Roberta Writes – Book Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

Sally Cronin from Smorgasbord Blog Magazine introduced me to Vera Brittain, a feminist, writer, and poet, who lived through WW1 and lost her fiancé, brother, and two close friends. My own great aunt never married after losing her fiancé during WW1, so Vera’s feelings of loss and displacement after the war gave me a lot of insight into how many women must have felt whose lives were scarred by the Great War and who lived among youngsters who hadn’t experienced its devastation in such a personal way.

You can listen to Sally’s recital of Vera’s poem THE SUPERFLOUOUS WOMAN here:

It was a stroke of good luck for me to discover Vera Brittain as she wrote the most comprehensive depiction of WW1 from a female perspective that is available. I wasted no time in grabbing a copy of Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain and here is my review:

My review

Testament of Youth is a compelling depiction of a young English woman’s life during the war years from 1914 to 1918. The book is a memoir of Vera’s personal experiences and includes snippets of letters to and from her fiancé, Roland Leighton, her brother, Edward Brittain, and her friends, Victor Richardson, and Geoffrey Thurlow, and extracts from her diary.

For me, one of the best aspects of this book is that it starts well before the war and describes in detail her childhood and girlhood growing up in a middleclass household in Buxton, Derbeyshire. The society in which Vera grew up was still that of the ultra conservative Victorian era and female children were raised to take their places as wives and husbands.

Vera includes her memories of the eventual successful ending by the British troops of the siege of Mafeking in South Africa during the Second Anglo Boer War and the celebrations throughout England when that conflict was resolved with victory for Britain in 1902. This was particularly interesting to me as a South African, and it helped me contextualise the attitudes of British society at the time and how the events that unfolded were perceived from a British context rather than a South African one.

Vera is sent away to boarding school in Surrey when she is 13. The school was run by her aunt and prepared girls for their future roles in English middle-class society. They are educated but were not prepared for a transition to University or any other tertiary educational institution. She is an excellent student with a passion for learning and literature. After she finishes school she is bored and discontent at home in Buxton and partitions her father to pay for her to attend Somerville College, a newly established college for women at Oxford University.

Vera’s struggles to get her family to recognise her talents and ambitions were as important a part of this story as the effect of the war on her life. She was a leader in the education of women in the UK and pushed against the social currents of the time to achieve her ambitions. Having finally achieved her objectives of going to Oxford along with her brother and his friends, the war entered all their lives and everything changed.

Vera became romantically involved with one of her brother’s school friends, Roland, who was also a great scholar with literary ambitions, but their romance was interrupted by the event of the war. Roland, Edward, and most of their friends enlisted and Roland was quickly sent to France.

Having completed her first year at Oxford, Vera decides to delay her degree and to take a job as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (“VADs”). Her motivation for this decision was wrapped up in the fact that all the men in her life were fighting in the war and she wanted to be part of it and do something useful for the war effort.

The detail of the experiences of her fiancé, brother, and friends in this war are depicted in some detail in the book and are sad and emotional. Her own life, working in a horrible position in a hospital as a VAD and being mistreated by some of her superiors who resented the intrusion of the VADs, and taking comfort in the letters she received from the front graphically illustrates the awful waiting the female and aging population of Britain experienced at the time. Notification of the deaths of loved ones often didn’t come for a few days afterwards. Vera’s planned leave to meet up with Roland for Christmas and his non-arrival because he was killed on the 23rd of December illustrated this very poignantly.

Her struggle to cope with the news of Roland’s death and find purpose for her life are very real and she resolves her internal conflict by volunteering to work abroad. Vera is sent to Malta and spends several months working in a hospital there. Once again, the narrow moral ideas of the time are highlighted when an unidentified VAD is seen in a compromising position with a young man, but manages to escape identity. The entire staff of VADs are interviewed and the disgrace the wayward VAD has brought upon them all is highlighted above all else despite the devastation and destruction that is taking place all around them.

Vera goes on to lose both her friends in different battles and works as a VAD near the Western Front in France for some time. The details of the shelling, gassed and disfigured patients, and on-going peril are vivid and compelling. The descriptions of the American soldiers and how they appeared to the war-weary VAD’s were also interesting. They are described as being big men and full of confidence. The German prisoners of war are also treated by Vera while she is in France and they are described as being gray and weary and the same as the British and French injured and dying.

Vera’s brother is killed in action near the end of the war and it is a devastating and disillusioning experience for her.

