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Non-Fiction (1900-1945) > Letters From A Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends

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message 1: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I am going to do a 'Nigeyb,' here, as I am so keen to discuss this wonderful book. Thank you to Roman Clodia for nominating it and I really am pleased that I discovered it.

Letters from a Lost Generation First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends by Mark Bostridge


message 2: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments My review:

For some reason, I have never gotten around to reading Vera Brittain’s classic work, “Testament of Youth,” but that is something I must amend in the future, after being introduced to this work though one of my reading groups. However, it may take me some time to get over this, as “Letters From a Lost Generation,” is moving, tragic and, I must warn you, will leave you feeling somewhat wrung out when you get to the end…

The book consists of letters from and to Vera Brittain, and between her and her brother Edward, her finance Roland Leighton, Edward and Roland’s friend, Victor Richardson (the three were all at Uppingham School together) and a further friend, Geoffrey Thurlow, who trained with Edward. This book takes us from the 28th September, 1913 to the 24th June, 1918.

In 1913, Vera had just rejected a marriage proposal and was planning to go to Oxford – as was her brother. However, plans for Edward and his friends were interrupted by the declaration of war and Vera is present at the school speech day, when the prophetic speech by the Headmaster, included the words; “Be a man – useful to your country; whoever cannot be that is better dead.” As Vera initially takes up her place at University, the young men in her sphere are all desperate to get a commission and Vera, initially, is encouraging their efforts.

As time passes though, and those they know start to be killed, all of these letter writers will change their thoughts on the glory of war. Vera finds that she needs to do something, especially after getting engaged to Roland, and volunteers as a nurse. The distance between them is difficult for either to accept and they often talk of what their life should have been. As Roland later writes from the trenches, “I sometimes think I must have exchanged my life for someone else’s….” Much of the first half of this book concerns the relationship between Vera and Roland and their letters are extremely moving.

Little things in these letters bring events immediately to life. Whether it is Edward’s concern over losing his valise and the practicalities of trying to move his belongings as he is constantly on the move, Vera going from hospital in London to Malta and later France, where she finds herself nursing wounded German soldiers (trying to save, she writes ironically, the very men her brother is trying to kill), unpacking the belongings and clothing of one of the young men who has been killed, or Edward musing in letters, as he reads, “The Loom of Youth,” by Alec Waugh (brother of Evelyn and an author I have enjoyed reading myself). I don’t think I have ever cried on my daily commute before, but I have now. A wonderful, moving, if terribly sad, read.


message 3: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia So glad you enjoyed it, Susan. I am re-reading it and am struck by the stiff-upper-lip nature of the letters between Vera and Roland, and the quiet way in which they fall in love and get engaged. If I hadn't previously read Testament of Youth I don't think I'd know what was going on between them.

Alongside that, we witness the classic idealised and heroic 'muscular Christianity' which propelled young men so eagerly into this conflict. Roland is just about to reach the Western Front in Spring 1915.


message 4: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I didn't find their letters cold at all. Perhaps you need to be British to get the understatement, but I thought they were terribly moving. I liked Vera, and Roland, very much.


message 5: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia Oh, I didn't find them cold, just very restrained when it comes to articulating their emotions explicitly. You're right that their feelings come over strongly from the depth of things they can say to each other, but it's a case of reading between the lines as they're not obvious 'love letters'.

I like them both, too, and think that Vera's more down-to-earth personality balances Roland's idealism and romanticism.


message 6: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments They were restrained and, for such young people, they were all so incredibly brave. It was so interesting to see how their views changed as the war progressed.


message 7: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia Yes, I studied WW1 poetry for A level so it's fascinating to see that move from idealistic enthusiasm, especially from Roland, turn to disillusion.

Having read this before and knowing what's to come I have the tissues to hand - I couldn't have read this on the Tube, as you say it's wrenching stuff!


message 8: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Oh, really. It is emotionally draining, but I am still glad I read it.


message 9: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Obviously, I have not read anything by Vera Brittain before, but do you think this is best read after Testament of Youth? I have to say, I could follow events fairly accurately, without having read it.


message 10: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia Testament was written with older hindsight (1930s, I think) and drew on these letters as well as Vera's diary which was published as Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917. The letters are rawer and more immediate, as is the diary; Testament is perhaps more reflective from an older perspective. It clarifies the stages of V and R's relationship e.g. tells us what happened at the meetings that are referred to in the letters. I think all three can be read in any order as they approach the story from different angles.


message 11: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments The letters certainly made sense and I think they were more immediate. I actually didn't know whether/which of the men died (no spoilers for those who haven't read this yet), so it was all more horrible as I read on...


message 12: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Susan wrote: "I am going to do a 'Nigeyb,' here, as I am so keen to discuss this wonderful book. Thank you to Roman Clodia for nominating it and I really am pleased that I discovered it.

