Testament of Youth


The Radcliffe Camera in Oxford.

I have always been fascinated by the early twentieth century. The literature, the music, the art, the fashion. I think about dancing the Charleston, gramophones, 1920’s bobbed hair and rouge lips. Sometimes, I imagine myself in a 1930’s style silk robe that wafts around me as I casually drag on a Woodbine. Again, the red lips feature. I do love a red lip.

Anyway, when I am back in the twenty-first century I often read books about, or set during, the period spanning 1900-1950. I have just finished Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. This autobiography spans Brittain’s life from early adolescence through to her early thirties and focuses on the cataclysmic impact of the First World War on her own generation.

Vera grew up in Buxton, and was the daughter of middle-class, affluent parents. She had a younger brother who was sent to Uppingham school and who, it was expected, would go to Oxford. Vera however was expected to ‘come out’ and then promptly get married and run a household. She had different ideas, and determinedly pursued a place at Somerville College, Oxford.

The First World War broke out during her first year at Oxford and her brother, who was at New College, signed up immediately. Vera’s fiancée also signed up, and off the boys went to war. Vera carried on studying but eventually gained permission to suspend her studies whilst she became a volunteer nurse with the British Red Cross. She didn’t realise that nursing would become her life for the next three years.

Brittain manages to weave her own life events around the wider political and societal changes that were happening during those turbulent years in British history. She focuses, at some length, on her work with the League of Nations in the second half of the book, and commentary on early feminism is given all the way through. At some points this does run a bit dry, especially as her own agenda is very much pursued. She wrote this in the 1930’s and it’s clear that her political activism is still going strong at that point, she has her points to prove. These points are made all the way through, that educated women at that time had to struggle to make use of their education when it was expected that all professional activity would cease on marriage. And also, that the terms of the Treaty of Versailles did not honour the loss of life of millions of young men, including the young men who were the brightest and best. Not ground-breaking for readers now, but for those reading this in the early 1930’s when the legacy of WW1 was still very much felt, I imagine it was thought-provoking.

Is it wrong to say I don’t really warm to her? There is a pervasive sense of arrogance. I know that she had a hard won struggle to get to Oxford, and then to establish a writing career, but…there is something of a cold detachment in the way that she writes.

Nevertheless, it has made me think about women today. I am getting married in September, and thankfully I don’t even have to think about giving up my career as a result. But…I have also realised that middle-class women of Vera’s generation had rather a lot of help at home. They had charwomen, or maids, or housekeepers. Other women who would come in and cook and clean for them. Vera’s own mother had a nervous breakdown during the war, because she simply couldn’t find any servants. She had no idea how to boil an egg, or how to clean their Chelsea flat. I imagine that the strain of worrying about their children (both in France at that time) was the primary cause, but Vera highlights the burden of domesticity on women for whom ‘running the house’ had always been managing other people to do the grunt work. When these women had to do it themselves, they fell apart.

And what of us now? We (women and men) are doing all our own cooking, cleaning, washing, ironing and hoovering, as well as working and, in some cases, raising children. How on earth do we do it? And then we have all the social media to keep up with, and instagram photos of other people’s perfectly put together homes to feel inadequate over…surely it’s nervous breakdowns a-go-go for us all?! I think Vera’s mother would have gone up in a puff of smoke if she knew how much we all try and do now. Something has to give, surely. For me, I know what that is… I don’t iron, I barely tidy (thanks go to the dude for the tidying) and, I never feel on top of anything at the moment. So, for all our equality and emancipation, I am sure that a couple of generations ago we never would have thought of going without a housekeeper. Virginia Woolf had a whole host of servants (managing them drove her to her wits end). If Virginia Woolf was alive now, she would be someone who ‘works from home’ and would end up doing the cooking and housework herself. Probably. And how much time/energy would that have left for writing?

Vera Brittain describes living in a small London flat with Winifred Holtby during her twenties. Both women were writing novels and pursuing careers in journalism at that time, they were busy, young and starting out. And then, she casually mentions the housekeeper who would cook and clean for them. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud on the train, what a hard life those ‘struggling writers’ led. Try being out of the house from 07.30 – 19.30 to work to your employers’ schedule, and then come home to make dinner, and maybe do some remedial housework or just fall asleep. When is there time for writing, thinking, research, ideas?

I don’t know that my mother’s generation during the women’s lib movement of the 1970s, really realised that the burden of running a home would still fall to their daughters even after they gained equal opportunities for us in education and the workplace. If the dude is reading this, he’s just spat out his beverage at that last sentence. But, generally women do still expend more energy (psychological and physical) on housework, cooking, making plans and arrangements with friends and family, and basically keeping the show on the road. I can’t talk about childcare, but it seems to me that women do tend to lead on this one as well, and that’s a whole lifetime of work for a person.

So, instead of clean the house this weekend. I’m going to dance around in my red lipstick, enjoy a cocktail or two, and maybe….just maybe work on that piece of writing that I started.

Happy Friday everyone!

BB x

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield


Storytelling can be a dark art, and never more so when it comes to the telling of a good ghost story. This book follows the life of William Bellman, the first part against the backdrop of the Victorian mill industry and the second through the growth of the funeral trade and the Victorian fascination with death and mourning.

