CLASSIS THOUGHTS / False glamour of war: Mark Bostridge on Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth, published 60 years ago today

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The Independent Culture
SIXTY years ago today, Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain's account of the shattering effect of the cataclysm of the First World War on her generation, made its first appearance. It came at the tail-end of a boom in war literature. After numerous false starts as fiction, Brittain had finally decided to follow the example of male contemporaries like Blunden, Sassoon and Graves by presenting her own fairly typical wartime experiences as autobiography.

The book quickly became a bestseller though its outspoken frankness unnerved some early reviewers (James Agate wrote spitefully that it reminded him of a woman crying in the street). Virginia Woolf's was the more widespread response. The powerful story - so compelling that some initially doubted its veracity - kept her out of bed until she had finished reading it. There was general agreement that this was 'the war book of the women of England', worthy to take its place on the shelf alongside Undertones of War, Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, and Goodbye To All That.

And yet significant differences of tone and intent set Testament of Youth apart from the work of the male memoirists. Whereas a writer like Blunden tries to evoke the senselessness and confusion of trench warfare by revealing the depth of the war's ironic cruelty, Brittain's aim contrastingly is to provide a reasoned exposition of why the war occurred and of how war in the future may be averted. 'I've been told that my book makes some people weep,' she once said, 'but I care much more that it should make them think.'

Only the most hard-hearted, though, could fail to be moved by the fate of the four young men, Vera Brittain's fiance, two close friends, and her beloved younger brother, who respond enthusiastically to the call of King and Country, and have their heroic illusions destroyed at the front before each one of them in turn is killed. But if the book's appeal is primarily an emotional one, there's also no escaping the intellectual force of its angry indictment of the cynical exploitation of the idealism of the generation of 1914, nor its warning against the future enticement of youth by the beguiling, false glamour of war. Nothing else in the literature of the Great War charts so clearly the path leading from the erosion of innocence to the survivors' final disillusionment that the sacrifice of the dead had been in vain.

But in the closing pages, as Vera Brittain prepares herself for a marriage of equal partnership and a new beginning, there's the suggestion that out of the havoc and destruction unleashed by modern war the human spirit can sometimes rise, indomitable.