[bookcover:Letters fro..."


Nigeyb always begins a discussion of a book by reviewing it!?!?! I thought one did that at the end of a discussion?


message 13: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments No, I opened the thread, as it was the beginning of the month...


message 14: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Susan wrote: "My review:

For some reason, I have never gotten around to reading Vera Brittain’s classic work, “Testament of Youth,” but that is something I must amend in the future, after being introduced to th..."


Oh, I see. Ooops. A Nigeyb then is perhaps "a member opening a thread early being eager to begin the discussion"? Ok, so posting a review first is doing a "Susan" then.... LOL :)
I'm just surprised seeing a review as the first post (well - second in this case) in a discussion as they usually show up towards the end of a thread?


message 15: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I was being super enthusiastic, Haaze. There are no spoilers, it is just saying how much I loved the book.


message 16: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments :) I'm still waiting for the book to arrive in the mail, but will catch up as soon as it gets here. Is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth by any chance as touching as this collection of letters?


message 17: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I haven't read it, Haaze, but Roman Clodia, who suggested the book, has written something about it above. She said:

"Testament was written with older hindsight (1930s, I think) and drew on these letters as well as Vera's diary which was published as Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917. The letters are rawer and more immediate, as is the diary; Testament is perhaps more reflective from an older perspective. It clarifies the stages of V and R's relationship e.g. tells us what happened at the meetings that are referred to in the letters. I think all three can be read in any order as they approach the story from different angles. "


message 18: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Susan wrote: "I am going to do a 'Nigeyb,' here, as I am so keen to discuss this wonderful book. Thank you to Roman Clodia for nominating it and I really am pleased that I discovered it. "

Well, so long as "doing a Nigeyb" is synonymous with being keen and enthusiastic then I approve of this new phrase.

I am not sure if I'll get time to read this book in October 2017. Probably not but never say never, however I'll add to Susan's reply to this query from Haaze...

Haaze wrote: "Is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth by any chance as touching as this collection?"

I can't compare them as I've only read Testament of Youth but I will say that I loved Testament of Youth

I read it as part of the BYT WW1 challenge back in 2014 (and what a wonderful challenge that was). Here's what I wrote back then....

Testament of Youth was a best seller when it was first published in 1933, and became a bestseller once again in the 1970s. It is every bit as good as I'd remembered when I read it first about twenty years ago. Vera Brittain's lively intelligence, determination, bravery and passion all shine through.

At the start of World War One, and despite finally getting into Oxford University after an incredible effort to overcome her parents' objections (of course it was accepted that the son would go there - but why would a woman bother?), she turned her back on that to take on arduous, and physically and emotionally demanding nursing work with the VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment - women who volunteered to nurse the war-wounded) and which required incredible courage and endurance.

This is the third WW1 memoir I've read in 2014 (the other two being Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger, and Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves) and it was both interesting and refreshing to get a female perspective on the conflict. Vera Brittain arguably endured as much hardship and horror as the men in the trenches. Worse, she had to endure survivor's guilt after the war was over. 'Why couldn't I have died in the War with the others?' she lamented, and perhaps not surprisingly, as she lost four of the people she was closest to, including her brother and her partner. These deaths, and her war time experienced, turned Vera Brittain into a committed pacifist.

After the war, she returned to study at Oxford where she became close friends with writer Winifred Holtby. Both young women shared a flat and became writers. Convinced she would never marry, Vera Brittain finally succumbed to the attentions of George Catlin, marrying him, and ensuring a happy ending to this excellent memoir.

I'd say if you have the time then read both books.


message 19: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I always think of you as keen and enthusiastic, Nigeyb. In the nicest way - your enthusiasm has often made me discover wonderful new books and authors.


message 20: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Susan wrote: "I haven't read it, Haaze, but Roman Clodia, who suggested the book, has written something about it above. She said:

"Testament was written with older hindsight (1930s, I think) and drew on these l..."


