the book.

I found Vera's story of the war years was really powerful and I really liked the stories she told in the years immediately following the war, showing how different her generation was from those that were kids during the war. I found the final quarter of the book -- focusing on the feminist and peace lectures a little less interesting.

Definitely a great choice for a group read!

nov. 21, 2014, 4:57pm

Finished this yesterday and have posted a review on my thread along with an extra factoid that, to me at least, makes the whole war story even more awful than it already was.
I am very glad to have read this book. The style of writing sometimes drove me crazy and there were things about Vera Brittain herself that annoyed me and yet this is a book that will very much stay with me, a remarkable window into the life of a quite remarkable woman in a period when it's the men we usually hear from.

nov. 23, 2014, 2:39am

Like many of you I am reading this book rather slowly. I can't imagine Vera's life during the war. She is so brave and lonely, she loses het youth and so much more. The fact that she writes the book in 1933 and doesn't know what is yet to come, makes it even more painful. I am now starting the third part, I wonder if it can be as powerful as the first two.

nov. 28, 2014, 1:08am

I finished the book this evening. What an amazing read! The only part that I found tedious was the beginning of the 3rd section, when she talks so much about the specifics of European politics after the war. Like someone else already mentioned, I don't know who any of those people were, and I don't understand the significance that seeing their names in print was intended to convey. Fortunately, that part was short. The next chapter, on feminism, I found more interesting and relevant.

It will take a while for the book to soak in, but at first blush I find it to be remarkable in every way. Well written, easily read and understood, very descriptive, emotionally revealing, a unique look at a time and place. Reading it together with the group, with all your supportive comments which helped to enlighten my understanding and confirm my own reactions, made it even more enjoyable for me.

This was the best group read ever!