A Woman’s Pioneer Struggle

If you are one of the many waiting for the next season of Downton Abbey to see if Mary and Matthew can finally find happiness, you might want to consider reading Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Reissue edition, 2009, 600 pages, ISBN: 10-0297858319). This compelling memoir encompasses Vera’s life from 1900-1925, roughly equivalent to the time period in Downton Abbey. Unlike the TV series, Vera’s story is real.

Vera Brittain (1893-1970) was raised as the daughter of a mill owner in the north of England. She was an intellectual who dreamed of majoring in English literature at Oxford University's Somerville College for Women. The narrative begins with Vera’s plans to enter the University of Oxford and her romance with Roland Leighton, a friend of her brother Edward. Both were commissioned as officers early in World War I, and both were subsequently killed, as were several other members of their social circle.

The book’s main subject is Vera’s work as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse, nursing wounded in London, Malta, and at Etaples in France. It also describes how she returned, disillusioned, to Somerville College, Oxford, after the war and completed her BA degree. The book covers the beginning of her career in journalism, writing for Time and Tide and lecturing for the League of Nations. It concludes with her meeting her husband George Catlin and their eventual marriage in 1925.

Testament of Youth has been acclaimed as a classic for its description of the impact of World War I on the lives of women and the middle-class civilian population of Great Britain. Brittain’s account highlights the difficult position in which young British women found themselves during the War, caught between the desire to do something significant towards the war effort and cultural and social expectations of women’s proper roles. The book shows how the impact extended into the postwar years. It is considered a classic in feminist literature for its depiction of a woman’s pioneer struggle to forge an independent career in a society only grudgingly tolerant of educated women.

Interestingly, what brought this book to my attention was a mini-series on Masterpiece Theater in 1980 based on Vera’s life as depicted in her book. Just as many of us have become fascinated by life in Downton Abbey, I was fascinated with Vera’s life on Masterpiece Theater. Reading Vera’s actual words brought me even deeper into her world. Her personal account of World War I is a moving and eloquent. Her writing is full of details that breathe life into her story. She is completely honest about herself, her deeds, and thoughts at the time.

If you have been captivated by the characters in Downton Abbey, you will be equally captivated by Brittain and the many people in her life who, although they lived 100 years ago, still speak to us today.

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Diane Burke

Diane Burke recently retired from a 30 year career in education and moved to Hampton Roads from upstate New York.  One of her life long passions has been reading books about real women.  A retirement goal was to find a way to share this passion with others.  She created a website www.booksaboutrealwomen.com in which she has organized and reviewed over 100 books about women.  She lives in Chesapeake with her husband and is the mother of three and the grandmother of eight.  

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