Vera Brittain, Testament of Experience

Testament of Experience continues the story of Vera Brittain’s life more or less from the point Testament of Youth leaves off. Though both volumes are autobiographical, Testament of Experience seems more conventionally autobiographical to me, in that it is specifically and deliberately the story of Brittain’s own life, while Testament of Youth approaches the history of her generation through her individual life, taking her personal experiences, not as typical, but as in many ways exemplary of the transformations wrought on all those whose youth was interrupted so catastrophically by the First World War.  There is a similar impulse to look out from personal experiences in Testament of Experience, but usually as a more deliberate pause in the action–an opportunity taken to reflect, or to record reflections–rather than a function of the work as a whole. Overall, Testament of Experience is more directly and simply a record of what happened to Brittain between 1925 and 1950.

As a result, Testament of Experience is a less profound and compelling read than Testament of Youth (and a less original and inspiring one than Testament of Friendship, which is not really autobiography). That’s not to say, however, that it is not extremely interesting, even gripping at times. For one thing, Brittain herself is an unusual and interesting person leading, especially as her story goes on, a genuinely unusual and interesting life: it’s a story that deserves telling. After World War II ends, as her literary and political fortunes rise again after the slump caused, during the war, by her outspoken pacifism, it maybe gets a bit tedious as it becomes more or less a travelogue, but then, she’s traveling not only in post-war Europe but in Egypt and India, and even her most perfunctory accounts of what she sees and does are never actually dull. Still, the last third or so of the book was my least favorite part.

The first part begins with her marriage to George Catlin (“G.” throughout), about which I wrote briefly before. I picked up the Berry and Bostridge biography of Brittain recently and will turn to it soon for a different look at this relationship. Brittain’s own account emphasizes both the value and the struggle of a marriage in which both partners granted each other the right to pursue vocational opportunities and priorities without binding them to conventional models of family and household. At the end of the book, returning home from a trip to India in great anxiety that G., severely ill with influenza, will die before she arrives, Brittain  thinks about “the family life we had built up together–so happy, for all the sorrows which had shadowed it; so united in spite of the minor internal differences”: “each had offered to the other a loyalty, a certainty, an unshaken source of perpetual strength.” That strength did not come from perpetual togetherness–far from it, as it sometimes seems (and may in fact be the case) that they spent more time apart than together. But why should marriage be defined in that way? Writing about her novel Born in 1925 to her editor, Brittain says,

This book deals with one conflict which must, I feel, be universal in an absolute sense: the conflict which arises from the dichotomy which exists almost everywhere between family life, and public and professional achievement. Why public insignificance should be the price of family unity, and family discord so often the price of eminence, is surely a problem that must have exercised thousands of families all over the world.

It may well be that she smoothed over the difficulties and resentments of their attempts to balance private and public life, but the picture she gives her (though she nods occasionally towards unspecified problems) is of a couple that simply resolved, having found resignation of professional achievement unacceptable on either side, to be partnered rather than paired. She sees Nehru’s sister, Vijayalakshmi Pandit, India’s ambassador to Moscow and Washington and later India’s High Commissioner in Britain, as a symbol “of the changes which had come for women in [her] lifetime”:

Through the conflict of marriage and career that revolution had been as costly, in achievements and opportunities, to G. as to myself. Yet however painful its personal consequences at the outset of our marriage, we had both, I thought, recognized their impersonal aspect.

The mistakes had been many but the treasures of mutual discovery had been many too, and the early years of conflict and occasional resistance were now far away. Our very problems had made us part of a concerned minority fighting against the dead-weight of convention for a woman’s right to combine normal human relationships with mental and spiritual fulfilment.

She expects that their daughter Shirley will “no more find marriage an end in itself than I had,” but hopes that “in the process of becoming a complete human being she would not meet with the criticisms, the obstacles, and the traditional assumptions which had handicapped my generation.” It’s interesting, coming as I am straight out of a term including a course on the Victorian ‘woman question,’ much of which revolved around exactly that conflict between traditional assumptions and obstacles and women’s efforts to become complete human beings, to see how her account of the problem (and her hope of its eventual solution) line up with those from the previous century. From our vantage point, we would probably still acknowledge only mixed success in overcoming these conflicts.

Her account of the war years is dramatic: her family had a number of brushes with catastrophe, including G.’s ship (on one of his many Atlantic crossings) being torpedoed. A malfunctioning alarm led to his nearly missing the lifeboats, but in the end he was one of the last to get into one:

A strong sea was running in bitter December cold. Every few moments the lifeboats ran into squalls of rain, and huge waves swamped the sailors trying to head them into the wind. G. spent the first part of his eight hours on the sea in baling out water.

