Tag Archives: surplus women

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Born in 1893 Vera Brittain struggled against her father’s opposition when she applied to study at Oxford. She gained a place and began her studies, but the First World War broke out and all the young men she knew and cared about had to decide whether to join up. During the Great War she lost her lover, her brother and their circle of friends and worked as a Red Cross VAD in London, Malta and northern France. By the time the war ended in 1918 her world was utterly different and her youth ‘smashed up’.

In the ‘70s, when I first read Testament of Youth women were coming to understand that the personal is political, and reading Vera Brittain helped me to see that history is personal and political. She wrote this in the Foreword to the autobiographical study:

Only, I felt, by some attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war. (11)

Testament of Youth is my choice for the 1930s in the Decades Project on Bookword.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

The book’s subtitle is: An Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900-1925. Vera Brittain’s childhood was mostly spent in Buxton, in a middle class family with limited expectations of young women. She wished to study at Oxford but had to battle with her father about this before being ultimately successful and awarded an exhibition at Somerville. She took her place to read English Literature, but then the First World War broke out and everything changed.

She lost her lover Roland Leighton in the first months, two more friends from their circle in the next two years and her brother in Italy in 1918. She decided to join the Red Cross VADs (Voluntary Aid Detachment) partly to match the potential sacrifices of her circle but also to do something meaningful and distracting while those she cared for were at The Front.

copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

She began nursing in London, volunteered to serve overseas in Malta following Roland’s death, and finally at Etaples in northern France, close to the action. She returned to work in London in the final months of the war. Following her brothers death in June 1918 and with no one else to lose she described the final months.

And now there were no more disasters to dread and no friends left to wait for; with the ending of apprehension had come a deep nullifying blankness, a sense of walking in a thick mist which hid all sights and muffled all sounds. I had no further experience to gain from the War; nothing remained except to endure it. (458)

After the war she returned to Oxford, where she found her experiences were ignored as she describes in a chapter called Survivors not Welcome. Until she met Winifred Holtby she found life very hard, but their friendship brought new direction to her life and following graduation they planned to earn their living writing and lecturing. They shared flats and campaigning activities, often travelling abroad to find facts for the League of Nations Union. And finally she began a correspondence with an academic specialising in politics. George Caitlin is not mentioned by name. She married him in 1933 and survived until 1970.

‘Smashing up my youth’

The cost of the war for Vera Brittain was very high indeed, and her enduring pain is very evident to the reader. To reveal some of this she draws on the many letters her circle wrote to each other, and also her own poetry. Her poem To My Brother provided the title for the only collection I know of First World War poetry by women. (see below).

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (434)

Her analysis includes the cost of the loss of so many men to public life in the1920s. Writing near the end of the book she recalls the situation in 1924 as she travelled through Europe, and wrote this about the rebuilding of civilisation after the war.

… the men who might, in co-operation with the women who were not too badly impaired by shock and anxiety, have contributed most to its recovery, the first-rate courageous men with initiative and imagination, had themselves gone down in the Flood, and their absence now meant failure and calamity in every department of human life. Perhaps, after all, the best we who were left could do was refuse to forget, and to teach our successors what we remembered in the hope that they, when their own day came would have more power to change the state of the world than this bankrupt, shattered generation. (645-6).

Testament of Youth was published in 1933. In 1939 Britain was again at war.

It’s a long book and very detailed about her state of mind and her many experiences over its 25 year span. Her reactions to the treatment of VADs, her experiences of nursing wounded soldiers, including German prisoners, are vivid and shocking.

Her feminism is evident throughout and set against the wider context, especially of events in Europe during and after the war. Her struggle to get into Oxford against her father’s wishes, becomes almost insignificant once the war began. But she was still summoned home to care for her mother towards the end of the war, the duty of the daughter. After the war she notes that she was, for a while, a ‘surplus woman’ but writes to Winifred Holtby that she does not regret her single status.

Her friendship with Winifred Holtby is like a gold thread in the account of her post-war years, a new friendship that supported her writing ambitions and political involvement and thawed her emotional state.

Testament of Youth Lives on

Testament of Youth is a book that seems to be rediscovered every 30 or 40 years. In 1979 it was serialised in five parts on BBC tv with Cheryl Campbell in the main role. In 2014 a film was made with Alicia Vikander as Vera Brittain.

Robert McCrum put Testament of Youth as #42 on list of 100 best nonfiction books of all time in the Guardian. Here’s his assessment from November 2016.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, first published in 1933. I used the edition published by Fontana in 1979. 661pp

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981. I drew on this collection in a post on women’s poetry of the Great War.

The Decades Project

For 2018 I decided to find non-fiction by women for each decade in the project having focused on novels in 2017. I select one book each month from successive decades (January 1900-1909; February 1910-1919 etc). Suggestions are always welcome.

Here are the links to the first three books in the Decades Project:

Ms Jekyll and her Garden (1900-9) and

My Own Story by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

Another look at A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1928)

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Image credit: copyright held by British Red Cross and used with permission.

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Filed under Books, Feminism, Reading, Reviews, The Decade project

Rereading Women’s Poetry from The Great War

The commemorations for the 100th anniversary of the First World War have passed their second Christmas. Now the centenary events have become muted, part of the background. While male war poets have been justly celebrated, women’s poetry has been heard much less frequently. Indeed you could argue that ‘war poet’ means a soldier, a man.

