This post was originally published at Novelicious.com and is now at WritingTipsOasis.com. WritingTipsOasis.com acquired Novelicious.com in June 2022.
In the latest of our series, Elizabeth Bass tells Novelicious why, at 15, Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain had such a big impact on her. Ellizabeth Bass's new novel, The Way Back to Happiness, is out on the 28th of May.
When I was fifteen, our public television station in Texas ran a British series called Testament of Youth. I watched a little of the beginning but had to miss the rest, so I hunted down a copy of the autobiography that the show was based on. This was the first time I remember thinking that the book was better than the movie. While I had been mildly interested in the television series, when I started the book my teenaged brain latched on to this autobiographical account of a young woman living through World War I and wouldn’t let go. Here was Vera Brittain, a whip-smart, well-to-do teenager, and yet she had to struggle incredibly hard, even with her own parents, for the opportunity to go to university. Then, just as she was at Oxford and achieving her goals, war broke out and she gave it all up to become a war nurse because all the young men she knew and admired had volunteered and were at the front, including her dreamily handsome, brilliant, poetry-writing beau, Roland.
The story contains poetry, swoony romance, frustration, and moments of such crushing tragedy that I still don’t think I’ve ever wept so much as I did during my first reading of this book. Spiky, willful Vera loses almost everyone she loves during the war, and then when it’s over she has to figure out a way to start over. Through writing and friendship she manages to build a new life, but what success she finds later can’t help but seem like a bittersweet achievement.
The moment after I read the last line of the book, I flipped back to page one to start over. For weeks I moped around in headachy grief and girl-crush admiration for this woman who was my grandmother’s age. I set my hand to writing—maudlin poetry and endless journals about my own non-eventful, not-even-remotely-romantic life. If destiny ever called me to write an autobiography, I was determined to be ready with source material, much of it rhyming.
And for the first time, I began to think about those early feminists who had to struggle for every little bit of privacy, freedom, and respect. The statistics in history books took on new meaning to me too, and since reading Testament of Youth, I’ve never thought about war without remembering all the losses Vera suffered. This was the book that showed me that reading could not only be a moving experience, it could change the way a person thought about the world.