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Archive 08-19 GR Discussions > Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain - Fall/Winter Chunky Read 2016

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message 1: by Petra (last edited Oct 14, 2016 08:47AM) (new)

Petra Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

This is the first installment, covering 1900–1925, in the memoir of Vera Brittain (1893–1970). It was published in 1933.
Testament of Youth has been acclaimed as a classic for its description of the impact of World War I on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of Great Britain. It is also considered a classic in feminist literature for its depiction of a woman's pioneer struggle to forge an independent career in a society only grudgingly tolerant of educated women.
The book's main subject is Vera's work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, nursing wounded in London, Malta and at Etaples in France.

There is also a film made from this book, featuring Alicia Vikander as Vera, directed by James Kent and screenplay written by Juliette Towhidi.
The BBC puts out some very good films. I wouldn't mind seeing the movie after we read the book but we'll see how available it is.

Who's planning on joining this read? The schedule will follow later today and we'll start reading on November 1st. With the holidays in mind, the schedule will be light and easy-going.

message 2: by Petra (last edited Oct 17, 2016 08:01PM) (new)

Petra Here's the reading schedule. It's slow and easy for the holidays. We can adjust it as required, if we like.

Week 1 (Oct 31-Nov 6): Chapters 1 & 2; Forward From Newcastle and Provincial Young-Ladyhood (71 pages)
Week 2 (Nov 7-13): Chapter 3; Oxford vs. War (38 pages)
Week 3 (Nov 14-20): Chapter 4; Learning vs. Life (67 pages)
Week 4 (Nov 21-28): Chapter 5; Camberwell vs. Death (32 pages)
End of Part 1

Week 5 (Nov 29-Dec 4): Chapter 6; "Where The Vision Dies...." (49 pages)
Week 6 (Dec 5-11): Chapter 7; Tawny Island (67 pages)
Week 7 (Dec 12-18): Chapter 8; Between The Sandhills & The Sea (61 pages)
Week 8 (Dec 19-25): Chapter 9; "The Loneliest Hour" (37 pages)
End of Part 2

Week 9 (Dec 26-Jan 1): Chapter 10; Survivors Not Wanted (57 pages)
Week 10 (Jan 2-8): Chapter 11; Piping For Peace (66 pages)
Week 11 (Jan 9-15): Chapter 12; "Another Stranger" (52 pages)
End of Part 3 (and book)

In addition to the chapters, there is an Introduction, a Preface, Author's Acknowledgements and a Foreword. The end is followed by Notes To Introduction.

message 3: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 2175 comments I might try to join in, especially if the reading schedule is light and easy. I'm having such a hard time getting into books lately, I don't know what it is!

message 4: by Petra (new)

Petra I'm having a hard time finding time to read lately, Jennifer. I'd love a few hours of quiet time to just sit and immerse myself in a book.

I hope you do join us. The more the merrier and with the film tie-in, this will be a fun read.

message 5: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Will join the discussion.

message 6: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
I'm in, have my copy already! Has anyone seen the movie? (I have not).

message 7: by MaryEllen (new)

MaryEllen (mebond) | 7 comments I would love to join in on this read!

message 8: by Petra (last edited Oct 17, 2016 08:04PM) (new)

Petra Reading schedule is in Post 2. I hope it's slow enough for the Holidays while still being able to keep up.

I'm looking forward to this read.

message 9: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Are we starting the reading on Oct. 30-Nov. 6 or starting the discussion that week

message 10: by Petra (new)

Petra We'll start the reading then since the group read is for November.
I think we can start discussions around Thursday of each week? What does everyone think? I'm open to whatever works best for everyone's schedules.

message 11: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Looks great Petra. Nice easy schedule so if anyone needs to take time off for any of the holidays it should be easy to catch up.

message 12: by Aksana (new)

Aksana | 68 comments I am planning on joining the discussion! I have not been active in a while, but have been craving a book discussion:) Just have to purchase the book on my kindle. Looking forward to reading the book and discussing it!

