Testament of Youth

Testament of Youth (1933) is a memoir by the nurse and author Vera Brittain. It details her traumatic experiences as a volunteer nurse during the First World War. Below is a summary of the text, an explanation of its meaning, and key quotes.

Testament of Youth Testament of Youth

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Table of contents

    A memoir is a non-fiction literary genre that consists of the author's personal experiences.

    Testament of Youth: Book Summary

    Testament of Youth details Vera Brittain's life from her childhood up until the 1920s, covering the period of the First World War.

    Brittain grows up between Cheshire and Derbyshire, having a privileged childhood. Her father, Thomas Arthur Brittain, is the owner of a successful paper mill, ensuring the family is financially secure. As a child, Brittain is very close to her younger brother, Edward.

    Testament of Youth, a close-up image of Vera Brittain in her nurse's uniform, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Vera Brittain was a nurse and feminist.

    From the ages of thirteen to eighteen, Brittain attended a boarding school in Surrey, receiving a relatively good education for a woman at this time. She describes this as an innocent time in her life when she and her peers knew little of the real world.

    After returning from boarding school, Brittain spends two years in her family home in Buxton, Derbyshire. Her memoir details the quirks and nuances of provincial life. Brittain is a bright and incisive young woman who instinctively questions the restrictions her society places on women. Still close to Edward, Brittain also develops a friendship with Edward's friend, Roland Leighton. This relationship soon becomes romantic.

    During this time, Brittain works hard to gain admittance to Oxford University. This is despite Brittain's parents' wishes. Her father, particularly, has traditional views on gender. He believes that women belong solely in a domestic setting. Disregarding this, Brittain passes her Oxford entrance exams. However, the news of her admission to Oxford come at the same time that the First World War breaks out. Overcome with stress about finances and the conflict, Brittain's father does not take the news that she will be going to Oxford well.

    Women's rights still had a long way to go in the 1910s. The Women's Suffrage Movement, who were fighting for the right to vote, had become much more substantial, but the right to vote was not extended to all British women over twenty-one until 1928. Many at this time still expected women to prioritise being wives and mothers above all else.

    Regardless, Brittain goes to Oxford, studying English literature. She finds the work there both difficult and exhilarating. She also forms friendships with other similarly-minded women. Brittain weaves the incidents and developments of the war throughout her narrative. At this time, both Edward and Roland were attempting to get commissions to fight in the war as they saw this as their duty. Brittain communicates with both of them via letters.

    Upon returning home for Christmas, Brittain spends time with Edward and Roland. She and Roland become increasingly closer, their relationship now decidedly romantic. In March 1915, Roland leaves for the front. Both he and Brittain are devastated to be parted. As Brittain's first year at Oxford draws to a close, all she can think of is Roland and the war. She resolves to become a nurse to help with the war effort. In June 1915, Brittain begins her nursing training, caring for wounded soldiers who have returned to Britain. Brittain is part of the Voluntary Aid Detachment group, civilians who signed up for nursing training in order to help injured soldiers.

    In August 1915, Brittain and Roland reunite when Roland gets leave from the army. Their romance is still very much alive, and they become engaged. Brittain is insistent that she will remain self-sufficient and independent regardless of her marital status. The war has led to women being allowed more freedom as they work to help the war effort. After Roland's return to France, Brittain continues to work as a nurse. She finds the work mentally and physically exhausting but also feels it worthwhile. Just before he is meant to return on leave again, Brittain receives the news that Roland has been killed at the front. She is left utterly devastated.

    In quick succession, Edward is sent to fight in the war and Brittain is reunited with a close friend, Geoffrey, who had been at war but has now returned to England wounded. Edward, too, returns for a period when he is injured. Brittain is then sent to tend to wounded soldiers in Malta. In another blow, Victor, a close friend of both Brittain and Edward, is killed in the war. Brittain returns to England for his funeral. Geoffrey's death follows soon after. After all this devastation, Brittain is moved to France to continue her work as a nurse. Here, she finds herself nursing German soldiers for the Red Cross, which she finds a disconcerting experience as Britain is fighting against Germany.

    At home in England again, Brittain and her family hear news of devastating attacks on the Italian front. They fear Edward may have been involved in this fighting but do not hear anything for a week. One morning, a telegram arrives, announcing Edward's death in action. After all the loss she has suffered, Brittain once again finds herself in agony and devastation. After somewhat processing her grief, she continues to work as a nurse for the rest of the war.

    The First World War ends in November 1918, but Brittain is still reeling from the trauma of loss. She decides to return to Oxford and study History instead of English literature. She gains a lifelong friend in Winifred Holtby while studying. Determined to make her own way in life, Brittain takes up lecturing at the League of Nations for a period. Here, she gains an intimate look at the world of post-war politics and travels extensively. She also publishes a novel about Oxford, entitled The Dark Tide (1923), which proves to be controversial for its criticisms of the university.

    In the final chapters of Testament of Youth, Brittain meets and corresponds with George Catlin, who she refers to as 'G'. The two develop a relationship, marrying in 1925. Brittain sticks firm to her beliefs, keeping her name after marriage, determined not to be a traditional wife. She ends her memoir on a note of hope after years of pain and loss.

