Monday, May 23, 2011

A last testament

Testament of Experience, Vera Brittain

I can just remember watching some part of Testament of Youth on PBS, probably in the early 1980s.  Though I didn't watch the whole series, I always remembered Vera Brittain, and in the back of my mind was the idea that someday I would read Testament of Youth.  Then, last year, I found her book England's Hour, about the Battle of Britain, at Half-Price Books.  That prompted me to check Youth out from the library, because of course I had to read her books in order; but I didn't get much past the first chapter.  That didn't stop me from buying my own copy of Youth a few days later, again at HPB. 

On starting Youth a second time, I was immediately swept up into the story.  And when I learned there were two other testaments, of Friendship and Experience, I went on-line to find copies before I'd even finished the first. I read both Testament of Friendship and England's Hour and then put the last book aside for the moment to read other things.

As I mentioned in a recent post, I finally read E.M. Delafield's I Visit the Soviets, and that reminded me that I still had Testament of Experience on the TBR pile.  Experience picks up just where Youth ended, with Vera Brittain's marriage to "G" (political scientist George Caitlin). Marriage is one of the main themes of Experience, as she struggles to balance her work, the demands of her aging parents, her husband's career first in America, and later their two children.  Their unconventional solution was to spend part of each year apart. Vera remained in England, sharing a home with her closest friend and fellow writer Winifred Holtby (the subject of Testament of Friendship), which made all three the focus of gossip ("Too, too Chelsea," Winifred would say).  I found it incredibly poignant that "G" believed for so many years that Vera's love was buried with her first fiancé Roland Leighton, killed in France in 1915; and that Vera, who had mourned Roland but moved on in life, was unaware of this chasm in their marriage.

A second major theme is Vera Brittain's writing career. A poet and a journalist, she became famous with the publication of Testament of Youth in 1933.  But her conversion to pacifism, and her increasing prominence in the cause, meant a loss of reputation even before World War II began. Thus pacifism is a third major theme of her book, and I found those parts sometimes difficult reading.  I kept wanting to argue with her that Hitler had to be stopped, that pacifism could not be an option in the face of Nazi evil.  But I have to concede her point that statesmanship failed in the 1920s and 1930s, that the League of Nations on which she pinned such hopes was betrayed by politicians who might have prevented what came later.

I have a suspicion that Vera Brittain would have found me frivolous and light-minded.  I find her inspiring, energizing, and very good company.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!