Testament of Vera Brittain

Testament of Youth
Book by Vera Brittain
Published 1933.

Testament of Youth is Vera Brittain’s memoir about her time, her generation, her circle: middle-class, well educated, aspiring writers, poets, young people having complex and nuanced conversations, experiences, and emotions, all the while writing diaries, letters and poems, just before, during, and after WWI – “the war to end all wars.” It is not a light read.

I picked it up some years ago because of my interest in early 20th century British women writers, their lives and their perspectives, especially of WWI, since most of what we have is written by men.  Not many women were being educated, listened to, or published in those days.

Vera Brittain was rare. A young woman who could get into Oxford in 1913 was no common creature – it was hard enough for men. She had to struggle against centuries of cultural baggage to be among the earliest to achieve such a goal. Along with a well-heeled upbringing, she had to have the brains, the drive, and the discipline to win that position. She made friendships during those years which developed through conversations about literature, the nature of life, and when it came to it, the meaning of war, fighting for one’s country, and eventually, the relevance of the life of the mind during such times.

At the beginning of the war, her brother and their friends gave up school to join the fight. In 1915 she felt she too had to do something, and dropped out of Oxford to become a nurse. While posted in London, November 1915, she wrote to Roland Leighton, one of her brother’s best friends to whom she’d become engaged:

“I have only one wish in life now and that is for the ending of the war. I wonder how much really all you have seen and done has changed you. Personally, after seeing some of the dreadful things I have to see here, I feel I shall never be the same person again, and wonder if, when the war does end, I shall have forgotten how to laugh… One day last week I came away from a really terrible amputation dressing I had been assisting at – it was the first after the operation – with my hands covered with blood and my mind full of a passionate fury at the wickedness of war, and I wished I had never been born.”

That same month, he wrote to her:

“It all seems such a waste of youth, such a desecration of all that is born for poetry and beauty.”

In a letter from the summer before, he’d written:

“Among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red, sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust of Power. Let him who thinks that war is a glorious golden thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country. Let him look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shine bone and what might have been its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half-crouching as it fell, supported on one arm, perfect but that it is headless, and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand and glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence.”

In December 1916, Roland Leighton was killed. Over the next two years, Vera’s brother Edward and their other close friends were also killed.

“There seemed to be nothing left in the world, for I felt that Roland had taken with him all my future and Edward all my past.”

After the war, alone with her ghosts, she returned to Oxford, but switched from studying for an English degree to one in History, so that she might “understand how the whole calamity (of the war) had happened, to know why it had been possible for me and my contemporaries, through our own ignorance and others’ ingenuity, to be used, hypnotised and slaughtered.”

She graduated, wrote novels and became a journalist known as a feminist and a pacifist. In the early 1930s, she wrote Testament of Youth.

I recently discovered the 5-part BBC serial made in 1979, with Cheryl Campbell as Vera Brittain. Though slightly dated (get over it), this production incorporates lengthy philosophical conversations, arguments, recitations of poetry, long silences…One is given plenty to consider about the expectations of women in those years, the nature of life, and the cost of war – all at the heart of Vera Brittain’s reasons for writing her book. Of course, with 5 hours, one can get deep like that – if one wants.

Sadly, the 2014 film production of Testament of Youth is a product of our time. It skims over all the depth, and gives us a largely wordless tragic love story, essentially silencing the philosophy and purpose of the author. I’d taken myself on a date to see this film, considering it a sacred outing, and found instead simply another syrupy WWI romance pic – so much less meaningful than it could have been. The focus is a tragic romance between two pretty and well-dressed people – her neck, his lips, etc…Sigh; how dull. Especially annoying when Vera Brittain wrote things like this (from a letter to her brother in 1917): “But where you and I are concerned, sex by itself doesn’t interest us unless it is united with brains and personality; in fact we rather think of the latter first, and the person’s sex afterwards…”

The film does not delve into the intelligence and passion that drew these people together, or much of the wrestling with their beliefs that the war forced on them. Nary a complex conversation highlighting not only the conflicting perspectives of war, but also the rare circumstance of a young man falling in love with a young woman deeply interested in thought and writing – barely acceptable in 2015; certainly off-putting 100 years ago. Instead, we get looooong shots of Alicia Vikander’s eyes (god forbid she should talk too much!), and emotions conveyed mostly through her neck, until her final speech, suddenly melodramatic, as if spoken by a different character for a different film – showing, I guess, how the war had changed her.

