martes, 2 de octubre de 2012

Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain


Testament Of Youth by Vera Brittain is significantly more than an autobiography of a young woman. It presents, at least initially, a portrait of a society that nowadays appears quite foreign, takes us through a war that changed that society and rendered it obsolete and then leads us into an era that promised a new start, but which proved to be no more than a transition to the kind of modernity we now recognise. Testament Of Youth thus reads like a personalised view of history, written by an author who was conscious of change as it happened, and, indeed, was am agent in that change. Vera Brittain was also capable of appreciating the consequences that would follow.

Prior to the outbreak of World War One, Vera Brittain inhabited what were then described as the English middle classes. They bore no resemblance to what we nowadays identify with that label. These people were not merely professionally employed and propertied. They might proudly own two or three abodes here and there. They probably had servants, though they might not have referred to them as such. Private income was common, as were assumptions about education, marriage, career, deportment, manners and a host of other social trappings.

This, of course, was an era when only a small fraction of the population had any access to higher education, where women could not vote, where Britain still thought she ruled the waves. The Empire was still very much intact. Despite her commitment to feminism and her desire for independence, Vera Brittain seems, at the start of her memoir, to be heading by default straight for convention, as currently assumed by her class. But then the war came.

World War One lasted more than four years. The carnage was on a scale the world had never previously witnessed, and of an industrial type that had only recently been manufactured. Unlike modern warfare, however, the majority of the casualties were combatants, not civilian. By World War two, of course, the paradigm had changed,

World War One killed off almost a complete generation of young European men. Like many women, Vera Brittain joined up herself, feeling that she must contribute to the war effort in some direct way. But she became a nurse and her experiences caring for the wounded from the trenches form the bulk of Testament Of Youth. Her description of her work and those she nursed are vivid but balanced by detachment. She relates her experience without exaggeration, lists the horrors without once trying to shock for the sake of effect. Some of the most moving passages relate to those whose injuries were so severe they were left untreated. The stoicism with which they accepted their deaths is portrayed in its full, cold, terrifying inevitability.

At the end of the war, Vera Brittain can only be described as being in a state of shock. She had lost family and friends, and the man she would probably have married. She had nursed countless wounded, many close to death, many disfigured or jut shot to bits. By the end of 1918, it was clear that the world was not going to return to what it had been at the start of the decade. Women, of necessity, had done work previously denied them. They had the vote. A generation of young men had been interred.

And so Vera Brittain returned to university, but to study history rather than literature. Her desire to write was still there, but now she wanted to do something political or journalistic in an attempt to prevent the carnage she had seen from ever happening again. She offered support to the League Of Nations. But there remained a vast hole in her personal world, an abyss that nowadays we might diagnose as post-traumatic stress.

Eventually, she has her writing published and the possibility of marriage and a family reappeared, just when as a woman in her thirties, she had begun to assume her life would not take that route.

Testament Of Youth is a magnificent account or war, not of combat or heroism, nor indeed of comradeship or anything to do with militarism. Testament Of Youth describes consequences, both direct and indirect, and reminds us of the depths of suffering plumbed by the insanity of conflict. It deserves a wide reading today, since there seems to have emerged a tendency to portray war as mere memoir, rather than as wholesale, industrial, indiscriminate slaughter.

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