Testament of Youth


What more can one say about this classic autobiography? It is one of those books that absolutely everyone should read; and not just for its harrowing depiction of the horrors of the First World War, its filth, its stench, its total futility. Vera, with her parochial and tranquil middle-class background, was about to take a place at Oxford University. She had fought prejudice and hard worked hard to get there. She was engaged to her brother’s best friend, a young poet who shared her world view. Life was sweet, so when war was declared she saw it as no more than an irritation. Not for long…

What Brittain experienced at first hand as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) nurse turned her into a vehement life-long socialist, a member of the women’s movement but above all an anti-war campaigner. She spent the rest of her life as a pacifist and a political activist.

I consider it essential reading, not just as an anti-war polemic but as a portrait of a whole generation of young people who were totally ill-prepared and whose lives were utterly changed within four momentous years. It’s full of anger, pain and bitterness but also determination and joy. The paperback edition I’ve owned and cried over since the seventies is battered and well-thumbed so this new hardback edition is a welcome addition to my shelves. It contains some photographs—although I would have liked more—and a foreword by Baroness Shirley Williams, Vera Brittain’s daughter.

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