message 13: by Petra (new)

Petra Yay! I'm glad you're joining us, Aksana.
I plan on starting this weekend. I'd like to read the introduction, preface and so forth.

message 14: by Petra (new)

Petra Vera Brittain's daughter wrote a very nice Preface. It talks about how WWI was a very personal war; causing anguish and pain for the survivors for years afterwards. She says, of her mother's book, "Time and time again, someone has come up to me to ask if my mother was indeed the author of Testament of Youth, and to say how much it meant to them. It is a precious sort of immortality". It sounds like a very healing book.
And from the Introduction, this book does seem to touch many people. Mark Bostridge writes of travelling to a small cemetery in France and finding in the guest book "no fewer than 10 people from around the world who, in the period of 2 months, had come to this relatively out of the way area of Somme to pay tribute to (view spoiler) --- to pay tribute to him because they had read about his brief life and early death in Testament of Youth".
This book has touched many people, it seems; not just those who directly experienced the war and the immortality of this book reaches beyond the author and also to those who didn't make it through the war.
In 1933, Vera herself wrote a Foreword and stated "I have tried to write the exact truth as I saw and see it about both myself and other people, since a book of this kind has no value unless it is honest".
This seems to all indicate that this is a very special tribute indeed.

message 15: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Read most of the introduction, preface, author note, and forward in my copy, and started the first chapter last night. I think this is going to be interesting!

Petra, I was also fascinated by the part in the introduction about the guest book at that old cemetery.

message 16: by Petra (new)

Petra I'm glad the beginning has drawn you in, Sheila. I agree that this will be an interesting story. It's pointing in that direction, at least.

I've just started the second chapter. At first, I found her writing style a bit hard to follow. Her writing style is a bit old-fashioned, I think? But I got used to it fairly quickly.

message 17: by Petra (new)

Petra So far, there's a couple of things that stand out for me.

Vera seemed to have been a child who, while happy enough, wasn't content either. She wanted more than was available to a girl and seemed to have wanted this from an early age. Perhaps many girls wanted more than the marriage that loomed in their future? This is starting out as a more feminist book than I expected. I don't think I was thinking that at all about this book and it's an intriguing "twist".

This quote from page 16 (Chapter 1) stuck out for me because it seems a bit contradictory.
Can being kept away from many of the interesting things in life make one content? The quote stuck out for me because it got me thinking about whether I'd be content knowing I was missing out (and wanted to take part) or whether I would somehow rebel against it.

“I suppose it was the very completeness with which all doors and windows to the more adventurous and colourful world, the world of literature, of scholarship, of art, of politics, of travel, were closed to me, that kept my childhoods relatively contented a time.”

message 18: by Aksana (new)

Aksana | 68 comments Petra, I am not sure what I would have wanted to do, rebel or be content. I think it depends on person's personality. Vera knew that she was 'smarty pants' and that did not seem to bother her at all and she was not arrogant about it either, she just wanted to be a good student and learn what she could. It was refreshing for me that she felt this way. These days everyone wants to fit in and be accepted; back then it might have been normal.

message 19: by Petra (last edited Nov 02, 2016 07:30AM) (new)

Petra I agree. It's definitely a matter of personality.
I think what struck me was that she felt so firm about things and so set at such a young age, in a time when this sort of thinking wasn't prevalent or encouraged, and that the peer, family & societal pressures didn't stop her. She was one strong personality.

Thank goodness for the strong female personalities of the past. They gave us the opportunity to expand our horizons to anything our minds & personalities dream of (within reason, of course).

message 20: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Petra wrote: "Thank goodness for the strong female personalities of the past."