Half an hour after the first torpedo had struck, he saw the flash of the submarine’s conning-tower among the boats. The sailors saw it too; “a terrible tension like a white shadow passed over their faces,” James Bone, a fellow passenger, wrote afterwards in the Manchester Guardian. But the submarine commander waited for the boats to get clear before putting another torpedo into the Western Prince. A violent explosion followed, and in half a minute, amid a roar of flame, the liner was gone.

The passengers’ adventures weren’t over yet…but I won’t spoil the suspense for any prospective readers, except to note (as it is obvious from everything else!) that G. makes it safely back to Vera. He tells the full story in a broadcast for the BBC, but his “tribute to the submarine commander whose delayed action had spared their lives” is censored, on the grounds that he might be penalized by “his Nazi masters” for his merciful conduct. This desire on G.’s part to show appropriate gratitude to one of “the enemy” touches on the larger theme of the book, the one dearest to Brittain’s heart: the calamity that war is for common humanity. She writes at length about her ‘conversion’ to pacifism as a principle for life and action. Her work on behalf of this cause leads her to be constrained from international travel during the war, as the authorities consider her loyalties suspect; she also faces other kinds of suspicion, hostility, and discrimination, so that the book that begins with her rise to fame for writing Testament of Youth then covers, as she is very aware, a significant fall in her fortunes and reputation–only to show her restored and more, when WWII ends and it becomes not just possible but popular to debate the part played by the Allies in its horrors. The discovery that her name (like G.’s) was on the Gestapo’s list of people to arrest immediately in the event of Britain’s defeat goes a long way to prove her own view, which was always that to oppose war was to oppose Nazism and Fascism at the most fundamental level.

There’s no doubting the moral challenge of defending pacifism during WWII: as Carolyn Heilbrun writes in her introduction to this volume, “if ever war could be justified, Hitler seemed to have justified it.” But Brittain is clear that to her there is no moral distinction to be made between the German bombings of Coventry or London and the devastation wrought by the Allied bombings of Germany and Japan. Visiting Cologne in 1947, she describes the “appalling” impression made on her during this, her third visit to the city:

By contrast with the two thousand years of history which it had enshrined in stone and gold, it epitomised all the horror and loss of the Second World War. The damage suggested Arnhem multiplied by ten; the ultimate limit of destruction where civilisation finally broke down.

Brittain is eloquent about pacifism and for it represented nothing like the easiest position to support at all, much less publicly. It was (perhaps unfairly) disappointing to me that she explained her commitment to it, as well as much of her reaction to this second war she witnessed, in religious terms. After the resolute intellectualism of Testament of Youth, here she falls into the language of revelation, which can never really carry explanatory power for someone who does not share the same beliefs. On V.E. day, for instance, walking up Whitehall, she testifies to an immense “certainty” that has its basis, not in the literal experience she has been recounting, or in the logical exercise of her reason, but in something for which she can assert no evidence, only, really, a feeling:

I could not yet believe in the Easter morning and the meeting again; I did not expect to see Edward or Roland or Winifred in any future conceivable by human consciousness. But of the existence of a benign Rule, a spiritual imperative behind the anarchy and chaos of man’s wilful folly, I was now wholly assured; the superficial faith which the First War destroyed had been replaced by an adult conviction. Like the girl student in Glorious Morning, I knew that God lived, and that the sorrow and suffering in the world around me had come because men refused to obey His laws. The self-interested, provocative policies which had driven mankind to the edge of the abyss seemed to supply incontrovertible testimony that an opposite policy–the way of God, the road of the Cross–would produce an opposite result.

Though this is moving as an expression of her state of mind, there’s nothing convincing about this as an explanation of what she has experienced, especially when her books document over and over that both suffering and its alleviation result directly from human choices and actions. She may have come to believe that there’s an overarching supernatural force at work in this, but the “incontrovertible testimony” for that is that only of her faith, not of the historical record to which her books make such a fascinating contribution.

One way to measure the value of that contribution is itself testified to mid-way through Testament of Experience, in a letter she receives:

My correspondent described an incident related by her fiancé, a young political officer in the Sudan who had been given the task of clearing a battlefield “somewhere in Abyssinia.” Within the shadow of a wall he found a British soldier lying dead; in his hand a copy of Testament of Youth was open at the Villanelle, “Violets from Plug Street Wood,” sent me by Roland from Flanders in 1915. . . .

Brittain remarks that this is evidence against the “bureaucratic suspicion” of her loyalties: how, I suppose her logic went, could a soldier cling to anything that betrayed his own loyalty to his country, proven in this case by his giving up his life for it? But the picture of the dead soldier with her book in his hand, open to a poem about love, death, and remembrance, is also a poignant gesture towards what, in the end, we might imagine is worth fighting, even dying, for: not glory or profit, territory or power, but the freedom of mind for which Brittain herself, in her own way, fought throughout her life.

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