As a little boy Bellman kills a rook whilst out playing with friends. It is a seemingly insignificant event but one that stays with the boys as they grow into men and follow their different paths. Except for William, who becomes an obsessive hard-worker rising up through the ranks of his Uncle’s wool mill, not giving a moment’s thought to the rook. Until that is, tragedy strikes and he diverts all his energy onto another business practice. His efforts are to repay a debt to a stranger named Black. But William does not know what the debt is for, or how to repay it, or even who Black really is. Black only appears fleetingly, yet haunts William’s thoughts. It is the sense of needing to repay Black that drives him relentlessly forward.

Diane Setterfield has written a well-researched historic novel. The reader is taken on William’s journey, from humble beginnings through to wealthy businessman. But there is always something lurking behind him, just out of reach. And it is this element which has earned the book a subtitle of ‘ghost story’. It is not a ghost story in the ordinary sense, and if you are looking for suspense and dramatic thrills then Bellman & Black may disappoint. This is a subtle and unsettling tale, making it that more believable as you question whether there is really anything supernatural at work or whether you are witnessing the troubled mind of a man unsettled by an early experience of an accidental killing. The motif of the rook is woven through the story, linking the pages to a timeless sense of folklore and something almost magical, and the tale is cleverly linked to one of the collective nouns for rooks, a storytelling.

This is a good read for the darkening nights.

This review appeared in The Oxford Times on Thursday 24th October.

My heart belongs to…


Atticus Finch. He entered my life when I was nineteen and found a place hidden in my heart. It’s now our ten year anniversary and I have decided to go public. I admit, I haven’t always been monogamous but he has always been the man I have returned to when the world has just seemed too complicated and unfathomable. His steady sense and quiet moral compass melt my heart every time I read To Kill a Mockingbird. 

The novel highlights so much about human nature and in particular about fear derived from ignorance, prejudice and misunderstanding. Set in Alabama during the Depression, the narrative is told to the reader by Atticus’ daughter, Scout. She is a scrappy tomboy and perceives her father to be a bit of a let down. He doesn’t go shooting like most men do and all he does is come home from his job as a lawyer and sit, reading in his chair.

Slowly, through the course of the novel, Scout learns that her father is heroic in his own way and is trying to pass on to his children a moral code that is distinct from the racist bigotry that is endemic within the small Alabama town, “I wanted you to see what real courage is, instead of getting the idea that courage is a man with a gun in his hand. It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.”

When Atticus agrees to represent an innocent black man accused of raping a local white girl, the town turns against him and Scout is angry with him for this but in his gentle way he explains why he took the case; “They’re certainly entitled to think that, and they’re entitled to full respect for their opinions… but before I can live with other folks I’ve got to live with myself. The one thing that doesn’t abide by majority rule is a person’s conscience.”

Scout expresses surprise that someone whom she had judged to be weird turns out to be somebody who helped her and her brother in time of need, the exchange between her and Atticus is a reminder to us all for when we make a snap judgement, ‘“Atticus, he was real nice.” “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”’

I love this novel, not only for the plot and the evocation of small town southern states against the backdrop of the depression and racial tension, but also for the man; Atticus Finch. A quiet hero and a good man.

“Atticus said to Jem one day, “I’d rather you shot at tin cans in the backyard, but I know you’ll go after birds. Shoot all the blue jays you want, if you can hit ‘em, but remember it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” That was the only time I ever heard Atticus say it was a sin to do something”.

Good advice. I raise my glass to another ten years of not killing Mockingbirds and loving Atticus.

Harvest by Jim Crace

harvestAs I was driving home a few evenings ago, the fading summer light was shimmering over the wheat fields. The sky was that curious evening mix of dark, menacing clouds and bright open blue. For miles the golden patchwork of fields stretched ahead of me and I felt that sense of a season starting to wane. This time of year is always the start of a languorous stretch into crisp mornings and woodsmoke on the air.

The ripening wheat has also been the perfect backdrop for the book that I have been reading, Harvest by Jim Crace. I read Being Dead with the staff book club at the V&A (which I wrote about here) when I worked there, and really enjoyed his soft and affecting prose. So, when I discovered that he had just had another book published I bought it straight away.

It’s the story of an isolated village, over the course of a week, at some point before the introduction of enclosure on common land – before 1820 I would say, although it is not made clear. There is the mention of plague so perhaps it’s set in the 17th century? It doesn’t matter, Crace ensures that the detail is focused on the rhythm and life of a community living with, by and for the land. The air is heavy with change and with that comes the exposure of human nature.

The tale is narrated by Walter Thirsk, a widower who has lived there for 12 years. He is both villager and outsider and recounts the events of the week with an honest tongue. Enclosure meant the irrevocable change of an established way of life in England, local customs were lost as the wool trade altered boundaries and changed a community’s relationship with the land… pasture has no need for the plough. So it is under this shadow of change that the village harvest the barley for the last time, it’s a community under threat so when newcomers settle on the edge of the village suspicion and superstition start to take hold.

Very quickly a chain of events unfolds which ultimately leads to the destruction of the village, a way of life, a community and the ties that can hold us all to one, fixed patch of earth – the ties of home.

Reading this was like reading a book that was written especially for me, the words flew off the page and landed in my imagination, transformed into a world in which I was able to walk. The brilliance of Crace’s storytelling is that questions remain unanswered, small acts of human weakness result in large consequences and he captures the essence of human instincts.

Harvest is one of the best books that I have read for a long time and I am pleased to see that it is on the longlist for the Booker Prize. It’s a beautiful, touching read and as the crops are currently being gathered in, now is the perfect time to read it.