Our theme at the Endsleigh Salon this week, and not surprisingly given that we met on 11/11, was The Great War. A wide selection of books was forthcoming, amongst them Into the Silence - The Great War, Mallory and the Conquest of Everest by Wade Davies, Fighting on the Home Front by Kate Adie, All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque, The Ways of the World by Robert Goddard but perhaps suprisingly no one chose Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. A new film tie-in copy arrived with me this week so I took it along in the hope of finding someone who hadn't read it, and who I could pass it on to. In the end it went home to be given to a seventeen year-old daughter, which we all felt might be a really excellent age at which to read the book. I didn't read it until I was in my late twenties, and was thus late coming to the deep understanding that Vera Brittain gave me about the impact of the Great War.
If you have read it I would love to know if it had this scales-dropping-from- the-eyes effect on you too. I have never forgotten that sense of a sudden knowing.
I am always grateful for reports from other literary events to share on here, and my thanks to Rhys (who has been following the scribbles for all of the eight plus years I have been writing it) and who kindly offered to take notes during his summer trip to the Buxton Literary Festival and an event with Shirley Williams talking about her mother, Vera Brittain.
And now over to Rhys..
Shirley Williams is a great favourite at Buxton Literary Festival because her mother Vera Brittain, and her mother’s family, lived in Buxton. Vera Brittain is a local hero....
The talk was actually more of a conversation between Shirley Williams and Dame Janet Smith. Dame Janet is another local hero having lived in the town and also having had a wonderful career as a lawyer and judge and is generally known for being an all round good egg …which I know she is as I have worked closely with her in the past.
Janet Smith took charge of proceedings guiding Shirley Williams through her mother’s life story. Shirley provided the photo slides, the anecdotes, the wanderings-off here and there and of course the facts behind the life.
What a life it was. Vera Brittain’s great gift was to be able to put her emotional experiences in to words and then those words into actions and all with unusual clarity.
Vera Brittain became famous for pointing out that there are other options than war. That war is not inevitable. She became a public speaker with forthright views and her influence stretched beyond the UK to Europe. She was influential in setting up the League of Nations which was a fore - runner to other institutions such as the United Nations.
As this was a conversation rather than a talk Vera Brittain’s life story came out bit by bit with some meandering on the way. She is probably best remembered today for her autobiographical book Testament of Youth. In this she gives a very detailed account of her life and experiences during World War 1. At the start of it she had moved from her provincial and unexciting life in Buxton to study at Oxford. The two people she was closest to of her own age were her brother Edward and his friend Roland and they went off to fight in the War. She felt left behind and gave up her Oxford studies to volunteer as a nurse of wounded soldiers travelling abroad to the European war zones to nurse there. Both Edward and Roland, who became her betrothed, were killed during the War abd Vera does not spare her readers, you visit these traumatic events with her.
As well as these intense losses she experienced dealing with the seemingly endless wounded and the dying from the War battles. Emotional and physical exhaustion and weariness follows.
The impact of all this tumult and grief at first floored and devastated Vera. In the years after the War, however, she slowly recovered and reflected on the things she had seen and experienced and turned all this into an energy that she channelled into her books, her public speaking and into the causes she worked for.
It is her voice that wins you over in the books. She is compelling. She can make you weep for her and with her. There is though a steeliness there that is just so impressive and that moves you on to believe with her that what happened was avoidable. She sets out the options for you and you can choose to go with her.
What a great woman Vera Brittain was. So much of how we learn about World War 1 is from the history books written by men and from the all male poets. History has made it a very masculine event and place. I think it is wonderful that she has made her voice heard, and how pleased I was to show my admiration for her by listening in on this conversation and learning more about her from her daughter.