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The Second Year of the Decades Project

Eleven books, chosen from each of the decades from 1900 onwards, all nonfiction, all by women. That’s what the Decades Project has meant in 2018.

Young Woman with book Aleksandr Deineka 1934

The decade’s list

Here are the books I chose for 2018, with dates and links to the posts:

Home and Garden  by Gertrude Jekyll (1900)

My Own Story  by Emmeline Pankhurst (1914)

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf (1929)

Testament of Youth  by Vera Brittain  (1933)

The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)

French Country Cooking by Elizabeth David (1951)

Silent Spring  by Rachel Carson (1962)

84 Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff (1971)

The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman (1984)

Vagina Monologues  by Eve Ensler (1994)

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005)

The variety

I am very pleased to have found such variety: memoir, cookery, theatre piece, polemic, and history. The choices reflect women’s wide involvement over the century, and also their influence. Some choices have been avowedly domestic, others about big historical events, or dangers. Several have a very personal focus, but all have something to say to us as we leave 2018.

The book I most enjoyed reading …

… was undoubtedly Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962). I had heard of it, about its impact upon people’s understanding of the ecology of the world, her warning about the indiscriminate use of pesticides, her fears for the planet. I had not expected it to be so lyrical, and I was truly shocked by the contents.

I had not predicted, for example, such pleasure from reading about soil and worms:

The soil exists in a state of constant change, taking part in cycles that have no beginning and no end. New materials are constantly being contributed as rocks disintegrate, as organic matter decays, and as nitrogen and other gases are brought down from the skies. At the same time other materials are being taken away, borrowed for temporary use by living creatures. Subtle and vastly important chemical changes are constantly in progress, converting elements derived from air and water into forms suitable for use by plants. In all these changes living organisms are active agents. (62)

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was first published in 1962. I used the Penguin Modern Classic edition. 323pp

The book I reacted least well to …

… was The March of Folly by Barbara W Tuchman. It had made an impact upon me when I had first read it, and I assumed that it would illuminate some of the ridiculousness of the current Brexit crisis. But the arguments seemed a little circular this time around. Nevertheless, the idea that policy-makers do crazy and foolish things still has traction.

The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W Tuchman published in 1984. I read Abacus edition published in 1985. 559pp

The books I was most pleased to read …

… were Testament of Youth  by Vera Brittain and 84 Charing Cross Road  by Helene Hanff. They were both rereads, the first a book that had convinced me of the importance of history as told by women. I liked the second because it reveals the deep friendships created through a shared love of books, and by two charming people.

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

84 Charing Cross Roadby Helene Hanff, first published by Andre Deutsch in 1971. I read the paperback edition published by sphere. 230pp

A theme that emerged …

… was of the increased influence of women in a widening range of spheres as the 20thcentury rolled out. The first book is about gardening, but in the second decade Mrs Pankhurst’s account of the suffragette campaign indicated change. Some of the most important nonfiction writing of the century came from women, including Virginia Woolf, Vera Brittain, Anne Frank, Rachel Carson, Joan Didion.

The Decades Project in 2018:

I enjoyed seeking out and reading nonfiction for 2018. The project maintained the wildcard element in my reading and blog. Next year I plan to follow the same pattern, but to read children’s literature and feature a book once a month. I have already anticipated rereading some of my favourites from my own childhood, but also those from my daughter’s and grandsons’. Watch this space.

Suggestions for this new series are always welcome.

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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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In which some memoirs are recommended

What’s the attraction of reading memoirs? Is it envy for a life one might have wanted, or relief of a life avoided? I studied history and for me its attraction has always been the lives of people, the details, the narratives, their stories. These have enlivened the most recent books I’ve been involved in writing: Retiring with Attitude and The New Age of Ageing.

What’s the difference between an autobiography and a memoir? It is suggested that while an autobiography is the story of a life, memoirs are stories from that life. In other words, memoir has a narrower focus than an autobiography, and it is often more interesting because it is selections.

It occurred to me then that the memoirs you truly fall in love with have less to do with the people that write them and much, much more to do with who you are when you read them. Memoirs are blueprints. They are maps to the lives we wish we had, or cautions from the ones we’re glad we avoided. [Caroline o’donaghue in Memoirs to Change your Life. See below]

From time to time I read memoirs and in this post I recommend a few. The common characteristic is that they are all from the lives of bookish people: all writers or editors.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

How well I remember the BBC tv series of 1978, which coincided with the republishing of these memoirs. It spoke directly to my emerging feminism. The book was not exactly a feminist tract but it reminded us of the role women can play in war and peace, and in politics, and this can produce another generation to follow them.

