I am so late to this party it is almost over, but I was invited to contribute to the Baileys Women's Prize for Fiction #ThisBook project and...well you know how it is... seeds to sow, kitchen floor to wash, dogs to walk, great books to read, usual story but still we can probably sneak in the back door because we have three days before the announcement of this year's winning book (and of course my heart rests with this one to win.)
Meanwhile here's the thinking behind the #ThisBook...a dazzling array of well-known people... Mary Beard, Tanni Grey-Thompson, Martha Lane Fox, Jennifer Saunders, Kate Mosse, Joanna Trollope, Sharleen Spiteri, Sandi Toksvig to name but a few ..and...er ...me.. have been asked to suggest the book by a woman that has had the most impact on them.
I had no trouble in deciding on my book and I also suggested to the Baileys Women's Prize that I knew A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE... LOADS IN FACT... who would want to join in, and so I would post my choice of book here and THEN THEY COULD ALL ADD THEIR OWN CHOICES IN COMMENTS.
What a Grand Idea said the Baileys Women's Prize...oh we all love something like this said I.
Sorry...does it seem like I am shouting...panicking.. asking nicely... and with three days to go I just know you won't let the team down..
So my choice is Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain.
I first read Testament of Youth in 1996 at the age of ...oh dear forty-three, which seems very late in life for a book to become the one that made the greatest impact, but I clearly remember gaining such a clear and immediate insight into the earth-shuddering impact of the Great War, and in a way that hadn't happened before. It is indeed 'a haunting elegy for a lost generation' and I suddenly became acutely aware of the ongoing enormity of that loss.
Somehow, back in 1996 it placed my past, my life to date, with its blessings and advantages, its education and opportunities, but with its own sorrows and losses too, into a new framework with fresh perspectives. Cliche though it may seem, but as if I was looking out of new windows, and at a view I have never forgotten, and had I read it any earlier I wonder whether that impact would have been quite so powerful.
I have been re-reading it over the last few weeks, wondering whether the book would still feel so important, perhaps I had moved on, perhaps I have assimilated all those initial reactions, but of course this year of all years it feels as meaningful as ever, the book I would still want to encourage everyone to read at least once in their life.
It has everything therein... ambition and striving against the odds, service and sacrifice, love and loss, grief and sadness but also recovery and resilience in the life of a young woman. There's a sense that if a person can survive that...well I can survive anything too, and of course there are the horrors of the war itself.
Tucked inside my copy of the book I found something entitled Supplementary Notes which seems to be a copy of a lecture or talk/discussion given by Shirley Willams, Vera Brittain's daughter and a Paul Berry. He I discover here, in his obituary in 1999, was a distant relative of Winifred Holtby. I have no idea how I came by the notes but reading them again reinforces that initial impact.
Roland Leighton, Vera's fiance, her brother Edward and several other friends have gone off to war, imbued with the bravado of heroism, picturing themselves, as Shirley Williams elaborates...
'...as Knightly young men marching forward in the name of the highest ideals of civilisation, almost like the Periclean dream of freedom and liberty...'
The dream quickly turns to dust (and mud) and with it the feeling of having been cheated...
'...something somewhere doesn't fit, that both sides can't be fighting and dying for the noblest of causes - the the war is not about ideals but territorial ambitions and financial interests.'
The news of Roland's death that Vera hears on Christmas Day 1915 leaves her shattered, embittered and lonely...and it all captured my heart back in 1996. It was a book that made me think, and I discover that it still makes me think in 2014. Back then I had boys who would have been too young, but I remember thinking 'Wouldn't it be awful if...' now they would be heading to the trenches, and probably the daughter too, as a mother it's a truly sobering thought.
But that's enough from me...I think the Baileys Women's Prize will be eagerly awaiting your choices now, so over to Team dovegreyreader...
The book written by a woman that has had the greatest impact on you...