Thanks Susan. Believe it or not, but I actually read all the posts in the thread before adding my own... :)


message 21: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Nigeyb wrote: "Susan wrote: "I am going to do a 'Nigeyb,' here, as I am so keen to discuss this wonderful book. Thank you to Roman Clodia for nominating it and I really am pleased that I discovered it. "

Well, s..."


Oh, thanks Nigeyb. Great recommendations in terms of war memoirs. That sounds like a wonderful challenge (BYT WW1). I've heard great things about both Storm of Steel as well as Goodbye to All That. On a similar note, perhaps one could dream of building a WW1 challenge to round off the centennial of the Great War (as 2018 is approaching). Is this something of potential interest to the group in the next 12-15 month realm? Vera Brittain's diaries certainly seems like another treasure. Perhaps I should read Testament of Youth as I'm waiting for Letters from a Lost Generation: First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends to arrive? I ordered it late.... :( Your great selections for October came as a surprise to me!!


message 22: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Susan wrote: "I always think of you as keen and enthusiastic, Nigeyb. In the nicest way - your enthusiasm has often made me discover wonderful new books and authors."

At the risk of making everyone else feel a bit nauseous, I always think of you as keen and enthusiastic too Susan. In the nicest way - your enthusiasm has often made me discover wonderful new books and authors.

Perhaps time to draw to a close the mutual admiration society and get back to Vera and friends...


message 23: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Haaze, we used to have a yearly challenge on this group, but it kind of died away due to lack of enthusiasm. If you wish to resurrect it, please do so and see what response you get.

Nigeyb, perhaps we are both too keen, but at least we don't annoy each other!


message 24: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Very keen..




message 25: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Susan wrote: "Haaze, we used to have a yearly challenge on this group, but it kind of died away due to lack of enthusiasm. If you wish to resurrect it, please do so and see what response you get.

Nigeyb, perha..."


Hmm, yes, GR groups vary quiet a bit in that regards. It often becomes a solo quest in my own experience.. *bursts into tears*
I guess one has to find the perfect theme?


message 26: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Haaze wrote: "Hmm, yes, GR groups vary quiet a bit in that regards. It often becomes a solo quest in my own experience.. *bursts into tears*"

Yep, I know that feeling. :-))

Haaze wrote: "I guess one has to find the perfect theme? "

I'm sure that's right.

I've observed a lot of enthusiasm during the set up and nomination phase but a dramatic tailing off once the thing is underway.

I'm forever thinking of thematic ideas for challenges but tend to keep them to myself now. That said, I'd love to read any ideas for the "perfect theme". Maybe in a separate thread though.


message 27: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Susan wrote: "I didn't find their letters cold at all. Perhaps you need to be British to get the understatement, but I thought they were terribly moving. I liked Vera, and Roland, very much."

Do I also have to be British to grasp this upper class attitude of theirs? I'm only 100 or so pages in but I was a little disturbed by a few things I read. For one thing, this handing out of feathers to every man not in a uniform. Even to a guy who was on leave and his uniform was being cleaned/fumigated, etc.

I also wasn't crazy about Vera's remarks regarding Americans when America hadn't yet declared war, although it had been sending arms and food to Britain. A page or so after Vera's remarks, Roland was making remarks regarding two graves. At first it seemed very touching. But then he had to go on and ruin it for me - saying how terrible that a major should have been killed and buried near a private. How one person's life was worth so much more than the other's. I immediately thought about what would he know about the private's life. I especially thought about Joyce Kilmer (author of "Trees") and how he had served as a private. I just thought it was very presumptuous of him to assume that the major's life was worth so much more than the private's.

Rant over.

I did pick up Testament of Youth for the WWI challenge, however I never got around to reading it. It is still on my shelf. I am thinking of getting Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917. I think I was bothered that it was written so long after the fact.


message 28: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Roland was certainly a product of private school, wasn't he? Mind you, I did feel for all these very young men, expected to 'lead' men because of their class. It must have been daunting; they were essentially schoolboys leading men, and they were so afraid of looking afraid.


message 29: by Nigeyb (last edited Oct 03, 2017 06:46AM) (new)

Nigeyb Susan wrote: "I did feel for all these very young men, expected to 'lead' men because of their class. It must have been daunting; they were essentially schoolboys leading men, and they were so afraid of looking afraid."

Absolutely.

