Vera Brittain – Part II – Letters from a Lost Generation

More to the subject of Vera Brittain that I wrote about yesterday.

I am reading (among other things) a book most splendid and most illuminating to me. It is called Letters from a Lost Generation – First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends.

I have never been in the military. I have, however, worked for our U.S. Dept. of Defense – Defense Intelligence Agency, in Washington, D.C. (actually my office was in Arlington, VA, and I liased with our offices at the Pentagon down the road.) I was only with the job for about a year because my then-boyfriend/future husband #1, Bill, was away in a war, in Viet Nam, fighting on foreign soil for our own country. I know first hand what it was like for Vera, in that for 18 months I only knew that the man I loved was alive by letters I’d received many, many days (or even weeks) after he’d written them, and so I would just read them and say to myself, “well, at least I know that on such-and-such-a-date he WAS alive.” I lived never knowing if he was alive or dead. Or lying injured in a Viet Namese jungle somewhere.

He came home finally and we got engaged and married and divorced and are still friends. We live about a mile from each other. But that is not what this is about. It’s this book I’m reading, the letters between Vera and the four men in her life including her brother Edward and her fiance, Roland Leighton.

I saw the 1979 British TV movie/drama of this story, Testament of Youth, a book written by Vera Brittain, about the years 1914 thru 1918 recently, and it has made such an impact on me for some reason that I had to get more books and keep reading. This Letters from a Lost Generation is really well done. I am just entrenched in it most of the day lately and have a knot in my throat almost the whole time. I know the outcome and yet I keep hoping it will not be true!

Did you ever watch a movie and you know the ending but hope fervently that it will come out differently?

Here is a good write-up about this book, and if anyone wants something they can really get stuck into and learn more about the time around the First World War, I highly recommend it.

I should note that I have a nephew who is recently in the Army and could, of course, be seeing overseas duty and I am not relishing that thought one bit. I am afraid for him and for his Mom, my sister, and the rest of his family.

Vera went on to devote her life to antiwar activities and writing and speaking. My next book, once I’ve done with this one and the diaries that she wrote, called Chronicles of Youth, will be a biography of her entire life.

The following was gotten here at “Things Mean A Lot.”

Letters from a Lost Generation edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge

Letters from a Lost Generation is a collection of WWI letters between Vera Brittain, her fiance Roland Leighton, her brother Edward Brittain, and their close friends Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow. The collection opens with letters dating from 1913, which gives readers a glimpse of the carefree Edwardian world the correspondents inhabited. In their early letters, Vera and Roland discuss Olive Schreiner’s feminist novel The Story of an African Farm, a book close to both their hearts, and dream of a future together at Oxford – their greatest worry at the time was whether Vera would do well on her admission exams.

However, the beginning of the war in 1914 changes everything. Roland immediately enlists, and although Vera initially goes to Oxford she quickly decides to postpone her studies to become a V.A.D. nurse for the duration of the war. Letters from a Lost Generation covers the war years in their entirety and ends on a heartbreaking note in 1918 when the last of Vera’s correspondents was killed.

Those who have read Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth will already be familiar with the facts these letters cover (though I can’t imagine that making Letters from a Lost Generation any less interesting, since the point is not what happens but how the people involved experience it). However, as this was my introduction to Brittain’s work even the facts themselves took me by surprise – and often gave me quite a shock. The circumstances of Roland’s death, for example, could not have been more cruel for Vera. After many attempts they finally managed to get leave simultaneously, but he died just the day before his leave began. With means of communication being what they were, Vera did not hear until they were due to meet, so when she was called to be told the news she thought she was being called because he had finally arrived.

But returning to the letters themselves: this Virago edition is beautifully edited, and as a result Letters from a Lost Generation reads much like a work of narrative nonfiction. Furthermore, the letters are of both historical and literary interest – all the correspondents were talented writers, particularly Vera and Roland, and the final effect is similar to that of the Brownings’ letters. I expected Letters from a Lost Generation to be a somewhat slow read, but in actuality I could not put it down.

One of the most striking things about these letters is how very young the writers were – only 18 or 19 when the war begins – and how much they change in such a short period of time. Roland goes from saying that war is “very ennobling and very beautiful” to writing, “there is nothing glorious in trench warfare. It is all a waiting and a waiting and taking of petty advantages – and those who can wait longest win. And it is all for nothing – for an empty name, for an ideal perhaps -after all.” Readers can see the sense of futility we now associate with WW1 slowly emerging. And Roland was the first to die, only two years into the conflict. Reading these letters, it’s really no surprise that Vera Brittain went on to become a lifelong pacifist and activist.

The first half of the book is mostly devoted to Vera and Roland’s correspondence, and you can see their relationship developing against the backdrop of the war. The letters thus combine the anxiety of budding romance with the anxiety of war. A week without a letter could mean many things to Vera – that Roland had been killed, yes, but also that their relationship was cooling, or that he had neglected to write with no thought for how very anxious Vera and his family would be. And of course, she had no way of knowing the real reason until the next letter arrived. There was nothing to do but wait. Vera’s letters are full of suppressed feelings bubbling just under the surface – constant worry, of course, but also anger and frustration. You can easily imagine just how much she was holding back. As she writes to Roland,

“One cannot be angry with people at the Front – a fact which I sometimes think they take advantage of – and so when I read ‘We go back into the trenches to-morrow’ I literally dare not write you the kind of letter you perhaps deserve, for thinking that the world might end for you on that discontent note …

Add to this the delay of early twentieth-century communications, and the result is a state of continuous anguish that hardly bears imagining. Not only did the correspondents wonder and worry between letters, but they also continued to worry when a letter dated from a week or ten days before arrived – could the writer had been killed in the meantime?