Great comment, Petra!
I am liking that she seemed to be a girl who was confident in who she was, and didn't feel the overwhelming need that so many do to "fit in".

message 21: by Petra (new)

Petra How's everyone doing with this read? Has everyone started reading?
What are your thoughts on the first 2 chapters?
What are your thoughts about Vera? her family? her time in history?

message 22: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Haven't started yet. Plan to pick up this one over the weekend.

message 23: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
I finished chapter 2 last night. I am liking Vera. She was a very independent young lady, and I love how she knew what she wanted and fought for it, such as convincing her father that she should go to Oxford. She was quite a feminist for her time it seems.
Roland seemed to have been a very close person to her also, someone she could easily and readily share her thoughts and opinions with, and he was someone who actually listened to her thoughts and opinions.

message 24: by Petra (last edited Nov 04, 2016 09:58AM) (new)

Petra Sheila, I find her father a bit of a stick in the mud. If she suggests/pleads to go to Oxford, the answer is a definite NO. When a family friend offhandedly, in conversation, says that women are going to Oxford and he is in favor, the father makes a complete turn-around and says YES. That made me a bit miffed being that it was so chauvinistic in that he listens to men only.
This incident also made him appear a bit wishy-washy in thought and conviction. It seems that he has no deep convictions of his own but bends to those around him and/or society's standards. He cannot think outside the box, it seems.
Without this family friend, Vera wouldn't have gone to Oxford, I think. She would have found another way to live her life that didn't necessarily include the marriage that her father thought was the only option, perhaps, but it probably wouldn't have included an Oxford experience.

Roland does seem to be a person she can open up to. I like how they can converse about everything and he listens & accepts her as an equal.

message 25: by Aksana (new)

Aksana | 68 comments I like Roland as well, Petra:)
I know that Edward was away at school, but I think he could have convinced his parents to let Vera get the education she wanted. Vera thinks so highly of him. But he was too much into his violin I guess! I just really like Vera's persistence!

message 26: by Petra (new)

Petra Aksana, glad to have you with us. Sounds like you're enjoying the book, too.

Somehow, as much as I like Edward (he seems like a very gentle soul), he seems rather quiet and I'm not sure he could stand up towards the father. He didn't even tell his father that he wanted to study music and composition.
I do think that he believed in his sister and would have stood behind her in every way that he could.

It was an interesting time. Whenever I read memoirs and such where I know something horrible is about to happen and the people are happy, I feel a sinking in my gut. Events of destruction take the people of the time by surprise and turn their lives upside down without warning (or not much, anyway).

message 27: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments I'm caught up. I agree that Edward could not have fought for Vera to go to university. If he can't fight for his own desire for a music education, how can he fight for his sister? When verification that women are students at Oxford comes from a male peer and the father changes his mind, I did not read that as sexist. I saw it as evidence of the father's limited exposure to the larger changing world. He needed a peer to inform him of how the world was changing to be able to realize that Vera's request was not some crazy youthful notion, but something that was actually happening in the world. If he were truly sexist, and not just confined by the way things were done in the social circles he knew, he would not have changed his mind so easily. He would have condemned those coeds and their families.

How old is Vera when she is writing this memoir? I keep wanting to picture her writing this from the vantage of the 1950s, but I think she is writing this before WWII. I am amazed at how much society has changed in 2 decades or so. I don't think there has been anything like that shift in attitudes in the past two decades. What an exciting and challenging time to live, especially for a woman. I am also wondering how her view of things might change had she written this after another World War.

message 28: by Petra (last edited Nov 06, 2016 09:16AM) (new)

Petra Interesting thoughts, Irene.

I like your thoughts on the father. I hadn't thought about him being isolated from what's happening in "the bigger" world. I think your correct: he wouldn't have changed his mind so easily if he was truly sexist. That's a good perspective. Thanks!

The book was first published in 1933, six years before WWII started.

I've done some searches into Women's Rights and when the movement started and was surprised that it began in the late 1800s (much earlier than I thought). Vera would indeed have been living in exciting times for women.

