What a remarkable experience this book this has been. I readily confess, I found it quite hard to read, but have been unable to stop thinking about it ever since. It is by no means a light read, but one I wholeheartedly recommend, and it seems particularly relevant now in 2018, a hundred years since the Armistice that ended the horrors of the first World War. I have two copies to give away, Mum’s original copy from the Virago re-print in 1979, and a brand new copy Mum must have purchased very recently, probably seeing it in a bookshop, remembering how much it meant to her, and, unsure whether she had kept her original, buying another to be on the safe side. Mum was never afraid of a random book purchase, especially as if it did turn out to be a duplicate, one of us girls would happily take it. (Another thing Mum was much given to purchasing at random was a nice wall clock; I have several that she became tired of and gave to me!)
This, the first volume of Ms Brittain’s memoirs, (and to be absolutely frank, probably the only one I shall ever read), gives us an honest and harrowing narrative of her life before and particularly during the war, and, continuing into the 1920’s, addresses the massive personal and social upheavals that occurred after the wholesale slaughter of a generation of young men including her only brother, her fiance, and two of their closest friends. She does this from an empowered (for her times: the book was first published in 1933) and educated female perspective, however damaged she was by her experiences, and also as a committed pacifist. Detail is everything, and there are frequent references to and excerpts from the diaries she kept, letters, and poetry written by herself or her fiance, Roland. Incidentally, I found the BBC adaptation of the book on Netflix, and Roland is played by Kit Harington aka Jon Snow!
Born into a comfortable middle class family in 1893, she grew up in a world that seems so alien to us now, with its restrictions and rules for young ladies. Ms Brittain however is a bit of a rebel, (go Vera!). She rails against her parents belief that there is no point in a girl going to Oxford, and dreams of becoming a journalist and writer, not ‘coming out’ (which of course meant something quite different then), and marrying suitably. Her younger brother, Edward, is going to Oxford – why shouldn’t she? There is a wonderful passage where she describes her father buying her a piano, and her resultant outrage – the cost of said piano would have covered a years tuition at Oxford!
Eventually, the intervention of a visiting academic, highly respectable, helps her case, and she gets her way, frantically learning Greek and studying to gain a place at Somerville College. As a reader, at this stage we have enjoyed living through her account of life in the last few years before war broke out; glorious summers, school presentation days, country walks, the gradual blossoming of a romance between Ms Brittain and her brother’s close friend, Roland Leighton. This relationship looks like very hard work from our modern viewpoint; they are never alone together, and when they do (the war has started by now) manage to take a train ride together without a chaperone, they were too shy to really talk to one another until the very last moment.
So Ms Brittain goes up to Oxford after this huge struggle. One gets the sense that this girl could have done, actually, anything; yet she agonises over everything, possibly because to have expressed confidence in her own ability would have appeared conceited. However, we must remember that the era when this was written, and the period she is writing about, did not in any way encourage women to be clever, smart, self-supporting, independent…we didn’t have the right to vote until 1919, and then only when we had passed thirty!
War changed everything. For Ms Brittain, her brother, his friends, everyone in fact, the initial feeling was patriotic elation. When she saw how he and the other boys welcomed the prospect of fighting, and perhaps dying “gloriously” for their country, her own imagination lit up. She had enough of it to envisage it’s horror, but she felt she too ought to experience war as much as possible in order to stay with them – particularly Roland – in spirit. As she says, “The War made masochists of us all”. Ms Brittain always capitalised the word War.
So she leaves Oxford, and joins the V.A.D.’s (the Voluntary Aid Detachment, overseen by the Red Cross) as a nurse. Seriously, these girls who did this…you just have to admire them so much. ‘Young ladies’ who had never had to deal with any disagreeable task, were now coping with horrid conditions and nursing men with hideous wounds. And knowing that their brothers, friends, lovers, were facing the same dangers. Such strength.
Then, the deaths. The absolutely heart-wrenching loss of Roland; he has leave for Christmas, she’s bought a new frock, and then…there’s a telephone call which she takes thinking it is him telling her he is back albeit late; but it is to tell her he has died. Really, really awful, and a point in the book where you do have to stop and think, this is a real person sharing her memories, this really happened, and ask yourself, how on earth does one deal with something like this? I have no idea. I’m still trying to come to terms with Mum’s death, and that was natural.
By 1918, she has lost not only Roland, but her adored brother and two of their close friends, one of whom she has in her grief decided to marry after reading an advert in the Times where a lady, recently bereaved, offers to marry ‘any wounded officer, even blinded’. (This part was hard to read, it was so devastatingly sad). She goes back to Oxford, by now a committed pacifist, but so destroyed by everything that has happened, and finding that the new generation of undergraduates is not at all interested in the War; they just want to have fun. She determines never to marry – to love is to lose – but here she meets another woman who wants to write, and eventually becomes her closest friend. This is Winifred Holtby, who wrote one of my personal favourite books, ‘South Riding’. (Amazing book – Mum doesn’t have it though!) Together, they break the shackles of their parents, and strike out alone in London to build their futures.
There is a happy-ish ending to all this, you will be relieved to hear. Ms Brittain publishes two novels, but eventually finds her forte as a columnist, and in working for the League Of Nations promoting peace. She marries George Catlin, and has two children. She lives a full and, one hopes, happy life. As I write this, I think that perhaps I may look for her other two autobiographical novels at some stage, just to see what she thought of what she became.
Most of my reading about the first World War has been written by men. This book broke that mould, and gave me a completely different perspective. I thoroughly recommend it.
As always, please let me know if you would like this amazing book to become part of your library, and I will post it out to you. There are two copies, the first one being Mum’s 1980 version. It isn’t easy, but it is very, very good.
EDIT; Both Mum’s copies are already gifted, but here’s a link to the book on Amazon.