Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain.
Subtitle: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925.
In 1914, Vera Brittain was twenty years old and had finally persuaded her old-fashioned father to let her attend Oxford. Edward, her beloved younger brother, was starting at Oxford at the same time, along with his friends, Victor, Geoffrey, and Roland (the love of her life). Then the Great War started and the four young men joined up. A year later, Vera left Oxford and became a war nurse in London, Malta, and the French Western Front.
Brittain was a prolific diarist and all five were great letter writers. In this autobiography of her life till 1925, Vera Brittain quotes often from those letters and diaries in describing what they all went through in the next four years. She examines the death of a generation and of their dreams just as they were set to start their lives.
Don’t be put off by the thickness of this book. It’s worth the time. The author starts out by describing life in the provincial middle class in the pre-war years, when young women had to be chaperoned and whose highest expectation was to find a good husband. Then she moves on to the war as seen through her brother’s and her brother’s friends’ letters and her experiences as a nurse in the city and, later, near the front. One by one, the young men die. Page by page, she immerses you, unnoticed, deeper into their stories. At one point, I realized I had been crying for two pages.
After the war, Brittain’s life was without direction. She returned to Oxford and struggled to start her writing career. In the final section of the book, she writes about society’s changing attitudes towards war veterans and how her experiences led her to become a pacifist. I didn’t find Part III, after the war, to be as interesting as the first two parts. I sort of wish I had stopped at the end of the war. Since this book was written in 1933, I expect that, in this case, it makes a difference that I’m not part of the pre-WWII audience she was writing for.