0638 | Testament of Youth | Vera Brittain

While this is one of the classic war books and written from the almost unique perspective of a woman, if you can find an abridged version to read, get that instead of the full text.

Brittain has written an extremely self-focussed work here. Where it deals with the life and times of women in the early years of the 20th century and, in particular, the impact of the war on them, it is very interesting.

Where Vera describes her own life and, in particular, what she gets up to after the war, the book is little more than a diary and thus, IMO, not worth reading. She does go on a bit, and when she does, it’s all me, me, me.

Whereas novels like Storm of Steel are written almost completely from the front line, Brittain could not write Testament from that point of view. Although this makes for a less gripping read, it conveys an important aspect of the war and one which is far less frequently described.

It’s also less frequently read. Brittain does herself no favours by not sticking to where the action is. A judicious editor would have realised that bits needed trimming off. She tells us that her mother is in Cornwall on holiday. It’s not immediately apparently that this is entirely useless information to the reader as it has no bearing on anything. As I say, if you can pick up an abridged version, do read it. Otherwise, be prepared for some blah.

What’s more, be prepared for her to come across strongly with her humanism and atheism. The former is very much a product of its time. At one point she claims that

So long as the spirit of man remained undefeated, life was worth having.

This comes after living through a world war which was instigated and fueled by nothing less than the spirit of man. Vera should have lived to read The Kindly Ones which gets this absolutely right:

There was a lot of talk, after the war … about inhumanity. But, I am sorry. There is no such thing as inhumanity. There is only humanity and more humanity.

The Kindly Ones, Jonathan Littell

As for the atheism, throughout the novel, Brittain addresses those she has lost as if they still exist somewhere but seems to think this in no way contradicts an atheist view of there being no afterlife. Curious.

While this is an important book, and will remain so for years to come, it won’t get any easier to read.

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