Testament of Youth

autobiography by Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth is the first installment, covering 1900–1925, in the memoir of Vera Brittain (1893–1970). It was published in 1933 and has been acclaimed as a classic for its description of the impact of World War I on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of the United Kingdom. It is also considered a classic in feminist literature for its depiction of a woman's pioneering struggle to forge an independent career in a society only grudgingly tolerant of educated women.

Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War.
Modem war is nothing but a temporary — though how disastrous! forgetfulness by neighbours that they are gentlemen; its only result must be the long reaping in sorrow of that which was sown in pride.

QuotationsEdit

(full text online, multiple formats)

  • For nearly a decade I have wanted, with a growing sense of urgency, to write something which would show what the whole War and post-war period—roughly, from the years leading up to 1914 until about 1935—has meant to the men and women of my generation, the generation of those boys and girls who grew up just before the War broke out. I wanted to give too, if I could, an impression of the changes which that period brought about in the minds and lives of very different groups of individuals belonging to the large section of middle-class society from which my own family comes. Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the War.
    • Foreword
  • I have tried to write the exact truth as I saw and see it about both myself and other people, since a book of this kind has no value unless it is honest... It is not by accident that what I have written constitutes, in effect, the indictment of a civilisation.
    • Foreword
  • "Long ago there lived a rich merchant who, besides possessing more treasures than any king in the world, had in his great hall three chairs, one of silver, one of gold, and one of diamonds. But his greatest treasure of ail was his only daughter, who was called Catherine. One day Catherine was sitting in her own room when suddenly the door flew open, and in came a tall and beautiful woman... 'Catherine... which would you rather have a happy youth or a happy old age?... Then Catherine thought... ‘If I say a happy youth, then I shall have to suffer all the rest of my life. No, I will bear trouble now, and have something better to look forward to.’ So she looked up and said : ‘ Give me a happy old age.’...‘ So be it,’ said the lady...
  • When the Great War broke out, it came to me not as a superlative tragedy, but as an interruption of the most exasperating kind to my personal plans. To explain the reason for this egotistical view of history’s greatest disaster, it is necessary to go back a little — to go back, though only for a moment, as far as the decadent ’nineties, in which I opened my eyes upon the none - too promising day. p. 17
    • Chapter I.Forward from Newcastle
  • Like many men who have been brought up without academic contacts, my father was at first more ready to listen to family cronies without any special title to their opinions, than to unfamiliar experts with every qualification for offering advice. The fact that his highly respected old friend regarded the presence of women at Oxford as in no way remarkable undoubtedly caused him to revise his opinion on the whole subject of the higher education of daughters.
    • Chapter II. Provincial Young-Ladyhood
  • The same khaki-clad civilians do the same uninspiring things as complacently as ever. They are still surprised that anyone should be mad enough to want to go from this comfort to an unknown discomfort—to a place where men are and do not merely play at being soldiers.
  • I am writing this in front of an open casement window overlooking the sea. The sky is cloudless, and the russet sails of the fishing smacks flame in the sun. It is summer but it is not war; and I dare not look at it. It only makes me angry with myself for being here — and with the others for being content to be here. When men whom I have once despised as effeminate are being sent back wounded from the front, when nearly everyone I know is either going or has gone, can I think of this with anything but rage and shame?
    • Chapter III. Oxford versus War
  • It is harder now the spring days are beginning to come... to keep the thought of war before one’s mind - especially here, where there is always a kind of dreamy spell which makes one feel that nothing poignant and terrible can ever come near. Winter departs so early here... ”
    • Chapter III. Oxford versus War
  • Sometimes... I’ve wished I’d never met you — that you hadn’t come to take away my impersonal attitude towards the War and make it a cause of suffering to me as it is to thousands of others. But if I could choose not to have met you, I wouldn’t do it — even though my future had always to be darkened by the shadow of death.
    • Chapter III. Oxford versus War
  • "Would you like me any less if I was, say, minus an arm?..." My reply need not be recorded. It brought the tears so near to the surface again that I picked up the coat which I had thrown off, and abruptly said I would lake it upstairs which I did the more promptly when I suddenly realised that he was nearly crying too.
    • Chapter III. Oxford versus War
  • It is still difficult to realise that the moment has actually come at last when 1 shall have no peace of mind any more until the War is over. I cannot pretend any longer that I am glad even for your sake, but I suppose I must try to write as calmly as you do—though if it were my own life that were going to be in danger I think I could face the future with more equanimity.”
    • Chapter III. Oxford versus War
  • How fortunate we were who still had hope, I did not then realise ; I could not know how soon the time would come when we should have no more hope, and yet be unable to die. Roland’s letters—the sensitive letters of the newly baptised young soldier, so soon to be hardened by the protective iron of remorseless indifference to horror and pain—made the struggle to concentrate no easier, for they drove me to a feverish searching into fundamental questions to which no immediate answers were forthcoming.
    • Chapter IV. Learning versus Life
  • The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among the chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power...
  • Let him who thinks War is a glorious, golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin-bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped round it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a found heap of hideous putrescence.
  • Who is there who has known and seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these?
    • Chapter IV. Learning versus Life
  • Those who are old and think this War so terrible do not know what it means to us who are young... When I think how suddenly, instantly, a chance bullet may put an end to that brilliant life, may cut it off in its youth and mighty promise, faith in the ‘increasing purpose’ of the ages grows dim.
    • Chapter IV. Learning versus Life
  • The fight around Hill 60 which was gradually developing, assisted by the unfamiliar horror of gas attacks, into the Second Battle... did nothing to restore my faith in the benevolent intentions of Providence.
    • Chapter IV. Learning versus Life
  • We should never be at the mercy of Providence if only we understood that we ourselves are Providence.
    • Chapter X
  • For a woman as for a man, marriage might enormously help or devastatingly hinder the growth of her power to contribute something impersonally valuable to the community in which she lived, but it was not that power, and could not be regarded as an end in itself. Nor, even, were children ends in themselves; it was useless to go on producing human beings merely in order that they, in their sequence, might produce others, and never turn from this business of continuous procreation to the accomplishment of some definite and lasting piece of work.
    • Chapter XI
  • I don't think victory over death... is anything so superficial as a person fulfilling their normal span of life. It can be twofold; a victory over death by the man who faces it for himself without fear, and a victory by those who, loving him, know that death is but a little thing compared with the fact that he lived and was the kind of person he was.
    • Chapter XII [quoting a 1924 letter]
  • Finally, an English-speaking woman professor from Cologne University took us militantly in hand, and treated us to a long and bitter dissertation on the blind incredulity of our country during the War. England’s propaganda, she insisted — quite correctly — had had to be far more malevolent than that of France and Germany, the conscription countries, because Englishmen would never have been persuaded to change their habits and join the Army without some exceptionally strong appeal to their sentimental emotions.
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
  • At morning Mass in Cologne Cathedral we stood unobserved beneath the high, pallid windows amid the packed congregation of shabby, heavy-eyed men and women, their sunken faces stoically devoid of emotion as they sang in harmony with the exquisite music which rolled through the vibrating arches above our heads. As I stood in that pale crowd of Germans, all singing, it seemed incredible that the world could have been as it was ten years ago; whatever evil was here, I wondered, that Edward and Roland had died to destroy? What enemy could there have been whose annihilation justified the loss of even one soldier?
  • It was best, after all, that our dead who were so much part of us, yet were debarred from our knowledge of the post-war world and never even realised that we “won,” could not come back and see, upon the scarred face of Europe, the final consequences of their young pursuit of “heroism in the abstract.”
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
  • How futile it had all been, that superhuman gallantry! It had amounted, in the end, to nothing but a passionate gesture of negation—the negation of all that the centuries had taught themselves through long eons of pain.
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
 
To rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war could surely be a more exultant fight than war itself, a fight capable of enlarging the souls of men and women... and uniting them in one dedicated community whose common purpose transcends the individual.
  • I wonder how we should like being a conquered people....
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
  • War, especially if one is the winner, is such bad form. There is a strange lack of dignity in conquest; the dull, uncomplaining endurance of defeat appears more worthy of congratulation. Modem war is nothing but a temporary — though how disastrous! forgetfulness by neighbours that they are gentlemen; its only result must be the long reaping in sorrow of that which was sown in pride.
  • “One day,” he exclaimed exultantly, “we will make war upon them and treat them as they have treated us l I am longing for that war ! ” And we couldn’t persuade him that we were not Quakers when we said that we thought the world had had enough of destruction and death.
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
  • “Oh, life!” I silently petitioned the future... if I do finally decide to marry G. and have a family — and I’m not absolutely certain, yet, that I really want to do either — please grant that I have only daughters; I’m afraid, in the world as it is, to have a son. Our generation is condemned, condemned, and the League, and all that it stands for, is only a brittle toy in the hands of ruthless, primeval forces!”
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
  • To rescue mankind from that domination by the irrational which leads to war could surely be a more exultant fight than war itself, a fight capable of enlarging the souls of men and women with the same heightened consciousness of living, and uniting them in one dedicated community whose common purpose transcends the individual. Only the purpose itself would be different, for its achievement would mean, not death, but life.
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'
  • To look forward, I concluded, and to have courage—the courage of adventure, of challenge, of initiation, as well as the courage of endurance—that was surely part of fidelity. The lover, the brother, the friends whom I had lost, had' all in their different ways possessed this courage, and it would not be utterly wasted if only, through those who were left, it could influence the generations still to be, and convince them that, so long as the spirit of man remained undefeatable, life was worth having and worth giving.
    • Chapter XII 'Another Stranger'

Quotes aboutEdit

  • 80 years ago Vera Brittain wrote Testament of Youth, a moving memoir about her experiences as a young woman during the First World War. Her account detailed the men she had lost (including several friends, her fiancé and brother) and the personal battles she fought as a VAD nurse. Brittain’s immense bravery and biting account of the horrors of war captured the hearts of a generation.
    To mark the centenary of WWI, Vera’s timeless memoir has been made into a major motion picture (released January 16th)... Testament of Youth should stand as ‘a warning which speaks to our own time as much as it did to the book’s first readers’, a sentiment matching Brittain’s own belief: ‘A personal difficulty overcome, a grief survived, a philosophy evolved out of sorrow – these things…belong to the collective effort of humanity.’
    • Vera Brittain and the First World War – Poignant look at the memoir’s modern day reach, Anna Walker, Readers Digest, (30 November 2014)

Testament of Youth: Vera Brittain's classic, 80 years on, The Guardian, (23 Mar 2013)Edit

(full text online)

  • In the end the war did spare Vera Brittain, but her fiance, her brother and her two dearest male friends were all dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918. The idea for a book, however, survived. It would later become Testament of Youth, one of the most famous memoirs of the 20th century, and this year marks the 80th anniversary of its publication.
  • "I think what is different about Testament of Youth, what has made it last, is that it does two things simultaneously," says Brittain's biographer and literary executor, Mark Bostridge. "It moves and it educates."
  • In the end the war did spare Vera Brittain, but her fiance, her brother and her two dearest male friends were all dead by the time the armistice was signed in November 1918. The idea for a book, however, survived. It would later become Testament of Youth, one of the most famous memoirs of the 20th century, and this year marks the 80th anniversary of its publication... Eighty years on, it remains one of the most moving books ever written about the damage of war and its continuing personal cost.

External linksEdit