I read Testament of Youth after finishing my history degree, and perhaps more than any other book Vera Brittain showed how history, especially the history of war is not only about men and their suffering. The Testament of Youth made me understand that the First World War defined the twentieth century, and that Britain before it was utterly different. It was one woman’s story, but she tells of the sacrifice of a generation and its aftermath. The scars are with us still as the current centenary has revealed.

Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. First published in 1933, republished by Virago in 1978. 661pp

Many volumes by Diana Athill

Alive, Alive Oh! (2015) By Diana Athill was the book choice for one of my reading groups in November. It encouraged some very interesting discussion, about her description of her miscarriage, her family home, her approach to relationships, her life in old age. A volume I go frequently return to is Stet for her stories of the writers she worked with as an editor at Andre Deutsch, including Jean Rhys.

And this is from Somewhere Towards The End (2008)

One doesn’t necessarily have to end a book about being old with a whimper, but it is impossible to end it with a bang. There are no lessons to be learnt, no discoveries to be made, no solutions to offer. I find myself left with nothing but a few random thoughts. One of them is that from up here I can look back and see that although a human life is less than the blink of an eyelid in terms of the universe, within its own framework it is amazingly capacious so that it can contain many opposites. One life can contain serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving – and also more particular opposites such as the neurotic conviction that one is a flop and a consciousness of success amounting to smugness. (177)

Diane Athill has led a remarkable life and has the gift to reflect on her experiences, and gift is the right word here for her readers and friends.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay

This is Jackie Kay’s account of tracing and meeting her birth parents as an adult. It is also a tribute to her adoptive parents. This memoir explores what it means to be connected to families known and unknown.

It begins when she met her father in Abuja, Nigeria. He will not acknowledge her unless she agrees to join him as a born again Christian, and he behaves in a way that seems bizarre, praying for her for two hours. In his working life he is a noted tree specialist (having met Jackie’s mother in Glasgow University where he was studying), known throughout Nigeria for his work with trees and their healing properties.

Her mother is less obviously successful, moved away from her own tight family in the Highlands, and with a failed marriage and two more children, eventually disappearing into dementia in Milton Keynes. Both birth parents are reluctant to reveal Jackie’s existence to their own children.

The memoir questions what people are entitled to from each other – should Jackie collude in the secrecy, for the sake of the parents who abandoned her? The final triumphant scene is a meeting with her brother at the airport an hour before she needs to leave for her plane. She is embraced by him and his family.

Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay. Published by Picador in 2010. 287pp

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd

I read this memoir because of one of its themes, to which I was alerted by an article in the wonderful Slightly Foxed journal. It was about secrets and families. It is an account of a family’s unconventional relationships, although on the surface they are presented as quite smooth. This, I suspect, may not be that unusual: a Swedish mother, family with connections to Rajmai tea and Lalique glassware. These businesses gradually declined between the wars until there was nothing left for Michael Holroyd when he came to adulthood. His family lived together in ritualised hate and with some abuse.

Michael Holroyd is a distinguished biographer, so he knows a thing or two about stories from people’s lives. With interesting relatives he reflects what should or shouldn’t be revealed. Above all he makes it clear that stories from one’s life cannot be told without the stories of many other people.

Basil Street Blues by Michael Holroyd. Published by Slightly Foxed in 2015. 364pp

Related Posts

Memoirs to Change your Life by Caroline o’donaghue in The Pool. November 2015. A list of suggestions from an American point of view.

And more recommendations

The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, published in 2016 by Canongate. It is the author’s account of her flight from the Orkneys, into East London and alcoholism and returning to the Orkneys to haul herself back to sobriety.

In Gratitude by Jenny Diski (2016) published by Bloomsbury, being both the story of her troubled adolescence and living with Doris Lessing, and her account of terminal cancer.

A Chelsea Concerto by Frances Faviell first published in 1959, reissued by Furrowed Middlebrow in 2016. This is Chelsea in the Blitz.

Do you have any memoirs to recommend?

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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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