Plus ça change

I’ve had a little hiatus here thanks to book fair season (Bologna Children’s Bookfair and London Book Fair with only a week of exhausted stumbling through mountains of emails in between), but now that’s over and I’m back to work, back to working on a thousand different projects at once, which is just how I like it.

This Saturday I’m presenting a paper on the publishing history of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, and I spent the weekend researching her biography to add to my paper. I always find biography both inspiring and depressing. That intimate look into someone else’s life, their personality, which forces you to confront the fact that people in the past were not simply characters on a page, to behave in cliched (understandable) ways and to make logical choices. They were human beings, not always perfect, not always nice. It’s a good reminder to have, because otherwise researchers might fall into the trap of idolising their subjects (not that I was ever in danger of idolising Vera Brittain, but I have had one or two fannish moments in my past!).

I found it interesting to read about Brittain’s engagement with the publishing industry. Her jealousy of Winifred Hotltby’s first success (her crit partner and flatmate by today’s terms), Britain’s struggle to find time to write while managing a household with two young children, her agent’s concern that the interest in the ‘war books’ genre had faded by the time Brittain completed Testament of Youth, her ‘almost’ affair with the head of Macmillan… This is what I love about history. Take away the glamour of the past — the letters and telegrams, the Chelsea townhouse with servants, the Pullman carriages where passionate embraces are stolen— and you realise, not much has changed!

In a letter to Holtby in which Brittain confessed that she needed a break from her children and her house, and time to work on her book, if she was to remain sane, she wrote: “It is boiling in my mind and I shall become hysterical if I am prevented from getting down to it very much longer…”

This sentence really struck a chord with me. Not only does it perfectly describe how it feels to be caught in the throes of a big project, but it’s also very inspiring. Don’t be prevented from doing the thing you need to do now. Just get down to it, as if your mental health depends on it. It probably does.

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“Why should these young men have the war to themselves? Didn’t women have their war as well?” The enduring popularity of Vera Brittain’s TESTAMENT OF YOUTH

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?
That kiss!
That kiss!
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.
My copy of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH. I had one or two observations...
My copy of TESTAMENT OF YOUTH. I had one or two observations…

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?