Mourning through Memoir: Trauma, Testimony, and Community in Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth

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As she first began to sketch out a plan for writing Testament of Youth, Vera Brittain (1893-1970) confessed to a male associate who traveled in similar literary circles that she was working on "a kind of autobiography." This fellow writer greeted Brittain's admission with contempt and remarked: "An Autobiography! But I shouldn't have thought that anything in your life was worth recording!" (Brittain, "War Service" 367). One might imagine Paul Fussell offering a similar judgment in The Great War and Modern Memory, the seminal 1975 study that made the Modern Library's list of 100 best nonfiction books of the twentieth century and helped establish the tone and terms of the critical debate about literary representations of the war for many years following its publication. In Fussell's text, women are noticeably absent and seemingly unimportant. His 335-page study contains only two brief mentions of Vera Brittain, for example, and in both of those instances, Fussell does not assign Brittain's work an authoritative status that allows it to stand or speak on its own. Instead, the two references arrive with the male perspective attached, presumably to validate Brittain's own words. (1)

This omission can be explained by Fussell's valorization of (physical) experience, typically configured as male, over other encounters with the war that were in any way removed from the locale of the war front. Such a critical position leads him, in a chapter-long discussion of binaries entitled "Adversary Proceedings," even to pass over the fundamental opposition of male versus female. While this emphasis results partly from Fussell's own service in the Second World War, he also suffers from having no access to a theoretical model that demonstrates how the viewpoint of "nonparticipants" (at least as configured along Fussell's narrow lines) can shed light on the war experience as a result of that marginalization. (2)

Important scholarship in the past 20 years has chipped away at this narrow perspective by expanding the scope of what it means to be in war and by arguing that "war must be understood as a gendering activity, one that ritually marks the gender of all members of a society," to quote the editors of one particularly influential example of this new school of reading (Higonnet et al. 4). (3) An enormous amount of archival and editorial work has served to recover a wide range of excluded voices and demonstrate the rich and diverse ways in which women experienced war. While notable examples of women engaged in direct combat do exist, most of their participation occurred on the borders of battle: at the edges of the front as nurses and other support staff, at workplaces as professional replacements for men sent off to fight, and at home as managers of depleted households who were forced to wait anxiously to hear the fate of family, friends, and neighbors serving their country.

Yet because this recent research has often tried to draw distinctions between the ways in which men and women confronted and processed the war, it has also tended to downplay the fact that writing their stories required female authors to adopt certain coping strategies employed by male solider-writers. I therefore agree with Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate that early scholarly attempts to value women's service, which habitually find a unified women's experience separate from men's, were necessarily limiting and potentially reductive (2). In Brittain's case, I would like to keep that danger in mind while following the promising lead of Dorothy Goldman, who, in writing generally about women writers of the war, highlights their dilemma of having "to perform a different and complex double function; they were actors in their own war and spectators of the soldiers' war" (102). In fact, for me the central narrative challenge of Testament of Youth is Brittain's effort to resolve the tension between the conflicting roles of active participant (as nurse) and passive spectator (as mourner of the dead)--though, as we will see, mourning cannot be understood simply as a passive activity of spectatorship, since Freud theorizes the melancholic subject's active denial, self-hatred, and fidelity. …