‘Violets from oversea,
To your dear, far, forgetting land;
These I send in memory,
Knowing You will understand.’
Violets – April 1915 (1916), Roland Leighton
One of the most magical moments in reading is when you find a book which touches something inside you. To quote Alan Bennet, ‘it’s as if a hand has come out, and taken yours’ (The History Boys). For me there have been many such occasions, however the most profound of these was to be encountered in the unlikeliest of places. It was not until I was in search of interesting texts to discuss in my Oxford application (a situation we are all familiar with, I am sure), that I first came across Testament of Youth. I will be the first to admit that it was not Vera Brittain’s spectacular memoir that introduced me to her world, but rather James Kent’s beautiful 2014 debut film of the same name. Alicia Vikander’s compelling performance captured my heart and before I had even finished watching it, I decided that I had to read the book immediately.
In this case, ‘immediately’ meant that night, and over the next month or so I fully embraced the sarcastic, loving, complicated, heartbreaking tale of what it was like to live through the First World War. Did I end up including it in my personal statement? Admittedly yes, but it also became my favourite book, and helped me to form connections with women in my home community.
I feel as though Vera Brittain and her story have taken a backseat in the wartime literary canon, so I will outline it: Testament of Youth follows Vera from childhood to young adulthood, documenting in the first person her education, her battle to get into Oxford (specifically Somerville), love, loss, World War One, and her life as a historian and ameuter political figure. At first glance, the story of a young woman losing a brother, fiancé, and two best friends fighting for a war that she did not believe in does not sound like the sort of book one falls in love with. However, Vera’s feminist ideals and witty humour prevent the narrative from taking too dark a turn.
Literature from this period is such a prevalent part of schooling that most of us have studied it at some point, but I am one of the few who have not. Despite growing up mere miles from Wilfred Owen’s birthplace and the home of renowned Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, I had never read any First World War literature. The profound emotion in this heartbreaking book was perfectly balanced with the sarcastic cynicism of hindsight, and by the end of the book I felt as though I knew Vera Brittain personally.
More often than not, connections with literature are formed on commonality and, as such, I believe that part of my attachment to Vera Brittain is due to the aspects of myself I can see in her. I may have been born and brought up in Mid Wales, however the potteries of Newcastle are part of my heritage, and many of the places referenced in the early pages of the book are familiar to me. Filling in my Oxford application felt like following in the footsteps of another ambitious young English student with a determination to get all that she could out of life. Perhaps I didn’t write my entrance exam in German or apply to Somerville, but I certainly found myself comparing my experience to Vera’s.
Of course, her tale is as much about war as it is about Oxford, and it is perhaps in this regard that her influence upon my life is clearest. I tend not to engage with the world and its politics too deeply, yet I have a fascination (perhaps an obsession) with the mentality of going to war. Since I had never studied military literature before, Testament’s influence upon my academic interests is clear to see. Not only have I now researched Owen and some of his contemporaries for my Prelims, but I have begun to apply the same questions to my studies of Early Medieval literature. This exploration into links between the mentality of Anglo-Saxon and First World War soldiers is partly down to a quote from one of Roland’s letters (‘heroism in the abstract’) and partly due to timing. It just so happens that as I was reading Testament, I was also studying Old Welsh poetry. In my head the two sets of militaristic ideals began to blend and I realised that fundamentally they weren’t that different. Is this a Fresher beginning to contemplate her dissertation topic? Yes, I am afraid so. But more than that, it is an explanation of why I determinedly told my tutors when we met them for drinks in Freshers’ week that I would be taking Course Two (Medieval English) despite that making no difference to my First Year studies.
I wonder what Vera would think about her influence on generations of Oxford women and the way her name manages to bring people together. Hopefully she would be proud that her voice is still being listened to. Her politics and unwavering determination to carry on in the face of so much hardship is an inspiration and I will forever be glad that she eventually managed to sit down and write her story. Without the war, Vera Brittain would have lived a very different life. She would not have changed her degree, would have married a poet and perhaps would have been forgotten by history. Yet, I believe that she would still have been an awe-inspiring woman who fought for what was important. Of course, she did go through extensive hardship and despite all of it managed to share the incredible story of a group of young adults who lost their youth to the cruelties of war. Ultimately, it is a story of what a woman can achieve through stubbornness, bravery and commitment. Is there a better message a person can share than that?