I am pretty excited about seeing “Testament of Youth.” Partly because I’ve spent the last six months immersed in a First World War romance, and partly because, my god, have you seen these clothes?
This is despite the fact that, somewhat controversially, I’ve always thought Vera Brittain was overrated. With hindsight, I can see this is the kind of dismissiveness a music snob reserves for the most popular band in their pet genre. There are other women writers of the First World War. Better writers. More authentic accounts. Does TESTAMENT OF YOUTH deserve to be the seminal female account of the First World War? Does Vera Brittain deserve to be so popular?
Still, there are passages from TESTAMENT OF YOUTH that have stuck with me even though I read it nearly ten years ago. I picked up my copy, saw how well annotated it was, and then I remembered a paper I wrote during my MA. Inspired by Janet Watson’s book, FIGHTING DIFFERENT WARS, in which she compares the contemporary wartime diaries and letters with retrospective published accounts of, among others, Vera Brittain, I set out to address the issue of Brittain’s popularity by comparing the critical reception and publishing history of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH to two other war books: NOT SO QUIET by Helen Zenna Smith (a pseudonym) and WE THAT WERE YOUNG by Irene Rathbone. Rathbone’s book, a semi-autobiographical novel, was also used by Watson in her study. NOT SO QUIET was my own, somewhat flawed, addition.
To anyone who enjoyed TESTAMENT OF YOUTH but hasn’t read NOT SO QUIET… Please do so immediately. It’s gripping, chilling, repulsive, and absolutely brilliant. But it’s probably not fair to compare it to TESTAMENT OF YOUTH because it’s, um, fiction. Sure, it’s based on a diary of an ambulance driver (now lost). Sure, all autobiographical accounts are fictionalised, to some extend, in the attempt to impose a narrative on memories. But I know better than anyone that it’s not fair to compare nonfiction to fictional story-telling because, unfortunately, in history you can’t just make shit up.
According to Janet Watson, Vera Brittain re-remembered her wartime experiences in order to fit them into the context of the narrative of her male writer counterparts: the so-called ’soldier’s story.’ According to me in 2006, Brittain deliberately wrote her story to appeal to an entire generation of Britons; not just volunteer VAD nurses like herself, but also the soldiers, and the general public. She succeeded.
How cynical, how manipulative, thought the idealist (naive) aspiring historian. What clever marketing, thinks the experienced publishing professional.
Still, one thing that disturbs me when reviewing my research, is the way that Brittain’s own experiences of war were subsumed into the experiences and loss of the men in her life. Recognition of women in the First World War was a problem in history a generation ago. That has changed, over the last ten years especially. But, with the increasing fetishisation of the First World War, ‘remembrance,’ and all things lovely and vintage, I wonder if it is changing in a way that actually recognises women’s contributions and importance, or whether people simply wish to idealise women’s roles and sacrifice in a way that trivialises their experiences and loss. I mean, my god, have you seen those clothes?