When the war finally ends, Vera must decide how to pick up the threads of her life. She decides to return to Oxford and study history. Her experiences with the younger generation of students who have not suffered the same loses as a result of the war, and her resulting bitterness, as well as her own PTSD symptoms are well described. My heart broke for her as she felt so unwanted and displaced. Fortunately, Vera was a strong character and she managed to rise above it all and become great friends with Winifred Holtby.

The last section of the book is devoted to Vera’s successful life after the war and how she learns to deal with the pain of her loss and move on to the extent possible. She has a successful career and also gets married and has two children.

For readers interested in WW1 and its impact on the civilian and female population, this book is a must read.

A few quotes from Testament of Youth

“How fortunate we were who still had hope I did not then realise; I could not know how soon the time would come when we should have no more hope, and yet be unable to die”


“To my amazement, taut and tearless as I was, I saw him hastily mop his eyes with his handkerchief, and in that moment, when it was too late to respond or to show that I understood, I realised how much more he cared for me than I had supposed or he had ever shown. I felt, too, so bitterly sorry for him because he had to fight against his tears while I had no wish to cry at all, and the intolerable longing to comfort him when there was no more time in which to do it made me furious with the frantic pain of impotent desire.

And then, all at once, the whistle sounded again and the train started. As the noisy group moved away from the door he sprang on to the footboard, clung to my hand and, drawing my face down to his, kissed my lips in a sudden vehemence of despair. And I kissed his, and just managed to whisper ‘Good-bye!’ The next moment he was walking rapidly down the platform, with his head bent and his face very pale. Although I had said that I would not, I stood by the door as the train left the station and watched him moving through the crowd. But he never turned again.”


“It is quite impossible to understand,’ I commented afterwards, ‘how we can be such strong individualists, so insistent on the rights and claims of every human soul, and yet at the same time countenance (and if we are English, even take quite calmly) this wholesale murder, which if it were applied to animals or birds or indeed anything except men would fill us with a sickness and repulsion greater than we could endure.”

If you would like to read more about the war poets, my Treasuring Poetry post, Robbie Cheadle discusses the war poets, is available here:

About Roberta Eaton Cheadle

Roberta Eaton Cheadle is a South African writer and poet specialising in historical, paranormal, and horror novels and short stories. She is an avid reader in these genres and her writing has been influenced by famous authors including Bram Stoker, Edgar Allan Poe, Amor Towles, Stephen Crane, Enrich Maria Remarque, George Orwell, Stephen King, and Colleen McCullough.

Roberta has short stories and poems in several anthologies and has 2 published novels, Through the Nethergate, a historical supernatural fantasy, and A Ghost and His Gold, a historical paranormal novel set in South Africa.

Roberta has 9 children’s books published under the name Robbie Cheadle.

Roberta was educated at the University of South Africa where she achieved a Bachelor of Accounting Science in 1996 and a Honours Bachelor of Accounting Science in 1997. She was admitted as a member of The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants in 2000.

Roberta has worked in corporate finance from 2001 until the present date and has written 7 publications relating to investing in Africa. She has won several awards over her 20-year career in the category of Transactional Support Services.

TSL Books Page

Amazon Author Page

70 thoughts on “Roberta Writes – Book Review: Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain

  1. I remember reading this in my twenties – prompted by Mrs LeP – and being blown away. My grandmother was VAD though she stayed in England and her lover eventual husband survived all four years. She couldn’t begin to talk about her experiences any more than could my grandfather (who I never knew) which frustrated my father. Brittain’s book was eye opening and helped give some context. I should go back to it.
    Her daughter was quite some woman too a fabulous politician who I admired greatly

    Liked by 5 people

  2. Incredible review, Robbie. I’m going to pick up a copy. The phrases “intolerable longing” and “a sudden vehemence of despair” are exquisite examples of her writing. Thank you. 💗

