Sense a theme here? I was inspired by Heaven-Ali’s Great War Theme Read, which is based on the latest of the LibraryThing Virago group’s successful and enjoyable themed reads (a closed group so I can’t link to that), to pick up Vera Brittain’s “Testament of Youth” to read in this Month of Re-Reading. Now, that’s not the assigned read for this month, I know, but basically I’m taking inspiration but am not keen enough on war books in general to read them all through the year. So I thought I’d do my own form of In Memoriam and pick out books I love to re-read this year.
I was only going to do the Brittain, but then she mentions Brooke’s poems in her book, and so I felt drawn to pick up this lovely copy that I have of his “1914 and Other Poems” to read through, too. I’ve since picked that wonderful compilation of First World War poems, “Up the Line to Death” to read slowly through the next few months, too. I don’t think I’ve read that since I did a First World War poetry course during my degree, and I did that because I’d studied them in great detail for A and I think O level (my copy of “Up the Line to Death” is somewhat worryingly inscribed with my class name and room, although it has the pencilled-in price and Other Person’s Name indicative of a personal second-hand purchase). But I thought it would be interesting to do that, too.
So, two First World War re-reads (and reviews of other reads coming soon – I have been reading since my last review, I promise!)
Vera Brittain – “Testament of Youth”
(25 May 2009, from my friend Julie, who was moving back to Australia. She gave me some boxes of books for BookCrossing but I saved this nice hardback for myself)
Her famous autobiography, covering the First World War and the terrible personal toll it took on her as she lost family and friends as well as suffering the horror and privations of being a nurse in England and France (I think everyone knows what happens but won’t give details just in case). Beautifully written, of course, having been constructed out of real letters, poems and diaries as well as novelised and mulled over for a decade or two before this was written and published. The distance shows, as she is able to view her and others’ changing feelings about the war with the objectivity gained from mature reflection, while representing the immediacy of those feelings through the vivid first-hand sources.
Even though this was at least my third time of reading, I had forgotten that there’s a long pre-war section and a presentation of her life as an undergraduate returning to Oxford changed beyond belief after her experiences. The psychological and physical effect that 1914-18 had on her are laid out without self-pity, and we get to enjoy her growing friendship with Winifred Holtby as well as her romance with her future husband, as well as her and Winifred’s work writing, lecturing and working for the League of Nations, that unfortunately doomed precursor to the UN. This had the effect of making it more contemplative and less harrowing, looking at the long-term effects of the war and people’s attempts at constructing their own and a world peace. It’s also a more feminist book than I remember from last time, with a good description of the worries of contemplating marriage when you’ve had a life of your own (more marked then than now, of course, but interesting in the context of some of my own recent experiences) and the pleasures of that rare thing in those days, a room of one’s own, however basic, freezing and rife with domestic dramas.
My review from my last re-reading in December 1997:
“Bought 1 June 1997. I had read this before, but a long time ago. Almost unbearably moving – at one point I was reduced to unstoppable tears, because of both the losses she experienced and the damage to her.”
I have to admit there were no unstoppable tears this time, but at times it was very hard to read and so poignant, especially a sentence about her eventual wedding. I’m really glad that I re-read this.
Rupert Brooke – “1914 and Other Poems”
(bought late 1980s)
As I mentioned above, I picked this off my “nice books” shelf to red because Brooke’s poetry is mentioned in “Testament of Youth”, as is Brooke himself. This has the famous early war poems, and was originally published in 1915, although I have the 30th impression from 1923. (I bought it at a book sale or Halls Bookshop in Tunbridge Wells for £3. It bears the ink inscription “To Bert Hewson, WIth every good wish, from Margaret Croker [?] 30.6.24”. I probably bought it because I was in my late teens and in love with R. Brooke. This led me to unsuccessfully apply to King’s College, Cambridge, who rejected me because I didn’t want to take a year out. Anyway …)
This volume lacks the slightly more disillusioned poems that Brooke wrote later in the war, when he’d experienced the conditions we all know about, so has the purity of those early poems of patriotism, written when there really was that idealism about a noble death for one’s country. It’s important to remember that that is how people felt (or were made to feel by the political and military leaders) before the reality and horror set in, and also to remember that he was representing a commonly held belief. He wasn’t a fool and he did realise, but he also died very early in the war, in 1915.
The war poems are almost unbearably poignant to read now, with the pages of history turned and the outcomes for Brooke and his compatriots and fellow soldiers of all nationalities known and mourned. I found myself feeling glad that he’d had the sunny, happy interlude in the South Pacific whence originate some of the “Other Poems” of this volume. “Grantchester” is included, too – I had completely forgotten how long it was and the humorous list of other places in Cambridgeshire – it’s really rather an odd poem.
Reading this volume has led me to pick up “Up the Line to Death” again, an important collection of poems published in chronological order of their writing, which records the progress of the war and the shared idealism of the early days so very well. I recommend that volume as a very good companion to this year of remembrance.
Currently reading: I’m working through my re-reading pile although I haven’t had quite as much reading time as I would have wished (I rather foolishly wished out loud that I could test out my new keyboard, leading me to get a massive load of transcription jobs in). Coming soon, reviews of some language and travel books, and some non-re-reads which I won this month from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers programme. I’m currently reading Tim Moore’s “Frost on my Moustache”, which is unfortunately sillier than I’d remembered, but is about Iceland in part … .