Given the historical significance of the Great War and the fact that we are currently, and for the next three and a half years, commemorating its centenary I feel ashamed to say that I had some glaringly huge gaps in my reading. Yes, I have read Goodbye To All That and the war poets when I was at school: I’ve ticked off some of the recent WW1 novels like Wake, The Lie and My Dear I Wanted to Tell You – but I was missing some of the classics. And I am still not completely up to speed – I’ve still not tackled All Quiet on the Western Front or the Regeneration trilogy – but I have filled in a couple of blanks in the last few weeks.
Both books are ones that many people have described to me as their ‘favourite read ever’ (so, no pressure…) but my own experience could be described as ‘mixed’. Firstly, Birdsong – a powerful and moving novel focussing on one man’s life both before and during the Great War. I could appreciate the beauty and power of Faulk’s writing but, overall, I was not particularly moved. Oddly, I almost found the parts written from the point of view of Wraysford’s granddaughter more interesting than the wartime sections. Maybe I could understand them better, since they occurred in my lifetime, or maybe I was just recalling how I had taken against the main character in the recent tv adaptation. Whichever it was I am sure the fault is with me rather than with Birdsong itself. There were plenty of descriptive passages highlighting the horrors of trench warfare – but nothing which crystallizes the whole thing better for me than the closing scenes of Blackadder Goes Forth – and (to my eternal shame) I just found the recurring imagery of birdsong annoying by the end.
After this experience it was with some trepidation that I started reading Testament of Youth for our in-store reading group. In this case, however, I shouldn’t have worried as I ended up really enjoying the whole book immensely. Again the book is, basically, one person’s experience of the period but, somehow, it was one I warmed to. Maybe Vera Brittain’s experience spoke to me more as a woman – I would never have been fighting in the trenches myself – or maybe it is her political stance I found myself in agreement with but I was far more absorbed by her story than that of any soldier.
This is not to say that Testament of Youth is an easy read. It starts very slowly, outlining Brittain’s privileged and sheltered upbringing in the Peak District and goes into a fair amount of detail of her struggle to be allowed to attend University. For me, despite the fact that it needed a fair amount of concentration to read, this was hugely interesting – it is, in effect, the development of an early C20th feminist. In fact it is, for me, primarily a story of how an Edwardian girl becomes a very modern woman.
The war, her awful experiences as a voluntary nurse and her terrific losses are, of course, a huge part of the book. These, however, are all things she looks back on. The most positive aspects of the whole book, for me, is the future she is moving towards by the end. One where the awful experiences the world had been through help those who survived to try to make sure things are better in the future. Obviously, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that more horrors were still to come but at least the book is able to end positively.