115 Ipplepen poppies

The Great War impacted upon everybody. Women had to deal with the absence and possible death of their menfolk. At home the suffragette campaign was suspended and women found they were required to take over ‘men’s work’, including in munitions factories. Many did heroic medical work, including at the front. They managed rationing and the other restrictions on their lives. One of the most significant effects were the loss of nearly a million men from the population. I still find myself moved by the implications of these lines by Margaret Postgate Cole from Praematuri:

We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young.

Here is the slightly revised post I first published on August 4th 2014, the centenary of Britain’s entrance into the First World War.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

The British Army on the Western Front, 1914-1918. Troops going up to the trenches through the snow along a road in single file, La Boisselle, February 1917. By Lt John Warwick. From the Imperial War Museum collection via wikicommons.

Women’s Poetry and The Great War

How do we remember the First World War? The trenches, the appalling loss of life, the horror of the technology of war – machine guns, aeroplanes, gas, tanks – the cemeteries and the war memorials in every town and village throughout Europe.

And the poets: Rupert Brooke, Edmund Blunden, Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon and Edward Thomas. The first hardback I ever owned was The Poems of Wilfred Owen, edited by Edmund Blunden. Inside I wrote the date in my 15-year-old’s script: 25.xii.1963, the year of its publication.

115 W Owen

The cultural memory of the war features muddy trenches, silhouettes of British Tommies and poets killed poignantly days before the Armistice. This is not adequate. It sweeps aside the experiences of so many during the war: the millions from the British Empire who fought on land and sea, those who nursed and cared for the injured, those who lost people they loved. Above all we need to add the perspective of women. Their contribution to the war, their experiences after the war, and the poems written by women have all been side-lined. An example is the Top 10 war poems selected by Jon Stallworthy, all of them by men.

All the dreariness of war

‘Women get all the dreariness of war, and none of its exhilaration,’ said Vera Brittain in Testament of Youth. Perhaps this explains the neglect – who wants the dreariness of war, after all? And especially after it’s over.

234 Scars cover

I know of only one collection of First World War poetry by women: The Scars upon my Heart. It was published, as long ago as 1981, by Virago, edited by Catherine Reilly. The title comes from a poem by Vera Brittain, To My Brother.

Your battle wounds are scars upon my heart … (15)

Even during the war women were among those who raised their voices in protest against the prolonging of the slaughter, and the attitude of those at home. Edith Sitwell’s poem The Dancers was written ‘During a Great Battle, 1916’.

The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while his wind blow out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We can still dance, each night.

The final verse begins with the line

We are dull blind carrion-fly (100)

One of the most affecting poems in the collection is the second of two by Marian Allen, taking for its theme returning to a walk on the downs with a loved one – ‘they tell me dear, that you are dead’. The poem address the dead soldier, as if this will keep him alive. Called The Wind on the Downs it ends

Here I see your khaki figure pass,
And when I leave the meadow, almost wait
That you should open first the wooden gate. (2)

Women paid a heavy price for war. The millions of service personnel all had mothers, and many had sisters, lovers, sweethearts, fiancées, wives, daughters …

Surviving Survival

Women had to learn to ‘survive survival’ in Catherine Reilley’s words. The social consequences of the slaughter in the decades that followed were especially significant for women. After the Armistice a woman’s destiny was still marriage, yet in this generation thousands of women found themselves ‘on the shelf’ as a result of the 900,000 lost men. They were called ‘surplus women’. Margaret Postgate Cole’s poem, Praematuri refers to the fate of surplus women:

But we are young, and our friends are dead …
We are left alone like old men; we should be dead
But there are years and years in which we shall still be young. (22)

A woman might suffer considerable hardship to raise a family on her own, receiving lower wages for the same work. In the longer view, many women benefitted from unexpected independence and opportunity as a result of the large numbers of men who died.

Lest we forget

Up and down the country the Great War of 1914-1918 is being commemorated. There will be more poetry readings, featuring Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, and other male poets. Our memorials feature the names of the fallen, and the imprecation LEST WE FORGET. Catherine Reilly tracked down 532 women poets active during the Great War, in her research. Her collection contains works by 79 of them. Let us also remember the women, who died, ‘survived survival’ and wrote poems and memoirs so that we do not forget.

137 LofGG coverAmong the literary women who had direct experience of the war, and whose books are still available, we can name five:

  • Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth, (Virago) who lost her lover and her brother and served as a VAD nurse
  • Winifred Holtby, The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding, (Virago) who served in the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps
  • Carola Oman, Nelson’s biographer, who served as a nurse with the British Red Cross Society on the Western Front
  • Cicely Hamilton, William – An Englishman, (Persephone Books) who worked in the Scottish Women’s Hospital at Rayaument, in France, and organised concerts at the front
  • Irene Rathbone, We That were Young, (Feminist Press) worked as a VAD in France.

The Scars upon my Heart collected and edited by Catherine Reilly published Virago in 1981.

Related

You can find the poems referred to in this blog in The Scars upon my Heart, but also these and more on the allpoetry.com website.

Women in War – Scars upon my Heart from DoveGreyReader Scribbles’ blog in November 2012.

Novels by Winifred Holby reviewed on this blog: The Land of Green Ginger, South Riding.

Over to you

Have you any recommendations from this list, or to add to it? Have you been moved by any women poets of the First World War? Are you familiar with any of Catherine Reilly’s poets?

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Filed under Books, Feminism, poetry