Letters from a Lost Generation includes weeks of silence where you can sense just how Vera must have been feeling, and also letters written after the intended recipient had already been killed. The result is a collection of amazing immediacy, rich in historical detail, and as horrific as it is beautifully written.

Memorable bits:

“Yesterday I saw the name of a man among the killed with whom I have done a considerable amount of amateur acting – & there was another the other day with whom I have often played tennis, & met out. I feel as if I shall soon have no acquaintances left, to say nothing of friends. I told you people at college had on the whole very little direct connection with the war, but only to-day a girl I know quite well went home because her brother had just been killed in the Dardanelles. He was also in a Lancashire Regiment… I feel as if I were standing on a lovely & dismal shore, watching the tide gradually surround and cut me off, & I am almost sure that it will not turn before it has reached me.

(Vera to Roland, 1915)

“This afternoon is glowing with the languorous warm of the dying Summer; the sun is a shield of burnished gold in a sea of turquoise; the bees are in the clover that overhangs the trench – and my superficial beauty-loving self is condescending to be very conscious of the joy of loving. It is a pity to kill people on a day like this. In a way, I suppose, it is a pity to kill people on any kind of day, but opinions – even my own – differ on this subject. Like Waldo I love to sit in the sun, and like him I have no Lyndall to sit with.

(Roland to Vera, 1915)

“Public opinion has made it a high and lofty virtue for us women to countenance the departure of such as these & you to regions where they will probably be slaughtered in a brutally degrading fashion in which we would never allow animals to be slaughtered. This, I suppose, is the ‘something elemental, something beautiful’ that you find in War! To the saner mind it seems more like a reason for shutting up half the nation in a criminal lunatic asylum.

(Vera to Roland, 1915)

“All Roland’s things had just been sent back from the front through Cox’s; they had just opened them and they were all lying on the floor. (…) There were His clothes – the clothes in which He came home from the front last time – another set rather less worn, and underclothing and accessories of various descriptions. Everything was damp & worn and simply caked with mud. And I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and decay and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.

(Vera to Edward, 1916).”

Doesn’t this do something to you?

Wow, it does to me.

And to think that these young people were 19 and 20 years of age! The writing is splendid and the sentiments so mature and responsible.

I can’t help delving into this time after time here, since I have the free time to do all the reading I wish… I feel so lucky and blessed, and also thankful for all those human beings, before as well as after me, who go out into harm’s way and do what needs to be done. Even though I, like Vera, am a pacifist and antiwar advocate, by nature, that is not to say that I don’t appreciate and am grateful to those who make our freedoms here possible. I just wish it were not necessary to kill each other to do it, on either side.


Letters from a Lost Generation at amazon.

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Check out my other blog, “From the Hawthorne Tree”

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Pages from the American Notebooks, Nathaniel Hawthorne

Passages from Hawthorne’s English Notebooks

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4 Responses to Vera Brittain – Part II – Letters from a Lost Generation

  1. Bex says:

    Thanks Eric for all those offerings. I think the reason I have lighted on this particular story by Vera Brittain is that it’s from her… a young woman’s point of view, and it’s more of a personal accounting of only a handful of people and how their lives were affected (and cut short) by this big thing called war. I am not a good historian and when I was asking Paul (who used to be but it’s been 50 years) about the details of why WWI happened, he had a hard time explaining it all to me, so I am going to fish out a TV series (British of course) I have in my closet called

    “Edward The King”

    which is very good about laying out what led up to that war and why it all happened. I watched it all, by myself, once already but I like having someone here to discuss stuff while I’m watching it. I seem to remember that basically it was all to do with a bunch of royals who didn’t much like each other – and then all those millions of people had to suffer and die just because of them! I told Paul we will be watching this series soon here and then we can see definitively what happened when and why. (I think!)

    or… it may have been this series I was thinking about (I have them both):

    “Fall of Eagles”

    Yes, I think it was this latter one. Better go have a look.


  2. Eric Mayer says:

    Fascinating selections. Mary has read a massive number of first hand accounts of WWI. There are endless electronic texts on Gutenberg. Not too long ago I read some of her recommendations. Everyone knows about Erich Maria Remarque’s novel All Quiet on the Western Front which I hadn’t read before, a fictionalized account but pretty obviously based on true experience. The Human Touch by Sapper — more famous for his Bull-Dog Drummond series — is a collection of stories about life and death in the trenches on the other side, again based on the author’s experiences. The miseries suffered by the enemies were all but indistinguishable. Arthur Guy Empey ‘s Over the Top is a true account of his time in the trenches, and very popular when it appeared in 1916. Another book from that year is Unhappy Far-Off Things by Lord Dunsany, a series of brilliant, melancholy descriptions of blasted battlefields and ruined villages the war passed over and left behind. Then there’s a novel about two civilian lovers in war time Paris, within the sound of the fighting, Pierre and Luce by Romain Rolland. All different genres and nationalities but the same awful story. All different genres and nationalities but the same awful story.


  3. Annanotbob3 says:

    I know what you mean about hoping stories will end differently even when you know. I used to teach Romeo and Juliet almost every year, back in the day and I always hoped that he’d keep his cool with Tybalt, though he never did. Likewise with Lenny in ‘Of Mice and Men’. I’d be internally shouting at Curly’s wife to get up and walk away, but again, she never did. I hate the military, all of it. The rule is “Thou shall not kill”, not thou shall not kill unless someone in a special hat tells you to. xxx


  4. sandy freel says:

    WOW…she sure did have a hard life at times but also she did so much good.
    I enjoyed the other films you gave us and this info is very nice to get on her.
    What a hard life the men in service had…
    Thanks also for sharing of Bill in service and letters


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