One woman, three worlds.
In this biography of her life experiences before, during and after the "Great War", a book that was in many ways a breakthrough, Vera Brittain take us through three entirely different realities, wherein both she and her generation were forever transformed.
First the seemingly idyllic Edwardian era where she struggled to extricate herself from the restrictions of a tradition-bound society, one where the only acceptable preoccupation for a middle class girl growing up in sleepy Staffordshire was to land a suitable husband as soon as possible. A society where the permanence and impregnability of the British Empire was taken for granted and where young men were expected to focus their energies on making sure of the supremacy of that empire and the values that it stood for, without question.
Then the stark reality of a protracted war that consumed an entire generation as bloody cannon fodder in the mud and misery of Europe while accomplishing nothing whatever of value for either side. Brittain describes with clear-eyed realism the monumental stupidity, futility and tragic waste. And the desperation of an ill-prepared, scarcely trained volunteer nurse facing an onslaught of mangled bodies, with no resources to relieve their suffering; and while this is going on, all four of the young men she cares most deeply for are killed, one by one, leaving her with no particular reason to carry on and no vision of a future life. The "glory of war" is revealed for the sick joke that it is.
Finally, the aftermath of war (most tellingly, a section entitled "Survivors Not Wanted"); total disillusionment, rage, resentment at the destruction of everything that she had previously valued.
All of this sounds depressingly gloomy; and yet, Brittain succeeds in conveying not just the high drama of a nurse performing under fire and her overwhelming sorrow at the loss of her closest loved ones, but also penetrating insight into the nature of war and the psychology of those swept up in it; and even moments of humor and beauty stolen from the surrounding chaos.
No woman had ever attempted such a book before, boldly and graphically telling what it was really like for a young woman from a sheltered upbringing to find herself dealing, day after day with young men's shattered bodies and watching so many of them die in agony.
I found all of this tremendously compelling and (perhaps surprisingly) readable. A strong four stars but not five because I found that the book lost momentum in Part 3, the final 100 pages, as Vera endeavors to find a new purpose in life. Such a let-down was of course unavoidable, even though she found it necessary (as a person) to salvage something of what remained of her life and (as a writer) to leave the reader with some hope. The sad truth is that the book was written in 1933 under the shadow of the rise of the Third Reich and we're left with the knowledge that not only did the Great War solve nothing, it actually set the stage for the next catastrophe.
Glaring truths about man's folly set against stunning recognition of human courage. And a deeply personal and painfully honest "testament" of one woman who, despite all supporting evidence, refuses to consider herself heroic.
An emotional account of the Great War, 1914-18, through the eyes of a young, intelligent girl who is driven by the causes of her day.
Her account of how British women got the vote in the early years of the 20th century is fascinating, as Vera was indeed one of the leaders of that movement. Her memories of losing all the young men who mattered to her in her own life paralleled the loss of a generation of young women. Finally, Vera’s decision to transfer her sphere of study from Literature to history so that she could understand better why the war was fought and channel the outcome of the conflict led her to become an expert in the league of Nations and a voice for women’s issues everywhere.
A wonderful women whose daughter continued in her footsteps, the two made a mark on women’s rights in today’s world and deserve to be remembered proudly.
Fascinating reading as an historical account through the eyes of one who was there. But the book can be heavy slugging at times, with much detail and poetic waxing. It was written in the days of Downton Abbey and must be enjoyed as a window on the past.
I very much enjoyed Brittain's style, her unbridled energy, her determined feminism, her sense of adventure. She does this in a colourful, descriptive style. There is much honesty and pure emotion, both positive and negative, which plunge the reader in the heart of her life: its miseries as well as its successes. While I appreciate this book is valuable as a detailed description of the times, I sometimes found it long and I slogged through many chapters: the dull years in France, the combative political implications. For historians, it is doubtless gold; for the fiction reader that I am, it is at times rather tedious. This doesn't take away, however, from the fact that Brittain is an exceptional woman of courage and strength, one who has done much for women's rights and one who has given a voice to an entire generation.
This is a beautifully written and moving book, it gives a real sense of what it was like growing up during the First World War and the terrible toll it took on people.
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