The Book of the Week is “Testament of Youth” by Vera Brittain, published in 1934. This is the depressing memoir of a young woman in England whose hardships were typical for her generation.
Ms. Brittain wrote, “…To me and my contemporaries, with our cheerful confidence in the benignity of fate, War was something remote, unimaginable, its monstrous destructions and distresses safely shut up… between the covers of history books.” She was in her late teens at the outbreak of WWI. She had just started college a couple of years after graduating high school, at one of the women’s schools of Oxford University. Ms. Brittain would not have been afforded such opportunity had a scholarly friend of her family not convinced her sexist father that educating females was worthwhile. Nevertheless, the entrance exams were rigorous. A glutton for punishment, she decided to major in history– about which she knew little– rather than English literature, which she knew well.
Then, to do her part for the war effort, Ms. Brittain took a leave of absence from school to nurse wounded soldiers for the Red Cross. She spent a total of three years in England and France performing unpleasant tasks, witnessing gruesome injuries and dying men, and chafing at orders of the bitchy matrons who were her bosses. Her younger brother had also just begun school, when he and three of his school chums were called up to fight in the war. One of the three became her boyfriend; she was friends with the other two as well. All parties exchanged numerous letters, detailing their activities, and expressing their fears, hopes and opinions about the war. In the next two years, all four young men died.
Ms. Brittain remarked, “No doubt the post-war generation was wise in its assumption that patriotism had ‘nothing to it,’ and we pre-war lot were just poor boobs for letting ourselves be kidded into thinking that it had. The smashing-up of one’s youth seemed rather a heavy price to pay for making the mistake, but fools always did come in for a worse punishment than knaves; we knew that now.”
The author described progress on women’s rights issues, as she considered herself a feminist. In the early 1920’s, England granted the vote to women over thirty years of age, because there was a disproportionate number of women in the voting population after the war. Oxford began granting degrees to women, rather than simply allowing them to take classes to further their education. Postwar, Ms. Brittain was no longer considered rude when she uttered the words “pregnancy” and “prostitution” in public (as opposed to “a certain condition” and “a certain profession.”) She and her friends freely discussed sodomy, lesbianism and venereal disease.
After Ms. Brittain finished her degree, she did some lecturing, teaching and publishing, and went to work for the League of Nations. She took her time deciding whether to marry a man who had pursued her. She was thinking, if she had a child, she would hope to a have a daughter, because a son might go to war and die.