Wednesday July 14th 1915
'I am coming to the conclusion that practical ability is of much less importance in a nurse than psychological fitness. Adaptability, sympathy and magnetism of temperament count for more than the ability to bandage and make foods.'
Chronicle of Youth, Vera Brittain's War Diary 1913-1917
Vera Brittain has been a heroine here since that first all-consuming read of Testament of Youth. I dashed out and bought the diaries, biographies, fiction, anything I could find and they have graced my shelves ever since, but now I'm grateful to Yvonne Klein and her book ( which I'm now officially calling excellent and more about it later in the week) Beyond the Home Front for offering a much greater depth to my understanding of her.
Like so many of the women of her time Vera certainly seemed to know that not to have taken part in the war effort would have created a huge and insurmountable divide afterwards; to understand and communicate with the returning men it would be necessary to somehow have suffered too. Nursing therefore the single most effective and available route for women to feel most needed and to approach the vicinity of that suffering and in Vera Brittain's case to occupy her time,
'Nursing is a great rest to my brain...I began to ask myself "What do I think about when I am doing my work at the hospital?" I came to the conclusion that I thought of nothing at all except the thing I was going to do next...this kind of thing enables one to keep more cheerful & therefore more brave.'
Yet emotional anaesthesia must have also surely become a necessary option for survival. Vera feared losing Roland to his war experience almost as much as she feared losing him in battle and her anguish is palpable at receiving no letters from him in response to her own regular correspondence,
'Still no news of Roland. If it were not for the nursing I don't know how I could bear this - but nursing takes all one's energy and occupies a great deal of the time that would otherwise have been spent on sad thought.'
'The war I began to feel was dividing us as I had so long feared...was it I wondered because roland had lost interest in me that this anguish of drifting apart had begun - or was the explanation to be found in that terrible barrier of knowledge by which the war cut off the men who possessed it from the women who, in spite of the love that they gave and received, remained in ignorance?'
How anyone emerged from this conflagration and carried on with any semblance of life I am hard pushed to imagine right now and this has all made for profoundly reflective reading, but I do feel fully geared up for the forthcoming BBC programme on Vera Brittain to be presented by Jo Brand. In a previous pre-comedy life Jo was a psychiatric
nurse so I'm very interested to see just where her focus rests on the life of Vera Brittain, and whilst we are on the subject of Jo Brand it's worth noting that she is also to chair a new £25,000 literary prize up for grabs in 2009.
The Wellcome Trust Book Prize is open to outstanding works of fiction and non-fiction on the theme of health, illness or medicine and finally signals an official meeting of the minds of literature and medicine. At last the discipline of Medical Humanities gets the long-awaited seal of approval from the literary world.
I can almost hear the chorus of groans, that we hardly need yet another literary prize, but I think we absolutely do need this one and I for one will be slavishly following longlists, shortlists, sharing book-thoughts and making predictions from my own forthcoming reading. Anything published in the year from October 1st 2008 is eligible.
Meanwhile I will be in front of my TV at 17.45 on Sunday November 9th and I expect a lot of you will be too.