This is brilliantly illustrated in the wonderful 'Journey's End' by R.C. Sherriff. Sadly 'Journey's End' got very little take up when I nominated it as a Group Read fiction nomination in August 2016, or indeed when I set it up as Hot Read. Ah well.

Digressing a bit, I looked back at the polls the other day and noticed I haven't had a successful nomination for over a year now. Are you trying to tell me something? Anyway, getting back on track...

"Journey's End" - R.C. Sherriff’s very short (96 page), 1928 play is about a group of officers in the trenches shortly in France before a German offensive in WW1. It’s very much of its time, and yet remains profoundly moving.

R.C. Sherriff wrote the play based on his own experiences, and appears to have no particular axe to grind - neither anti-war, nor patriotic - with its primary focus on the toll placed on the young officers and the working class soldiers thrown into such a horrific situation.

Raleigh, a new eighteen-year-old officer fresh out of English public school, joins the besieged company of his friend and cricketing hero Stanhope, and finds him dramatically changed.

Laurence Olivier starred as Stanhope in the first performance of Journey's End in 1928; the play was an instant stage success and remains a remarkable anti-war classic.

It's a very short play (a mere 96 pages) but with absolutely loads of stuff to discuss. Where it really scores, and as Susan highlights, is in the psychological damage done to the officers. The stiff upper lip mentality meant that stress was alluded to more than openly discussed, and, for one character, a bottle of whiskey a night was essential to being able to cope.

Hailed by George Bernard Shaw as a 'useful [corrective] to the romantic conception of war', R.C. Sherriff's "Journey's End" and is an unflinching vision of life in the trenches towards the end of the First World War.

The theatrical version's enormous success enabled Sherriff to become a full-time writer, with plays such as "Badger's Green" (1930), "St Helena" (1935), and "The Long Sunset" (1955); though he is also remembered as a screenplay writer, for films such as "The Invisible Man" (1933), "Goodbye Mr Chips" (1933) and "The Dam Busters" (1955).





message 30: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Jan C wrote: "Do I also have to be British to grasp this upper class attitude of theirs?"

Perhaps. Although it's writ large in loads of books from the era, many of which you will have read, and in successful TV programmes like "Downton Abbey". All you really need to know is that the Upper Classes, in the main, believe themselves to be inherently superior to everyone else, this belief is reinforced throughout a Public School education (which means a private, fee paying school in the UK).

At the start of the twentieth century this belief also extended into the inherent superiority of the British over other nations, and other enthnicities. It's deeply unattractive to most enlightened, progressive people in the modern era but, sadly, to varying degrees still persists, especially the class aspect. Not surprising given the degree to which inherited wealth is passed down from generation to generation, and how a Public School education translates into greater academic success and hugely enhanced earning potential in adulthood. We still have a very long way to go to address the shocking inequalities in British society, and the associated attitudes. Indeed at the time of writing we are regressing at an alarming rate.

Jan C wrote: "I did pick up Testament of Youth for the WWI challenge, however I never got around to reading it. It is still on my shelf. I am thinking of getting Chronicle of Youth: The War Diary, 1913-1917. I think I was bothered that it was written so long after the fact."

You were bothered that 'Testament of Youth' was written so long after the fact? If so, then let me reassure you. It's superb and I'd say all the better for Vera's perspective as a mature adult on what happened during her youth.


message 31: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Nigeyb wrote: "Jan C wrote: "Do I also have to be British to grasp this upper class attitude of theirs?"

You were bothered that 'Testament of Youth' was written so long after the fact? If so, then let me reassure you. It's superb and I'd say all the better for Vera's perspective as a mature adult on what happened during her youth..."


I was just thinking of reading Chronicles prior to Testament.

Or, maybe I'm just trying to find an excuse for not having read it.


message 32: by Judy (new)

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I've got this book on order from the library, but have read the "sample" from Amazon in the meantime - the letters have hooked me in right away and I'm sure this will be a book I find hard to put down.