Matching the cleaned up internal landscape was the distracting cleanliness and newness of the entire production: new clothes, new furnishings, new trains so shiny you could see yourself in them, full of soldiers in uniforms that were dirty but not lived in. There was plenty of predictable footage of young men in trenches, young men on stretchers, young men in bloody bits and pieces or splayed in death while prim nurses bustled about, all to epically tragic music; but ultimately, I felt no connection to anyone in the heart of the story, no relationship to their struggles, and no reason to lament their deaths, other than the abstract horribleness of it.

I felt this film was a squandered opportunity. There was so much material to work with, especially the internal struggle this group of young people went through from believing in the glory to experiencing the reality, the cost and the waste of war, as well as the incredible uniqueness of Vera Brittain, herself an inspiration for so many women – all reduced to a fashionable, if sad, photo shoot.

WWI wasn’t pretty, and Testament of Youth is about much more than how sad it was that the boys died.

If you can find it, take the time, do them the honor, and read the book. (quotations courtesy of http://spartacus-educational.com/Jbrittain.htm)

Also, listen to this 30 minutes (BBC Great Lives) about her, interview with her daughter talking about her, her life, and these ideas.

Still Genderizing After All These Years

A brief outline of 2 little books, written by Emilie Barnes, published circa 2007:

A Little Princess in the Making

“Before a princess blossoms into a queen, she learns the way of royal manners – how to speak politely, set a pretty table, be helpful and more. Written especially for younger girls, this book is filled with royal imagery and colorful pictures that point the way to good manners. The regal theme will inspire little girls to behave like perfect little princesses.”

A Little Hero in the Making

“Heroes do incredible things, and they can do them because they work hard and have good, brave hearts. Listening and sharing and caring are all things heroes do. Manners aren”t boring or stuffy; manners are heroic. This book provides an excellent start in teaching manners to younger boys.”


This HURTS ME!

This is SOOO Terrible!

What century is this?

Girls can’t even AFFORD to be Princesses anymore – even if they wanted to be!

Now I’ll admit, I’ve got Princess in me: I’ve even got a pink Disney cup with Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella on it in my bathroom, and I do love dresses, and pretty shoes, but DANG:

“speak politely, set a pretty table, be helpful”

vs.

“do incredible things”…not to mention: “good, brave hearts”

what the hell? – oh, not very Princess-like of me…

This is the work of Emilie Barnes.

Now, I only came across this while buying some English Breakfast Tea from a website full of all kinds of tea and crumpet type goodies.

I do love my tea and crumpets.

I also love aprons, and baking, and assisting others, but oh my goodness!  I’ve been struggling my whole life to make it okay to speak my mind, and to achieve my own selfhood; trying to step into my own power so I can make things happen, and here comes this!

Now, “Emilie is listed in 100 Christian Women Who Changed the 20th Century. She is a frequent guest on numerous radio and television programs nationwide, including The 700 Club, Focus On The Family, Family Life and Moody Broadcasting Network, and is currently featured in one-minute national radio segments entitled, ‘Keep It Simple with Emilie.’” http://www.emiliebarnes.com/home/BioPages/BioEmilieBarnes/tabid/61/Default.aspx

And she probably speaks politely.

But if all she’d been doing all her life was “assisting” others – a woman’s job to be a helpmate – I wonder how far she’d have come?

Maybe I’m, as some have said, too sensitive, but why can’t boys learn to speak politely and assist others, and why can’t girls have good, brave hearts and work hard?  Why would someone put this kind of stuff out there in this day and age?

Because we all long for a time when our roles and the world were “simpler”?  Clear-cut, like the caste system in India: everyone knows their role, no agonizing over what to do with one’s life…

jeeez….

and another thing that always strikes me about this paradigm is the absolute weight of everything on the shoulders of boys, which often translates into power tripping, or simply stressed-out men.

I hope Emilie is having a wonderful life, but JEEEZ!

I thought we’d gotten beyond this!

Our Writing is NOT their Property!

Kindle E-Reader: A Trojan Horse for Free Thought

By Emily Walshe
The Christian Science Monitor
from the March 18, 2009 edition
<http://www.csmonitor.com/2009/0318/p09s01-coop.html>

Brookville, N.Y. – All you really need to know about
the dangers of digital commodification you learned in
kindergarten.

Think back. Remember swapping your baloney sandwich for
Jell-o pudding? Now, imagine handing over your sandwich
and getting just a spoon.

That’s one trade you’d never make again.

Yet that’s just what millions of Americans are doing
every day when they read “books” on Kindle, Amazon‘s e-
reading device. In our rush to adopt new technologies,
we have too readily surrendered ownership in favor of
its twisted sister, access.

