Posted by: zhiv | February 13, 2011

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth: Notes #2

Had a good read in Testament of Youth the other day. I was typing up Pat Barker/Regeneration Trilogy posts and started reading the long wikipedia entry on W.H.R. Rivers, which is worthy of its own notes, but eventually settled into steaming through most of the second half of Brittain. It’s a long book. I still need to write about Robert Graves, which will be tricky and over-generalized because I read it so long ago now. I thought I would compensate by making some notes on the flow of Brittain’s narrative while I’m in the midst of it and approaching the end. Trying not to keep making the same mistake of delay and inattention.

So I started yesterday’s read at about page 350 or so, with VB in Malta or headed there. It’s something of an exotic interlude, and I’m trying to remember the reason she wanted to ship out. Roland has been dead for awhile, and Edward hasn’t gone back to the front yet. VB’s narrative has her romance with Roland in the foreground (pp. 100-200?), with her bond with her brother alongside it. But the “group” has two other, secondary members, Victor and Geoffrey, the four young men all close schoolmates, with Roland as their hero and leader. VB grows closer to Victor and Geoffrey as they console her after Roland’s death. But they themselves are doomed and the circumstances of their deaths fill a section of the middle of the book.

VB’s growing depression, cynicism, and resignation cuts into her diary efforts, but she has ample correspondence to use in shaping her narrative. Her description of her journey to Malta and her stay there gives her book and experience a wider view of the war. It’s an interesting question whether Edward’s passion for music, for violin and composition, affected VB’s approach to structure, as her book is something like a war symphony, with its early, upbeat idealistic innocence, the sheltered suburban girl coming of age and striving to gain consciousness and an intellectual foothold, turning to the passion of youthful romance and tragedy. But the symphony continues, and there is the slow, hesitant return to life and feeling, with its own small crescendos. I’m trying to get at the way that VB sets the tone for the deaths of Geoffrey and then Victor, shorter versions of the deaths of Roland and later Edward. She has her concerns and communication, then she tries to remember in detail her own exact movements and thoughts just as the blows are struck and she receives them. In the case of Roland’s death it’s a full-blown set piece of youthful tragedy and despair, and the death of Geoffrey is a smaller version of the same thing. There is a communication gap that troubles her in Malta, however, as she is a week or more behind the news. Then Victor receives a head wound and is blinded, just as VB’s service in Malta has quieted and she feels far away and ineffective. Her journey back to England is another keen description of what the world was like during the war, the land route through Italy and France on the way home contrasted against the dangerous sea route of her journey there. VB had decided that she would marry Victor and care for him. There’s a strange note about Edward’s fear of blindness, as he believes it’s an intolerable fate, that sight is crucial to life. VB returns home in time to see Victor make the beginnings of a recovery. But she hardly has time to consider her noble purpose, only enough to question her ability for such a level of self-sacrifice, before Victor takes a sudden turn and quickly dies.

It’s rather astonishing that VB is little more than halfway through the four years of the war at this point, and she has at least a couple of major movements left in her narrative. With Geoffrey and Victor gone it’s just her and Edward now, the remaining pair of brother and sister. Edward returns to his unit in France, and VB isn’t far behind, as she now enters the most dramatic part of her own service, working in the slaughterhouse hospital behind the lines in France. Again, the breadth of her war experience is extraordinary, as she is first assigned to the ward of wounded German prisoners, and thus develops a deep sympathy for and sense of the humanity of the enemy. She comes closer and closer to the transfiguration of death, as she describes two or three angelic young Germans in their final moments. Shortly afterwards, muscling through the hardships of service with steady resolve, she is transferred to one of the main units. Her move coincides with a series of attacks and a flood of wounded and dying men. It’s another rising movement in the symphony, and it leads to the intense fear caused by the major German offensive.

The timing of VB’s movements is sad but somehow impeccable. Survivor’s narratives, Robert Graves very much included, seem to have a predetermined shape, as if, Ishmael-like, they were meant to observe and witness everything for the purpose of generating narrative and remembrance. VB’s mother has a nervous breakdown and she makes the difficult decision to leave France just as bombs begin to fall in the hospital area (next to the railroad tracks and supply line). But just before she leaves she’s able to witness the seemingly providential arrival of the tangibly bigger, stronger rescuing American forces at the crucial moment that the lines might break. It’s another notable, bravura description.

It also marks a transition, as the American vitality is contrasted against the spindly remains of exhausted British manhood, with conscription extended to age 50, and VB’s return home allows her to gauge and describe the effect of the war on the struggling, anxious homefront and middle-aged Britain. This is another extraordinary view, an odd extension and experience, as kids in their early 20s aren’t supposed to be quite so mindful of the older generation’s banal struggles and neuroses. But war changes everything and VB sees privation, hunger and fear plunge society into crippling confusion. As highly conscious and articulate and sympathetic as she is about herself and her companions, her own doomed generation and the larger social issues, she’s oddly reticent about her parents. Her mother’s breakdown isn’t described in any detail, even though it has a definitive effect on VB’s experience, and she remains detached from her father. One assumes that she didn’t have much good to say about her parents, and they were late Victorian stock suburban characters, caught up in the limitations VB found so stifling in her childhood and early life. She was deeply ambivalent about leaving France and succumbing to family duty and she writes well, but in very general terms, about the difficulties and pressures of family structure on young women, with a good feminist bent.

All of this is prep for the movement of Edward’s unit to Italy, where he fights in the mountains against the Austrians. It all fits so neatly, as Edward dies in a significant action towards the end of the war. Edward admired Roland, whose death was random and meaningless, while the unlikely, musical Edward became a fearless and determined warrior. Brittain is devastated, and she has the appropriate shock for some one who has seemingly lost everything and everybody. She describes herself as an automaton, and she stumbles numbly through the end of the war.

There’s still a significant final movement, as VB returns to Oxford and tries to find meaning in what remains of her life. All of it is interesting stuff, similar to the way that Graves concludes his memoir, which also contains a return to Oxford. I expect to finish the book shortly and will try to go over the last part and ending in another post.

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