I thought Testament of Youth was a very powerful book - also loved the old BBC adaptation. The more recent film was good too but felt rushed by comparison.


message 33: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments When was the older BBC adaptation made?


message 34: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments IMDB seems to show 1979 - it was 5 episodes.


message 35: by Judy (new)

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments It was made in 1979 and starred Cheryl Campbell as Vera.


message 36: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Thanks! :)


message 37: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I watched the 1979 version on youtube. It was great!


message 38: by Haaze (last edited Oct 03, 2017 11:37PM) (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Nigeyb wrote: "This is brilliantly illustrated in the wonderful 'Journey's End' by R.C. Sherriff. Sadly 'Journey's End' got very little take up when I nominated it as a Group Read fiction nomination in August 2016, or indeed when I set it up as Hot Read. Ah well. "

Sounds like a hot topic! I think I will try to find copy! Perhaps we should try to gravitate towards works originating from the Great War era one of these months as we are heading towards the end of centennial?

Btw - I came across this version of the drama from the BBC:
https://archive.org/details/JourneysE...


message 39: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Thanks Haze - I'll try and give that a listen.

I'd love to see a theatrical revival of 'Journey's End' by R.C. Sherriff, which happens from time to time.


message 40: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Feature from 2015 about Vera as a journalist with 'The Manchester Guardian' in the 1920s...

https://www.theguardian.com/world/fro...


message 41: by Nigeyb (last edited Oct 04, 2017 02:09AM) (new)

Nigeyb By the by Victor Richardson is buried near me (in the Old Cemetery at Hove)

Victor died from wounds incurred at the Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917. His short life came to wider attention due to his friendship with Vera, and her portrayal of him in 'Testament of Youth' and related literature.

This is a lovely little tribute site to Victor....

http://victorrichardson.tumblr.com

Victor


message 42: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments Thank you for posting, Nigeyb. Glad he managed to be buried at home, at least. For his family, that must have - eventually - been some comfort.


message 43: by Haaze (new)

Haaze | 140 comments Still waiting for this in the mail. Perhaps I should read Sherriff's play while waiting? Hmm, or possibly "Testament of Youth", but that seems like a bit too much perhaps...
One more day...


message 44: by Judy (new)

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I was just looking back at our old thread for Testament of Youth, and found a link I posted then to a recording of Vera Brittain on the radio, introducing an interview with composer and suffragette Ethel Smyth. Brittain's voice sounds a lot like daughter Shirley Williams to my ears:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/suffrage...

This is a link to the old thread:

https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/...


message 45: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia Jan C wrote: "Do I also have to be British to grasp this upper class attitude of theirs?"

I also found Roland's inbred class attitude shocking in that moment you highlighted, Jan: on looking at the graves of a private and a major, neither of whom R seems to have known, he writes: 'what a pity it is that the same little piece of lead takes away as easily a brilliant life and one that is merely vegetation. The democracy of war!'

Merely vegetation? Up until this point, R seems to have been concerned with the men under his command, but if he can think of them in those terms...?


message 46: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Roman Clodia wrote: "Jan C wrote: "Do I also have to be British to grasp this upper class attitude of theirs?"

I also found Roland's inbred class attitude shocking in that moment you highlighted, Jan: on looking at th..."


My thoughts exactly. And maybe that's why I thought of Private Joyce Kilmer, poet. He didn't know what these people were in real life. He was just basing this on their rank.


message 47: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments It was shocking, but I just think they were a product of their upbringing and class - and their very young age.

I was very shocked by their headmaster's speech which, let's face it, encouraged all those young boys to try to get a commission.

My eldest son went to a private, fee paying school, and they do a lot of cadets, and marching around, playing at soldiers, even now. It was part of the reason that I opted for something different for my two younger children.


message 48: by Barbara (new)

Barbara I think the headmaster's speech, while shocking, was echoed quite often at the start of the war. Remember the teacher in All Quiet on the Western Front, urging his young students to join up?


message 49: by Susan (new)

Susan | 774 comments I suppose I shouldn't be shocked. There was, at that point, no 'call up,' so boys had to be persuaded they needed to enlist.


message 50: by Roman Clodia (new)

Roman Clodia Susan wrote: "It was shocking, but I just think they were a product of their upbringing and class - and their very young age."

Very true plus we need to remember that they had far more insular lives than modern teens who are more likely to have travelled and so have a broader outlook. All the same, there's a flagrant starkness about the phrase 'merely vegetation' which will stick with me.

It begs the difficult question, was WW1 inadvertently a force for social advancement if it contributed to questioning what are essentially Victorian values like this? It also helped the suffragette cause and getting, albeit limited, votes for women. I'm not, of course, justifying the huge slaughter involved but it's thought-provoking that people who we like, like Roland and Vera, whose 'side' we are on, can hold such abhorrent views.


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