Racing Out of the Gate: Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

I haven’t been doing very well with Christina Stead’s The Man Who Loved Children since I posted a little while back about how unbearably annoying I found Sam Pollitt. In fact, I have put the book back on the shelf, for now at least, a rare decision of mine regarding a book I recognize to be of genuine interest, even significance–not to mention one that has been appreciated by readers including Elizabeth Hardwick (whose high praise led me to the book in the first place). Maybe another time I will find some way to cope with what felt to me on this attempt like a tormenting barrage of words and negative emotions. When someone drowns a cat in a bathtub early on and this episode quickly loses its distinctive repulsiveness, you know you’re not in a nice place.

In contrast,  I have been instantly caught up in Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, something that has been on my TBR radar for many years but which I only recently acquired. The very first sentence, for instance, is immediately provoking:

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 reasons for this egotistical view of history’s greatest disaster,” she continues, “it is necessary to go back a little”–and so we do. I’m only a little ways in at this point (the war has not yet broken out) but Brittain tells a briskly evocative story about her early years that is all the while haunted by this promise of impending disaster. She’s particularly interesting, so far, about her education: she was forutunate enough, though at a school primarily considered “as a means of equipping girls to be men’s decorative and contented inferiors,” to have teachers who introduced her to both feminism and literature. Testament of Youth itself is testament, of course, to their lasting influence. A taste of her voice, on which the success of any memoir so entirely depends:

Among the girls Miss Heath Jones’s lessons were not always appreciated, for most of the sheltered young women in that era displayed no particular anxiety to have the capacity for thought developed within them. Even now I recall the struggles of some of my contemporaries to avoid facing some of the less agreeable lessons of 1914. There is still, I think, not enough recognition by teachers of the fact that the desire to think–which is fundamentally a moral problem–must be induced before the power is developed. Most people, whether men or women, wish above all else to be comfortable, and thought is a pre-eminently uncomfortable process; it brings to the individual far more suffering than happiness in a semi-civilized world which still goes to war … and still compels married partners who hate one another to live together in the name of morality.

I suppose I like that passage as much as I do partly because I too believe that thought is uncomfortable and that discomfort is, therefore, a necessary and beneficial aspect of education, but we are pressured today to make education as comfortable as possible for our students. But I also like the forthrightness and slight acerbity of the voice. This is, we can tell, an unapologetically opinionated, articulate, political woman who somehow became, and flourished as, such a woman despite the stultifying environment in which, by her account, her intelligence and ambition was seen always as a difficulty rather than an advantage. How she became the woman who wrote this book is inevitably going to be one of the most interesting angles of the book for me, just as in Jane Eyre or Great Expectations the retrospective narration draws our attention to the development of the youthfully misguided protagonist into someone capable of narrating the novels.

There are all kinds of other quotable bits from the first 50 or so pages. She quotes often from her early diaries, which both amuse and appall the later Vera with their naivete.  Naturally, I enjoyed this bit about her reading of George Eliot:

‘The reading of Romola,’ enthusiastically records my diary for April 27th, 1913, ‘has left me in a state of exultation! It is wonderful to be able to purchase so much rapture for 2s. 6d. ! . . . It makes me wonder when in my life will come the moments of supreme emotion in which all lesser feelings are merged, and which leave one’s spirit different for evermore.’

Soon enough, of course, we realize as we note the date. Her resentment of her brother Edward’s “privileged position as a boy” is reminiscent of Maggie Tulliver’s turmoil  in The Mill on the Floss (I wonder if she read that too). “The idea of refusing Edward a university education never so much as crossed my father’s mind,” she recalls, while “the most flattering of [her] schol reports had never … been regarded more seriously than my inconvenient thirst for knowledge and opportunities.” “The constant and to me enraging evidences of this difference of attitude towards Edward and myself,” she reflects, “violently reinforced the feminist tendencies which I had first acquired at school”:

The passage of time–or so, at least, I fondly believe–has changed my furious Bruxton resentments into mellower and more balanced opinions, but probably no ambitious girl who has lived in a family which regards the subservience of women as part of the natural order of creation ever completely recovers from the bitterness of her early emotions. Perhaps it is just as well; women have still a long way to travel before their achievements are likely to be assessed without irrelevant sex considerations entering in to bias the judgment of the critic, and even their recent political successes are not yet so secure that those who profit by them can afford to dispense with the few acknowledged feminists who are still vigilant, and still walk warily along once forbidden paths.

On these last points, the change from 1933 to 2011 is not as great as one might hope.

I’m excited about reading on: this is someone I want to get to know, and to know about. A ‘proper’ post will follow when I’ve read the whole thing.

I’m also excited about finishing Shirley Hazzard’s The Transit of Venus, which I have been much appreciating despite the difficulties of its prose, which are of the opposite kind to Stead’s difficulties–Hazzard is elliptical, rather than excessive. The Slaves of Golconda discussion of The Transit of Venus, just by the way, will be beginning April 4 (the slight deferral of this date explains why I’ve picked up something else–I’m afraid if I finish Hazzard too far in advance, its details will not be ideally fresh in my mind!).

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5 Responses to Racing Out of the Gate: Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth

  1. Annie says:

    Rohan, I love this book and the later Testaments (of Friendship, of Experience, of a Generation and of a Peace Lover) as well. If you knew Buxton today you would have no difficulty at all in understanding how stultifying it must have been for her a century ago. You note that she sometimes quotes from her diaries of this period and they were published at the same time as ‘Testament of Youth’ under the title ‘Chronicle of Youth’. I thought I had a copy, but I’ve just checked and it isn’t there. I must have given it away. I’ve looked and it doesn’t appear to be still in print, but there are some fairly cheap secondhand copies available. I found it interesting to read the two together.

  2. I have Testament of Friendship as well and will definitely read it next.

  3. Rohan Maitzen says:

    A favourite passage from today’s reading: “I still have reason to be thankful for the knowledge of masculine functioning which the care of them gave me, and for my early release from the sex-inhibitions that even today–thanks to the Victorian tradition which up to 1914 dictated that a young woman should know nothing of men but their faces and their clothes until marriage pitchforked them into an incompletely visualized and highly disconcerting intimacy–beset many of my female contemporaries…” The word “pitchforked” is unexpectedly (perhaps unintentionally?) graphic, and the qualities of that eventual intimacy seem perfectly captured.

  4. Dorian Stuber says:

    Been meaning to read this for ages, to find suitable excerpts for the Great War section of my Modernism course.

  5. Rohan Maitzen says:

    I think you’d find plenty, and there’s also a lot of discussion (and examples) of poetry, which might set up some interesting class moments–about the modernists vs the war poets, for instance.

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