The situation of Women's Rights seems to have made large advances and was in full swing during Vera's youth but was stagnating in the '30s when she was writing this book:
(excerpts from
"In 1904 a second organisation, the International Women's Suffrage Alliance, was set up in Berlin. A more radical organisation, it focused its efforts on winning the vote and extending women's employment. However, when war broke out in August 1914 many women felt the call of patriotism so strongly that they withdrew from women's campaigns to support the national war effort. Some left-wing feminists, took the view that the war and the pre-1914 arms race proved conclusively the folly of allowing men a monopoly of political power. Against the wishes of their governments they met at the Hague in 1915 to establish the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, whose aim was to seek a negotiated peace settlement rather than a complete military victory.
So long as the war lasted, this remained a hopeless cause; but it bore fruit after 1918 once the reaction against the arms race and the Treaty of Versailles set in. In this climate the W.I.L.R.F. and similar organisations began to flourish. In Britain, for example, women flocked into the League of Nations Union during the 1920s; they organised Women's Peace Crusades and Peacemakers Pilgrimages; and during Armistice Weeks they pointedly challenged the official commemoration ceremonies by selling white poppies and laying wreaths of them at war memorials throughout the country.
....Especially in countries such as Britain where the vote had recently been won, some women chose to carry on their work through the existing political parties. ....... It rapidly emerged that the parties wanted, women's voluntary work, not to mention their votes, but continued to subordinate their interests, especially in matters of employment, to those of men. ......... Women also found it difficult to become candidates and MPs because winnable seats were reserved for men. ,,,, By comparison the performance of women in Europe appears impressive. ....... In Britain Nancy Astor became the first woman to take her seat after a by-election in 1919; by 1919 14 women MPs sat in the House of Commons out of a total of 615, and in that year Margaret Bondfield was appointed the first female cabinet minister. On the other hand, after the initial breakthrough in the 1920s women's representation stagnated for several decades."

message 29: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Yes, I was aware of the general timeline of the fight for women's right to vote. England was slightly ahead of the US in winning equality for women.

message 30: by Petra (new)

Petra The post was meant for everyone, Irene; not specifically for you. Sorry if it came across as a criticism; it wasn't meant to be.
I wasn't aware that women's rights had started as early as they had or that they were in such full swing during Vera's youth. I thought that perhaps others weren't either and this post would give some perspective but perhaps it was just myself that was uninformed.

message 31: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments I did not take it as a criticism. Just wanted to reply in some way since we had been back and forth on posts. Sorry if it came off that way. It was intended as a simple acknowledgement of the post, my way of saying that I saw it and was trying to give some reaction.

message 32: by Petra (last edited Nov 09, 2016 06:34PM) (new)

Petra Thanks, Irene. I'm glad my post wasn't seen as a criticism. It certainly wasn't meant to be. Your post made me interested enough in more details about Vera's time & women's rights to go looking.

Chapter 3:
I thought this quote was so sad and showed how unprepared the boys were for war:
"Anyhow I should hate to go all through this War without being wounded at all; I would want something to prove that I had been in action."

message 33: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments You rarely have to worry about offending me. In fact, I tend to err on the other side. People intend to tell me off but are too subtle and I fail to get the message. LOL.

message 34: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Irene, your last comment made me laugh!

So women's rights has been a long, slow slog. Suffrage (voting) was just one small part of it I suppose, and getting other individual rights for women have been slow and gradual, over many decades and centuries. Heck, we may have a new feminist milestone here in the USA tomorrow! (crossing my fingers, yes I will admit it, I'm with her!) LOL

message 35: by Petra (last edited Nov 07, 2016 06:57PM) (new)

Petra LOL! I'm not American but I'll be watching the election results. It's been an interesting campaign (not for all the right reasons, either).

message 36: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Where are you, Petra?

message 37: by Petra (new)

Petra Canada. We'll be getting all the Americans who say they'll leave if things don't go their way. :D

message 38: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Yup, I'm taking up long distance swimming so I can cross Lake Erie. A fifteen minute walk and I can be in the water and swimming. Of course, if this winter is as bad as the forcast predicts, maybe I can just walk across the frozen Lake.

