Tag Archives: Vera Brittain

Getting to know them

My most recent book cull made me think. You can look at reading in different ways.

I’ve often envied those who came to Harry Potter once he was all here; with no need to wait for ten years before being able to finish the series of books. But then, we who did wait, had ample time to read and wait and think and do other things.

Back in 2003 – and how long ago that seems now! – Offspring’s secondary school library started its Author of the Term project. Our first one was Adèle Geras. Then came Tim Bowler and after him, Linda Newbery. After them it is a blur and I can no longer recall who came or when.

I had barely read anything by Adèle when she came. (I’d probably hurriedly read a short book to enlighten myself a little.) But afterwards, well, I read them ‘all.’ Because I wanted to and I could. I had the time to cover her backlist, as well as everything new that came my way. What a treat! And how lovely it was.

With Tim I had read a little more. After all, I was the one who suggested him and who ‘forced’ Tim to agree to come. But there was still room for improvement and I did have a few of his books to catch up on. And then, again, the new ones.

Finally, I am almost certain I’d not read any of Linda’s many books. But she spoke so well about her writing that no sooner had she left than I started working my way through ‘all’ her books. I especially liked her war books, of which there were quite a few. And before long I also tackled Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain, for the simple reason that if Linda had been inspired by it, it had to be good. Which it was.

I can no longer do this. Occasionally I have read someone’s books extra fast, before an interview, perhaps. But that was also some time ago. No more. Anyway, reading too fast is a waste of a good book, and if it isn’t all that good, then why bother?

It was a luxury, getting to know someone both as a person and reading what they’d written.

(And although I mostly bought copies of my own, I had the good luck to be helping out in the school library, with instant access to the books by Adèle, Tim and Linda. That’s why we need libraries.)

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Living WWI

Having so recently re-read Rilla of Ingleside by L M Montgomery and seen the film made of Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, I’ve come to realise that there is a difference between all the modern war stories – however excellent they are, because they’ve been written by great authors, who have researched the war thoroughly – and these two books written by women who lived through it.

They aren’t the only ones, I’m sure, but they are the women I’ve got fresh in mind right now. One wrote a biography and the other wrote fiction, but both offer the reader what you don’t get in later, period fiction, and that is the day-to-day facts. Other books might have the Somme, which Rilla barely mentions. It’s just one of the many place names they got far too familiar with over those four years.

Even the Blythe’s Susan keeps up with the news, learning about geography in an unforeseen way, reading the paper and keeping track of what she thinks of Wilson and Kitchener and the Kaiser.

Vera Brittain lived through the war at a much closer distance, eventually being part of it. What I remember most vividly is all the travelling she did, back and forth, to the war, through the war and away from the war. Her autobiography, of necessity, contains all of WWI, in some form or other.

L M Montgomery wrote Rilla a few years after the end of the war, when presumably everything was still fresh in her mind, and she knew these places in Europe and beyond as intimately as the Blythes did. Which will be why she put all of that in her not-so-idyllic novel, and why she had to send Anne’s and Gilbert’s sons off to war, and let the girls work at home for the war effort. It’s why she couldn’t let all her characters live. Because it wasn’t like that. Lots of Canadian boys went and never returned.

That is something Vera Brittain knew from personal experience. She lost everyone.

And then, I wonder if both women wrote their books believing they had gone through hell, but come out the other end, and that a new better world would be sure to come of it?

Vera had a son, but I don’t know if he fought in WWII. I’m thinking he might have been too young. But Rilla’s children, if she had any, would surely have had to fight in the next war, as would her nephews, as well as her soup tureen baby.

I hope Susan never found out about that.

As I read Rilla this time, I needed to go back and check when the other books were written, rather than when they were set. I had to know if L M Montgomery knew that Anne would have to lose a child to the war, and I suspect she must have, when she gave Anne and Gilbert their children.

Living through a war is not the same as reading ‘highlights’ later on, and by living I mean even those who are safe and far away. It’s the hearing of each battle as it happens, rather than learning it second hand.

I’m not saying authors now shouldn’t write war novels. On the contrary, I think they must. But it’s interesting to note the difference.

Women and war

On International Women’s Day, let’s think back to what they used to do. We finally made it to see the film based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which is a favourite of mine. I was pleased to see the other week that the appearance of the film made the book pop – temporarily – back into the top ten in book sales. The power of movies.

