Vera Brittain’s memoir of her First World War experiences has come back into the national consciousness as a result of the huge cultural output marking the centenary of the outbreak of the conflict last year and the newly released feature film. Written between 1929 and 1933 and first published in 1933, it saw a renaissance in 1978 when it was published by Virago as a feminist text: Vera Brittain was not only a witness to the destruction of her generation in the trenches, but a fearless feminist with ideas about women’s identity and role well in advance of her time. Does the book bear rereading? Does it have anything new to say on either of those topics?
Vera was brought up in Buxton, Derbyshire, the daughter of successful business people. They were happy to pay for a public school and Oxford education for her brother Edward but railed at first against the idea that their clever daughter , Vera, deserved an Oxford education too. This dismissal of female talents is seen by Vera as typical of the ossified and stultifying attitude towards women in the parochial backwater of Buxton: girls were to be prepared for marriage and motherhood and finding a suitable match should be her primary aim. Showing remarkable tenacity and commitment and with the occasional stroke of good luck in the form of support from a respected family acquaintance, Vera studies hard and not only gets into Oxford but wins a scholarship to go up to Somerville in 1914.
In the meantime the guns of war have started rumbling in Europe and Vera admits candidly that she is unprepared for this, being more interested in Shelley and Swinburne than the politics of the day. Her dear brother Edward and his friend Roland, with whom Vera has developed an intense friendship, postpone their Oxford places and enlist to fight. Vera herself after one year in the ivory towers of Oxford, wants to contribute in a more useful way to the war effort and volunteers as a nurse with the VAD. She works first in Buxton, then in Camberwell, then Malta and finally in Etaples and some of the finest parts of her story are her accounts of her life and work in these hospitals . Vera is bitterly critical of the harsh conditions in the nurses’ hostel in Camberwell, remarking with commonsensical exasperation that the world would get so much more out of nurses if they allowed them some little home comforts when off duty, such as hot water for a bath. At the same time, she depicts most movingly the terrible plight of some of the war wounded, both young and old, Tommy and German prisoner,so that our heart goes out to them and to the valiant nurses who attempt to care for them and ease their suffering.
The love story between Vera and Roland is described with refreshing honesty: when he returns on leave in 1915 and they become engaged, they are awkward and out of sorts with one another, weighed down with societal and familial pressures, the uncertainty of the future and frustrated with the small amount of time they have to be together. Vera does not give up on her feminist principles on getting engaged:she rejects the idea of a ring, for its connotations of being labelled as one man’s chattel and she dreads her father raising with Roland how he will ‘keep’ her, as she intends to be financially independent. Alas, these issues prove to be theoretical as Roland is later killed at the front , as is his friend Geoffrey. A third friend, Victor, suffers a head wound and is blinded. He is brought back to London where he dies of the head wound. Finally, Vera’s brother, Edward is killed on the Italian front towards the end of the war. A whole group of friends wiped out one after another.
As well as describing devastating personal loss, Vera Brittain conveys well the effect of the war as a whole on the civilian population: it brought about increased freedom for women through their work in the war effort, a relaxing of attitudes towards young people’s relationships and a closeness between generations in the presence of loss and sharing of grief. In some respects however, the freedom for women was provisional: Vera was asked to return home to care for her ailing mother, abandoning her war work at least temporarily and this was apparently a common occurrence as the war dragged on , families lost sons and wanted comfort from their daughters.
After the war, Vera decides to complete her studies,and shows well the huge gulf between those who experienced the war and the new freshers, as if the four years of war work are an insurmountable barrier between the two groups. More haunting is her frank admission of mental health problems caused by the exhaustion and anxiety of those years:in her discussion of this phenomenon and the psychological costs of war she is both brutally honest and ahead of her time. Yet there is a sense of a new beginning in the early 1920s- women over 30 have the vote, women students at Oxford are allowed to take degrees and the League of Nations is formed and attempting to maintain peace in Europe.
Now I did find the last 100 pages of the book quite hard going this time, as I remember last time too. It is 650 pages long and the last section details developments on the international scene and at various League of Nations conferences, though Vera’s poignant trip with her friend Winifred to Central Europe is also described. My straying attention was probably a combination of longbookitis and somehow not being able to see the League of Nations wood for the trees. Nevertheless I felt this book was definitely worth rereading: I could admire again Vera Brittain’s courage in the face of the dangers of war and the indescribable suffering she witnessed. Also the courage of her views on women’s equality and her determination to live life to the full, employing all her talents, beyond the domestic sphere. But I also enjoyed the pleasure and power of her writing, whether she is describing a tiny purple vetch on the island of Malta or the bundle of Roland’s clothes he wore when he was shot, returned to his family home from the front,spilling over his mother’s kitchen floor, stiff with blood and smelling of ‘graveyards and the Dead’. Above all she manages to convey at once a true sense of the lost youth of her generation, a loss from which they never recovered and yet a sense of her own energy,vitality and personal drive to do what she can to make the world a better place in spite of everything.