message 39: by Petra (new)

Petra A long walk would be more comfortable for me than a long swim. :D

I'm on the west coast, so you'll have to turn left when you reach shore and keep walking....and walking....and walking, Irene.

message 40: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Petra wrote: "A long walk would be more comfortable for me than a long swim. :D

I'm on the west coast, so you'll have to turn left when you reach shore and keep walking....and walking....and walking, Irene."


message 41: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Okay, I never really believed the election results would be what they are! Hanging home for now Petra, but if things get too ugly I might come visit you, as I am just south of your border in WA state! :-)

message 42: by Petra (new)

Petra We have a spare room.... :D

message 43: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Not in my wildest nightmare did I imagine this outcome. I am sick to my stomach over it. I have never before wished I had money so I could quit my job and leave the country. I am scared and ashamed.

message 44: by Petra (new)

Petra I removed the spoiler tags from Message 32.

The other quote that struck me:
(Vera has just found out that Roland will be going to war) "It was only right that I should suffer too, that I had no longer a personal indifference to set me apart from the thousands of breaking hearts in England today. It was my part to face the possibility of a ruined future with the same courage that he was going to face death."

Of the two quotes (message 32 and this one), the female perspective seems to have a more realistic look at the war. Do you think this was Vera being wise or did the women see war as more realistic?
For me, it's hard to say because I haven't lived through war. However, as a female, I think we do want to nurture in some way and sending someone off to war (or into any situation that puts our loved ones at risk somehow) goes against the grain.

message 45: by Petra (new)

Petra What did you all think of Vera's poem at the beginning of Chapter 3?
I didn't like it very much.

message 46: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Behind again. Other books have gotten in the way.

As for your question regarding the possibility that women may be more realistic about war....
I am uncomfortable putting men and/or women into general categories about attitudes. I also wonder if this may be less about the way men and women approach things as about the narrator. This is a memoir. The author is naturally going to view her younger self through the eyes of her later experiences. We all do that. So, it is possible that she is giving us this info about her reaction after it has a coating of later experience over it. However, it is difficult to do that for another person. You are not in their head, so you are a bit more apt to limit yourself to what was actually said and done.

message 47: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Irene wrote: "Not in my wildest nightmare did I imagine this outcome. I am sick to my stomach over it. I have never before wished I had money so I could quit my job and leave the country. I am scared and ashamed."

I agree Irene. I am also scared, and ashamed, and worry about what will happen in this country in the next 4 years.

message 48: by Sheila , Supporting Chick (new)

Sheila  | 3485 comments Mod
Petra wrote: "What did you all think of Vera's poem at the beginning of Chapter 3?
I didn't like it very much."

Can't say I was at all impressed with this poem. It really did nothing for me. :-)

message 49: by Petra (new)

Petra Irene, re the male vs female outlook of war:

I agree that it's not a good idea to generalize in things.
It's most likely that Vera instilled some of her present knowledge into her past thoughts as she wrote this chapter.

It's also possible that the propaganda to get men to enlist in the army is such that it romanticizes the heroic, brave portion of war, while downplaying the realities of it. These men are young, know nothing about hardship and especially nothing about war. They live at home and/or go to school.
It could be that Roland's words are part of the information that the men were given to encourage them to enlist.
If so, it's rather unfair for a country to play with the lives of their young men in this emotional way.

message 50: by Irene (new)

Irene | 4084 comments Read chapter 3 last night. I agree that the initial poem did nothing for me as a reader. But, then, I don't usually understand poems.

Also agree that propaganda romanticizing war was used to encourage young men to fight. But, it was probably bigger than something rolled out in the initial days of WWI. I think it is all the poems and songs, the heroic legends and mystique of the strong warrior that predisposes young men to march off to war with stars in their eyes and mothers & sweethearts to brag of their men's service. It is all the linking of patriotism with militarism that persists today.

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