It was a lovely looking film, even accounting for the gore, which was most realistic. My younger self would not have enjoyed it. I’d worried about the cringe-factor of having a non-native speaker play Vera, but Alicia Vikander was perfect. (I might have to dislike her a little for that.) What people who haven’t read the book make of the film, I have no idea. It must be like Harry Potter. You run past the highlights and you will hopefully make some sense of it.

The plot which remained when all the ‘excess’ pages had been dealt with made the whole thing out to be mostly about the romance, and less about years of hard work, nursing in the war. And I suppose the romantic twist at the end was to appease viewers who had cried too much when everyone died. At least they didn’t resurrect those who died in real life.

While romantic, this film did portray WWI as far more traumatising and downright incomprehensibly awful than most war films I’ve seen. And that’s good. We need the negative propaganda. It’s also worth remembering that being allowed to go to university is a relatively new thing. If you’re a woman, I mean.

Kathryn J Atwood, Women Heroes of World War I

I’ve been reading Elizabeth Wein’s new novel, and that is also about the dreadfulness of war and what women can do. (More about that another day.)

And through Elizabeth, I had another well timed book in my letterbox yesterday. It’s Kathryn J Atwood’s Women Heroes of World War I. I haven’t read it yet, obviously, but it looks very promising. Kathryn features the lives of 16 women and what they did in the war. So watch this space.

Daughter liked Testament of Youth, the movie, but I have high hopes of her giving the book a go, too. It is far superior to the film, and everyone ought to read it.

EIBF and me, 2014

It is here. The programme for this year’s Edinburgh International Book festival. And I’m sorry, but all I can think of is that Sara Paretsky will be there. It’s been three years, and she is finally coming in the summer rather than freezing her nether regions off in February/March. Which is so sensible.

OK, there must be a few other authors scheduled for the two and a bit weeks. Think, witch, think!

There are some very interesting looking events where authors one admires talk about authors one admires. I’m going to have to see if I can catch one of those, because they look like tickets might sell out fast (small tent). Then there is Patrick Ness who will give the Siobhan Dowd talk and Val McDermid will pretend to be Jane Austen.

Wendy Meddour is coming and there is a lovely pairing of Francesca Simon and Irving Finkel. Another interesting pair is Caroline Lawrence with Geraldine McCaughrean. Elizabeths Laird and Wein will cooperate, and Gill Lewis is also making an appearance.

Many more excellent authors like Sophie Hannah and Arne Dahl, Tommy Donbavand and Liz Kessler will be at the festival. I have to admit to paying less attention to the ‘grown-up’ authors again, in favour of my ‘little ones.’ Those who are given orange juice instead of wine (although I am sure not at EIBF!) because they write for children.

Have to admit that many of my hoped for events are school events. I am glad that some of the best looking events are for schools, because it means someone thinks school children deserve the best. I want to be a school child on a very temporary basis at the end of August.

Deck chair

I’m hoping for plenty of stamina on my part. I have planned a number of full or nearly full days, for about two thirds of the festival. (I was thinking of having a holiday at some point.) The event I am fairly certain I won’t be able to go to but wish I could, is Eleanor Updale talking about Vera Brittain. That would be really something.

Perhaps I will see you in Charlotte Square? (If my eyes are – temporarily – closed, just give me a gentle nudge.)

Tilly’s Promise

Would that going to war as a soldier were as hard for someone with special needs as it is for them to read books about war. But we know from Private Peaceful that this was not the case, and here Linda Newbery gives us her version of WWI and those who should have been allowed not to be sent out at all.

Linda Newbery, Tilly's Promise

Linda has written this dyslexia friendly book for Barrington Stoke, the first one out this year of remembering 1914 and all that came after. Tilly’s Promise is very much a similar story to what Linda has already written about for able readers, and it’s good to see that this can now be made available for others as well.

Tilly and her sweetheart Harry promise to be true to each other as first he goes to war, and then she joins as a nurse. But what it is mainly about is Harry’s enforced promise to look out for Tilly’s ‘simple’ brother Georgie, once he is made to join up as well.

The inspiration for Georgie came from a Siegfred Sassoon poem, and like Linda’s other WWI novels, it’s losely based on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth.

This is of necessity a short book, but all the suffering and the real history of war is in here. I don’t like the need for these remembrance books, but it’s there if you want to find out more. One of the things Tilly learned was that the Germans were the same as the British. No monsters.

