The last book of Caroline's Literature and War Readalong for 2014 is a nonfiction book of correspondence. When she first posted her list of selections I was quite pleased to see it on the list and ordered it without a second thought to have it safely tucked away until the end of the year. Then life got busy and I've done poorly when it comes to reading along in general, so I considered just letting it go like so many other books I have let go of of late. But when we chatted a bit about it and I heard how good it was and how accessible--easy to pick up and set down since it is a collection of letters I decided maybe it was worth attempting to squeeze it in after all, even if I don't finish it in time to add to this year's list of books (or in time for the forthcoming discussion).
While I'm unsure whether I will indeed finish it this year (am trying to keep my plans and expectations for my winter work break low--I never manage half of what I hope to do during breaks), I am so glad I picked it up and decided to read it after all. I'm only a fourth of the way in and I know what's coming so am reading it with a heavy heart, but it is an amazing book. Letters from a Lost Generation, edited by Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge is a collection of letters (only a selection of them have been included) between Vera Brittain, her fiancé, brother and two other school friends written just before and during WWI.
I'll be playing catch up for the remaining days of the year, trying to get in a few last posts about books I read and didn't write about, so today seemed a perfect day to share a few teasers of what I have been reading. I have always meant to read Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth (as well, I have a biography of Brittain, one of her novels and a biography she wrote about her friend Winifred Holtby) and am very tempted to begin a little reading project about her life and times. Something to carry over into 2015 and a reading path I am quite happy to follow now.
I suspect you are already quite familiar with Vera Brittain's story--she lost all four men she corresponded with in this book in World War I. If you want an honest and accurate picture of what the world was like then, I think you couldn't do much better than to read a book like this. Roland Leighton, a school friend of her younger brother, was her fiancé. Edward Brittain was her brother, and Victor Richardson and Geoffrey Thurlow were close friends of the young men. The letters contained in this volume give an interesting view of the war and of Britain at the time. The letters give a varied look at things--from both male and female perspectives as well as from the battlefield, military hospitals, as well as the homefront as the introduction notes.
Reading these letters, what strikes me is the honor of the men fighting. It's a common theme in the war literature I have read, that young men chose, they wanted to go off and fight for the honor of their country and themselves. I think it has become quite a cliché to say that the best and the brightest of young men were lost in this war (though the editors do note that that isn't entirely true--certainly the letters show that it was the case to some extent). But you do get a sense in reading these letters that it was understood the chances the young men were taking, but time and again the feeling was there that no matter what they couldn't let their country down.
The book is broken into eight sections, and I am in the midst of the third. The letters begin in 1913 just when Vera meets Roland. He and her brother were friends--Roland had won a place at Oxford already, Edward was hoping to go, and Vera decided to make a try for it as well. She did earn a place as well, and just as the group were set to go, thinking they would be students at the same time, war breaks out and the young men almost immediately want to volunteer.
These first sections show primarily Vera and Roland's growing friendship and blossoming romance. The other thing that strikes me in reading these letters is the quality of the writing. Letter writing truly was an art, though the editors note that Roland's letters "are the most self-consciously literary of the collection." Truly they are almost like little work's of art--how he will be sitting in the middle of a war zone and reflecting on nature. The letters are both beautiful and horrible, as I know what's coming. The latter half of the book concentrates on Vera's correspondence with her brother, Victor and Geoffrey.
My teaser's are a few excerpts from the letters themselves to give you a flavor of the correspondence and the quality of the writing and sentiments (though there is nothing sentimental about the letters either).
Vera to Roland (8-23-14)--"You are constantly apologising for your letters being egotistical. Please do not. Any letters worth having are always so; one does not trouble to correspond with people unless one is interested in them personally ".
"I do hope you will be able to go to Oxford just the same. But it seems impossible to expect anything from the future just now; life is so indefinite & one has to wait each day to know what to do next. That is a great source of depression to a person life me, who am always working in the present for what I hope from the future."
* * *
Roland to Vera (9-29-14)--"In fact if I do not get to Oxford at all, as seems possible, I shall not much regret it,--except perhaps in that I shall miss the incidental pleasure of seeing you there. Of course, all being well, I could go up after everything is over. I feel, however, that I am meant to take some active part in this war. It is to me a very fascinating thing--something, if often horrible, yet very ennobling and very beautiful, something whose elemental reality raises it above the reach of all cold theorising. You will call me a militarist. You may be right."
* * *
Roland to Vera (2/15/15)--"I am writing this in front of an open casement window overlooking the sea. The sky is cloudless, and the russet sails of the fishing smacks flame in the sun. It is summer--but it is not war; and I dare not look at it. It only makes me angry, angry with myself for being here, and with the others for being content to be here [he was at home in Britain--at a hotel in Lowestoft]. When men whom I have once despised for being effeminate are sent back wounded from the front, when nearly everyone I know is either going or has gone, can I think of this with anything but rage and shame?"
* * *
Vera to Roland (4/17/15)--"Kingsley's idea that 'Men must work & women must weep', however untrue it ought to be, seems in one sense fairly correct just at present. I certainly try to do as much as possible of the former, & very rarely have an inclination towards the latter--but I do feel like it as little when you tell me you have been kissing my photograph; it is more fortunate than its original. She never seems quite to have got past your reserve or been able to know you properly. I suppose it is the nearness of death which breaks down the reserves & conventions which in the midst of elemental things are sen to matter so little after all."
"I never thought I should ever say to anyone the sort of things I write to you. At ordinary times one little knows how deeply one can be moved."
These letters are utterly compelling to read and hard to put down even knowing what is going to happen. If I manage to finish reading the book this year it will surely end up on my best reads list. And indeed, I think I will be reading more in the same vein. Certainly more by and about Vera Brittain.