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

Beginning again, again…

Punts at the Cherwell Boathouse

Punts in the sunshine last week at the Cherwell Boathouse, Oxford.

Recently, I realised that it is almost five years since I sat in a training workshop in a previous job and the idea of a blog called ‘Bloomsbury Bell’ popped into my head. Since then, it has meandered around book reviews, days out, random thoughts and ground (almost) to a halt.

I think that sums up the past five years of my blogging life…. meanwhile, I have meandered my way from 25 to 30. Books have been read, words have been written, tea has been drunk, I’ve moved house (a lot), changed jobs (quite a lot), and a current has carried me along all the while, until I landed here in a more settled place, and deciding to begin Bloomsbury Bell again.

So, here goes! No idea where we are going, but let’s just see what happens.

BB tries Bibliotherapy

For a short period of time, I couldn’t decide what to read. More than that, I couldn’t settle to anything; I had lost my reading ‘mojo’. This hadn’t really happened before, I was a ‘finish one book, start another’ kind of girl. So I told my boyfriend who suggested that I try bibliotherapy. I had read about bibliotherapy at the School of Life in various magazines and had always thought it would be an interesting thing to try. I asked for a session for my birthday and, as if by magic, through the post came a voucher.

Just before Easter I went along to the School of Life in BB’s heartland of Bloomsbury for what turned out to be a fascinating 50 minutes with one of the resident bibliotherapists. Prior to turning up I had submitted a questionnaire which had been emailed by the bibliotherapist, so I had an inkling of what to expect. Nevertheless, I wasn’t really sure how far she would delve into the depths of my psyche and I did wonder, if she went too deep, whether she would ever find her way out.

Thankfully, she didn’t go too far. This, I admit, was probably in part to my consciousness of  being in the company of a literary therapist and therefore that I should deliver. I found myself spewing forth details about myself, my life, my hopes, my dreams within the first 2 minutes. We talked at length about my reading habits which I admitted had altered slightly over the past year or so. She mentioned that it was interesting that I prefer to read in the company of strangers – you can easily find me alone in various cafes/bars in Oxford with a book – at which point I did glance over my shoulder for the men in white coats.

Aside from a lovely chat about books and my life over a cup of tea, it was also a reminder of the transformative power of literature. Through talking about my reading history I remembered the impact that literature has had on me at different times in my life. Ok, so I didn’t necessarily need an hour with a bibliotherapist to remember that but it was a good experience all the same. And put me in mind to start a little bibliotherapy project of my own… more on this anon.

I think that the most beneficial thing to arise from the session is to be steered onto new reading paths. I tend to stick to the same sort of literature, mostly early twentieth century and mostly written by women. I have long been aware of ambling into a reading rut and had at times tried something random and new. Of course, friends and family recommend books and sometimes I take them up on their suggestions. But more often than not, I find myself sticking to the same authors, genres and even publishers. In fact, as soon as I left the School of Life I hotfooted it over to dear old Persephone Books for a cheeky browse before heading over to the National Portrait Gallery to look at the Lucian Freud exhibition.

I am currently waiting for my ‘bibliotherapy prescription’ to arrive. Eight books are recommended on the basis of what was uncovered from both the questionnaire and the session. The fact that it is taking a while to arrive is starting to concern me a little, perhaps I am just too complex?! As soon as I receive it, I will share it.

I am looking forward to a summer of trying new books and seeing where this next reading phase takes me…