(Beautifully embroidered cover by Stewart Easton.)

Remember

I couldn’t help noticing that Thomas Keneally has a new book out about WWI, about two sisters who are nurses. It’d be easy to think that this is a bit of a cliché, because so many WWI novels feature nurses. But that’s what you have to have, if you’re going to put your female characters in Europe during the war.

Theresa Breslin, Remembrance

I’d already dug out some of my WWI nurse books, because it’s time to remember that they exist. It’s not a topic I’d expect to find in new books right now, but it’s not as if these are all that ancient.

Linda Newbery, Some Other War

My first one was Linda Newbery’s Some Other War, which I bought as it was re-issued about ten years ago, although first published in the early 1990s. Linda came to Offsprings’ school, just before Remembrance Sunday, so very timely. She introduced me to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, also about a nurse.

Linda has two more books about the same characters; The Kind Ghosts, which starts during the war and ends after it. The third book is The Wearing of the Green, set in Ireland. After this I always get confused, because I tend to think her Shouting Wind trilogy is set in WWI. It isn’t. It’s one war later, about a descendant of the two main characters in Some Other War. So that’s two sets of trilogies about the same family, over many years.

The second nurse story is Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance, which Linda strongly recommended. Similar plot, in a way, with girls going off to war as nurses, and with a love story somewhere, as well as being about the village left behind. Realistic, and enjoyable, if you can say that about so much suffering.

Marcus Sedgwick, The Foreshadowing

My third nurse is only pretending. Marcus Sedgwick’s The Foreshadowing has a female character who is too young to go to war, and she’s not a trained nurse. She has ‘only’ dabbled a bit at nursing at home, before she runs off to Europe, hoping to save her brother’s life. She can ‘see’ things, and she has seen her brother’s death in her mind. With one brother already dead, she’s desperate not to lose her other brother as well.

So, there are similarities, but only because the war was fought in a limited geographical area, and the nursing of soldiers won’t vary much. We are now a long way away in time, but through these books it’s possible to feel something of what it was like.

We have no soldiers left to talk about it, but we mustn’t forget.

How can they not know about the war?

Occasionally I feel the need to apologise, quietly, for my fondness for war novels. It doesn’t always feel right. It’s like crime novels. It ought to be wrong to enjoy something that’s based on someone dying. In war lots of people not only die, but millions more are miserable. How can you enjoy that?

But you need some sort of conflict in a story, and what can be better than war? You don’t even need to blame an individual. We know who or what caused the war, and then the characters can get on with what they have to do.

I’m on this topic again, after the shock of hearing Peter Englund talking about the background to his WWI book; that his history students at Uppsala didn’t know that the war had happened. I felt a bit like, if they didn’t learn about it during history lessons, then surely they must have come across war fiction at some point?

But apparently not.

So I shouldn’t feel bad about war novels. They not only entertain, but can potentially give history lessons where history lessons are needed. In actual fact, I feel I learn more about many school subjects by reading fiction, rather than school books, or listening to teachers droning on and on.

Linda Newbery is someone who has written many WWI novels, and I might not still remember all the fictional details (I am a terrible forgetter), but they still provide me with a good feel for the war as such. The same goes for Theresa Breslin and Marcus Sedgwick. In fact, when my forgetfulness works full time, I find some of the plots blend into one, and that is pehaps because they are all pretty true, and they all share the same basic settings.

Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth

Leaving fiction behind, there is the marvellous Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. That, too, is similar to the novels mentioned above. Presumably because it is about the same period and similar activities.

There is Michael Morpurgo’s tale about the football match played at Christmas between the British and the Germans (based on something real?). I have come across it many times, and would guess many children or former children also have.

I wonder if there is a difference between neutral Sweden and countries which took part in the war? (This in turn makes me think of Bali Rai’s City of Ghosts, featuring the destiny of all the Indians who fought in Europe in the Great War.) Now that no one has a living great grandfather who fought in WWI, it must still be well known. Newspapers write about it often. I imagine families still talk about those who died. And for that matter, those who came back.

Recently I had cause to look at the family tree again (British side), and was reminded of the Resident IT Consultant’s great uncles. He had many of them, but two he never met, because they died within days of each other in July 1916. I keep thinking of how their mother must have felt.