    Testament of Youth: Meaning

    Testament of Youth details the total and utter devastation inflicted upon Europe during the First World War. It is a true story of loss and grief. Vera Brittain alone lost four young men who she shared intimate relationships with. There were very few families who were not personally impacted by the conflict. Brittain wrote her memoir both as a catharsis and as a way to preserve the experiences of ordinary people during the First World War. She also wished to preserve the legacies of her fiancé, brother, and two friends. Europe was rocked by war in a way the continent had never been before, and Brittain records the changes that occurred in the continent and its people.

    Brittain's memoir is also key as it is from a female perspective. Traditional gender expectations were still forced on women at every turn in the early 1900s. However, Brittain consistently bucks this trend, attempting to make her own way in life as many women were doing at the time. She details the new freedoms that were afforded to women in the wartime period. In a reverse of many male-centred war narratives, Brittain showcases what the First World War was like for the women who suffered through it and the contributions they made to the war effort.

    Can you identify the different ways that Brittain records the specifically female experience of the First World War in Testament of Youth? Think societal restrictions, sexist remarks, etc.

    Testament of Youth: Book Review

    After years of work, Testament of Youth was published in 1933. It garnered immediate acclaim and became a bestseller. The First World War was still in living memory for 1930s readers. For them, Brittain's memoir captured how the war impacted ordinary lives, particularly those of women. However, when the Second World War broke out, Testament of Youth fell sharply in popularity. Brittain, no stranger to activism, had become a prominent pacifist voice, but this ideology was not a widely accepted one in the context of the Nazi invasion of Europe.

    Pacifism is the belief that violence and conflict are not ways to solve disagreements or disputes. Pacifists prioritise peace above all else. Mahatma Gandhi was a famous and influential Indian pacifist.

    In the 1970s, the feminist publisher Virago republished a new edition of Testament of Youth. This catapulted the book to renewed fame and popularity. In the drastically different context of the 1970s Women's Rights Movement, Brittain's memoir came to be appreciated as an important feminist text that told the story of women during wartime, one rarely brought to the forefront. Today, Testament of Youth is considered a classic of First World War literature.

    Feminism is the belief that the two sexes are inherently equal and should be treated as much. Feminists are often involved in the social and political fight for women's rights.

    Vera Brittain: Testament of Youth

    After the events of Testament of Youth, Brittain began to work as a journalist alongside her work at the League of Nations. She also continued to write. Following Testament of Youth, Testament of Friendship (1940), a biography of the late Winifred Holtby, and Testament of Experience (1957), a continuation of Brittain's memoirs, were published. Brittain also published poetry, much of which was inspired by her experiences during the First World War, including 'Perhaps' (1918) and 'To My Brother' (1918).

    Her experiences in the First World War made Brittain an avid pacifist, consistently speaking up against violence and inequality during her life. These views often made her unpopular during the Second World War. Brittain also found religion in the 1920s, becoming devoted to Anglicanism.

    Brittain's health declined throughout the late 1960s, passing away in 1970. She requested for her ashes to be scattered on her brother Edward's grave in Italy as she had never fully recovered from losing him during the war.

    Quotes from Testament of Youth

    Testament of Youth is a memoir in Brittain's own words that depicts the horrific reality of the First World War. Below is a table of key quotes from the text.

    'For me, as for all the world, the War was a tragedy and a vast stupidity, a waste of youth and of time; it betrayed my faith, mocked my love, and irremediably spoilt my career.'Chp. 7.Here, Brittain explains the impact the war has had on her life. Everything around her has been irreversibly changed beyond her control. She sees the war as something that has been totally destructive and futile.
    'Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war.'Foreword.This is Brittain's reasoning behind writing a memoir of her life during the war. She wished to have some good come from all she had suffered and the fact that she had lost her youth to conflict.
    'Mother says that people like me just become intellectual old maids.'Chp. 3.Brittain says this to Roland when discussing the topic of marriage. This showcases the traditional stereotypes that women were subjected to at this time. Brittain's own mother believed her strong mind would leave her unable to find a husband that would tolerate it. Women were expected to be much more passive and submissive.

    Testament of Youth - Key takeaways

    • Testament of Youth (1933) is a memoir by Vera Brittain.
    • It is about Brittain's life as a First World War nurse in England, Malta, and France.
    • The text was intended to capture and commemorate the suffering of Brittain's wartime generation.
    • Testament of Youth was initially a bestseller but fell out of popularity for a time.
    • Vera Brittain died in 1970 and had her ashes scattered on her brother Edward's grave, who was killed in action during the war.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Testament of Youth

    Is Testament of Youth a true story?

    Yes, Testament of Youth is the true story of Vera Brittain's life.

    Who wrote Testament of Youth?

    Vera Brittain wrote the text.

    Is Testament of Youth non-fiction?

    Yes, the book is a non-fiction memoir.

    What happened to Victor in Testament of Youth?

    Victor was killed in action.

    What happens at the end of Testament of Youth?

    At the end of the text, Brittain marries and tries to start her life afresh after the trauma of the war.

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