Web 2.0 and its culture of collaboration supposedly
unleashed a sharing society. But we can share only what
we own. And as more and more content gets digitized,
commercialized, and monopolized, our cultural integrity
is threatened. The free and balanced flow of
information that gives shape to democratic society is
jeopardized.

For now, though, Kindle is on fire in the marketplace.
Who could resist reading “what you want, when you want
it?” Access to more than 240,000 books is just seconds
away. And its “revolutionary electronic-paper display
… looks and reads like real paper.”

But it comes with restrictions: You can’t resell or
share your books – because you don’t own them. You can
download only from Amazon’s store, making it difficult
to read anything that is not routed through Amazon
first. You’re not buying a book; you’re buying access
to a book. No, it’s not like borrowing a book from a
library, because there is no public investment. It’s
like taking an interest-only mortgage out on
intellectual property.


If our flailing economy is to teach us anything, it
might be that an on-demand world of universal access
(with words like lease, licensure, and liquidity) gets
us into trouble. Amazon and other e-media aggregators
know that digital text is the irrational exuberance of
the day, and so are seizing the opportunity to codify,
commodify, and control access for tomorrow.
But access
doesn’t “look and read” like printed paper at all –
just ask any forlorn investor. Access is useless
currency.

Why is this important? Because Kindle is the kind of
technology that challenges media freedom and restricts
media pluralism. It exacerbates what historian William
Leach calls “the landscape of the temporary”: a hyper
mobile and rootless society that prefers access to
ownership. Such a society is vulnerable to the dangers
of selective censorship and control.

Digital rights management (DRM), which Kindle uses to
lock in its library, raises critical questions about
the nature of property and identity in digital culture.
Culture plays a large role – in some ways, larger than
government – in shaping who we are as individuals in a
society. The First Amendment protects our right to
participate in the production of that culture. The
widespread commodification of access is shaping nearly
every aspect of modern citizenship. There are benefits,
to be sure, but this transformation also poses a big-
time threat to free expression and assembly.

When Facebook, for example, proposed revisions to its
terms of service last month – claiming ownership of
user profiles and personal data – the successful
backlash it spawned caused complex (even existential)
ideas about property, identity, and capitulation to
bubble up:
Is my Facebook profile the essence of who I
am? If so, who owns me?

The hallmark of a constitutionally governed society,
after all, is the acknowledgment that we are the
authors of our own experience. In an Internet age, this
is manifest not only in published works, but also an
ever-evolving host of user-generated content (Twitter,
Blogger, Facebook, YouTube, etc.). If service providers
lay claim to digital content now, how will it all end?

Print may be dying, but the idea of print would be the
more critical demise: the idea that there needs to be a
record – an artifact of permanence, residence, and
posterity – that is independent of some well-appointed
thingamajig in order to be seen, touched, understood,
or wholly possessed.

“You don’t have to burn books to destroy a culture,”
Ray Bradbury once said. “Just get people to stop
reading them.”

Access equals control. In this case, it is control over
what is read and what is not; what is referenced and
what is overlooked; what is retained and what is
deleted; what is and what seems to be.

To kindle, we must remember, is to set fire to. The
combustible power of this device (and others like it)
lies in their quiet but constant claim to intangible,
algorithmic capital. What the Kindle should be igniting
is serious debate on the fundamental, inalienable right
to property in a digital age – and clarifying what’s
yours, mine, and ours.

It should strike a match against the winner-take-all
casino economies that this kind of technology
engenders; revitalize American libraries and other
social institutions in their quest to preserve the
doctrines of fair use and first sale (which allow for
free and lawful sharing); and finally, spark Americans
to consider the extent to which they are handing over
their baloney sandwich for a plastic spoon.

Like a lot of people, I’m a sucker for a good book. But
not at the expense of freedom, or foreclosure of
thought.

Emily Walshe is a librarian and professor at Long
Island University
in New York.

libraries of knowledge

as they patent animals and herbs and plants, our FOOD, and as google begins to co-opt all the books in the world (how many “google books” entries show up when you query the google search engine,  books you will never be able to read without paying somebody who “owns” them?, books that might quietly disappear…), I feel ever more justified in holding on to my whole library….

Record keepers, seed keepers, knowledge keepers; they can wipe us all out…
So bury it all in rubberized milk cans, save it for as long as you can, things can keep on and on like this, ever more plastic, ever more controlled, ever more digitized, computerized, roboticized, technologized,

but it also might all come down overnight….