Letters From A Lost Generation: First World War Letters Of Vera Brittain And Four Friends: Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow by Mark Bostridge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book gave me a terrible feeling in the belly in some places, because these letters, albeit edited, are the real words and thoughts of four young men who died so terribly young in World War One. Their letters range from whimsical to describing the boredom of trench warfare and their very young ideas on fighting for glory–and poetry, particularly from Roland Leighton, whose “Villanelle” is incredibly powerful. Of course, without Vera Brittain, these letters and these men would simply be four more young lives lost in that terrible war a hundred years ago. There is something so moving about the written word–it can survive us and become our legacy.
I first head of Vera Brittain and Testament of Youth a few years ago and I knew the basics of Vera’s story, but it wasn’t until a few months ago, when I saw the movie version starring Alicia Vikander and Kit Harrington, that I wanted to read the book. I’m so glad I did. I’ve read other WWI books–and the losses, sacrifices, and stories are tragic, moving, and on a scale that is unimaginable.
Although Testament of Youth is largely about Vera’s experiences as a VAD nurse during WWI, she also writes sensitively about her brother Edward, her fiancé Roland, and friends Victor and Geoffrey and their time in the war–all four of the young men died. If you want to know more about them and their time in the trenches, read Letters From a Lost Generation. Yet this is Vera’s book–her fight to get to attend university, against her provincial, middle-class family’s desires; her time at Oxford in 1914, when she felt that she could no longer go on studying when the young men she knew were going to war, and the many experiences she faced as a VAD, then going, utterly changed, back to Oxford after the war and feeling as if nobody understood her or the trauma she went through. But even so, Vera managed to carry on and memorialize the men she cared about in this memoir and become a successful writer, feminist, and pacifist.
Vera strikes me as a prickly kind of person, with her arch observations and point of view, which brings some amusement to the memoir. Still, she’s also an empathetic writer–and one who, by the time she wrote Testament of Youth–was able to do and be the kind of independent woman she wanted to be, while also gaining perspective on the war. Her writing is luscious: long, flowing sentences, precise word choices, and descriptive, evoking a time that has past, but an experience and memoir that lives on through her work.