    Liked by 3 people

    1. HI Gwen, there is no doubt Vera wrote very well and her words are powerful. I really enjoyed this depiction of the war although it did make me dreadfully sad. Vera was a privileged young lady, but she did face challenges in the form of the disregard her parents and society in general had for educating women. She also faced a lot of adversity and even the risk of being killed travelling by ship to Malta and at the front in France.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Hi Robbie – I really enjoyed your review of Testament of Youth. I had not heard of this book and see it’s a classic and has also been made into a movie. I think I would like to read it. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Sorry. This – Vera Brittain as she wrote the most comprehensive depiction of WW1 from a female perspective that is available. – is the kind of sweeping generalization where you excel. Come on, Robbie. You found a book. It’s a singular presentation. To get a “comprehensive depiction” by women of WWl one needs the view from the front, the munitionettes, the propagandists, the revolutionaries. I don’t do this to be a jerk, or a sniper, but if you’re going to stand up in front of a subject this variegated learn to temper your enthusiasm and stop painting an intricate and multifaceted picture with a freaking paintbrush. Consider the historical perspective of how long it took for the entire women’s conversation about the war to come to light. The pervasive patriarchy that suppressed this and other great works of the era. People listen to you. Be as good as you should be, not just as good as your fans think you are. Just my .02. Depth and scholarship trump fads and hyperbole.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. HI Phil, thanks for joining the conversation and adding your thoughts. I may be a little overenthusiastic sometimes but that is my nature especially when it comes to books I enjoy. I have looked and looked and this is the best one I’ve found to date. I have never tried to present myself as a scholar or an academic with regards to books. I am a chartered accountant.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Then maybe say that instead of using a brush full of hyperbole. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that the hundreds of women who published during that time were acknowledged. I’m no genius either but I know better than to say “Well, this is the definitive -” anything. Here’s an anthology instead of one woman’s view you can get to–1914-1918—by-Oldpoetry2
        There’s also the French and German POVs, as well as the Johnny Came Lately Americans, 25,000 women, who were denied veterans benifits until 1970. There’s an Oxford anthology of WWI poetry from 2013 around here somewhere, but it’s mixed gender. Vera shows up once, as a facet of the whole. There’s also a list of books, some of which are right up your historical fiction alley here –
        See, I’m really not an ogre. My mom drove an ambulance, welded, and became a surgical dental assistant among other things like propaganda pinup girl in WWII.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. What a full and interesting life she had, though I’m sure she never fully escaped its sorrows.

    Her postwar experience reminds me of the vast majority of Americans who never knew anyone serving in our misbegotten Middle East war and thus felt free to pretend it didn’t exist. Those of us who knew soldiers had no illusions about its glory. (K)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. HI Kerfe, there is no glory in war, ever, in my opinion. My oldest son is 18 and reading about these young men of the exact same age with their whole bright futures ahead, going to war to be killed in a hole in the ground, fills me with complete horror. Sometimes I just can’t believe what I am reading but it is all true.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Fabulous review, Robbie. It’s beyond sobering to think of the devastating effects the first world war had on one woman…and countless other people. A basically senseless war, too — as most wars are.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Dave, WW1 seemed to be a war of egos all around. This is one of two books I’ve read about the female perspective of this war and this one was different because Vera was a VAD an actually participated in the war. Her descriptions of working in Malta and France are fascinating. Thanks for visiting and I’m glad you enjoyed this review.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. I’m another one who read this years ago (40 actually!) and I still remember parts of it. I was in my first year at University in Liverpool and her daughter, the wonderful Shirley Williams was standing at the Crosby by-election just up the road. Reading your review makes me want to read it again, especially from my new perspective of being an SA resident.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Another wonderful review, Robbie. Vera Brittain wrote about her time in a way that reaches out across the decades. Testament of Youth is a powerful reminder of what it means to be human – the emotional extremes that challenge who we are.

    “Only, I felt, by some such attempt to write history in terms of personal life could I rescue something that might be of value, some element of truth and hope and usefulness, from the smashing up of my own youth by the war.
    Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hi REbecca, thank you, this is why I loved this book so much. It explained the impact of the war on her life going forward. Her sense of misplacement among a younger generation who had not experienced the same losses and challenges. I think this is exactly right and you see it over and over again in history. The second generation knows, but isn’t overly connected to the tragedy or circumstances and by the third generation it is all forgotten. That is how history ends up continuously repeating itself.

      Liked by 3 people

  9. Thank you for this review which makes me realize how limited history books are in showing us what life was really like. I had no knowledge of the VADs and how horrible they could be. Both of my aunts lost their boyfriends to death, I believe in WW2, and never married.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. What a powerful review, Robbie, and I was taken by how personal it was to you in some ways. It sounds like an intense and deeply sad read, loaded with insights into the time. Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts. You write an extremely compelling review. ❤

    Liked by 1 person

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