Lights Out

‘The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime’

Sir Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, August 1914

Today it is exactly 100 years since Britain joined the first world war! Everyone in the UK is invited to turn off their lights from 10pm to 11pm, leaving on a single light or candle for a shared moment of reflection.

Chronicle of youth 001

I’m reading Vera Brittain’s Chronicle of Youth: Great War Diary 1913 -1917. On Tuesday August 4th 1914 having heard that Germany had declared war on Belgium she wrote:

Stupendous events come so thick & fast after one another that it is impossible to realise to any extent their full import. One feels as if one were dreaming, or reading a chapter out of one of H G Wells’ books like ‘The War of the Worlds’. To me, who have never known the meaning of war, as I can scarcely remember the South African even, it is incredible to think that there can be fighting off the coast of Yorkshire.

To sum up the situation in any way is impossible, every hour brings fresh and momentous events & one must stand still & await catastrophes even more terrible than the last.

 

Teaser Tuesday – Testament of Youth

I’m currently reading Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. She was born in 1896 and this book is an Autobiographical Study of the Years 1900 – 1925. 

I’ve read up to the beginning of 1915, just after the outbreak of the First World War. It’s fascinating and there are so many passages I could highlight, but for now I’m quoting these that I read this morning. Vera Brittain wrote this book in 1933 and she pointed out the change from 1915 to 1933. Just think  of the vast difference between life now and then, nearly 100 years ago.

Sophisticated present-day girls, free immediately after leaving school to come and go as they wish, or living, as independent professional women, in their own rooms or flats, have no conception of the difficulties under which courtships were contracted by provincial young ladies in 1915. There was no privacy for a boy and girl whose mutual feelings had reached their most delicate and bewildering stage; the whole series of complicated relationships leading from acquaintance to engagement had to be conducted in public or not at all. (page 120)

Everything in a young woman’s life was supervised and discussed in the family circle, letters were observed and commented upon. Vera had never been anywhere by herself until she left home to go to Oxford University, on train journeys her ticket was bought for her and she had to send a telegram home immediately she arrived.

In 1915 (aged 19) she was deeply in love with a young man, Roland Leighton, her brother’s friend, but had never been alone with him or without constant observation and the possibility of interruption. She wrote:

Consequently, by the middle of that January, our desire to see one another alone had passed beyond the bounds of toleration. (page 121)

For more Teaser Tuesdays go to Should Be Reading.

Book Notes

I’ve recently finished reading two books:

It’s taken me several weeks to read Eden’s Outcasts and at one point I nearly abandoned it because I thought it was too much about Louisa May Alcott’s father. I’m glad I persevered because the second half of the book  concentrates much more on Louisa and I realised that the title does convey the subject matter very well as it reveals the relationship between them. Bronson Alcott was a complicated person who appeared to have mellowed as he grew older. Louisa, well known and loved for her children’s books never achieved her ambition to write serious books for mature readers, enduring debilitating illness in her later years.

I learnt a lot from this book about their lives and their relationships with other writers such as Emerson, Thoreau and Hawthorne. It’s a very detailed book and there is no way I can summarise their lives in a few words and a double biography is even more difficult to deal with. In the final  paragraph Matteson sums this up very well:

To the extent that a written page permits knowledge of a different time and departed souls, this book has tried to reveal them. However, as Bronson Alcott learned to his amusement, the life written is never the same as the life lived. Journals and letters tell much. Biographers can sift the sands as they think wisest. But the bonds that two persons share consist also of encouraging words, a reassuring hand on a tired shoulder, fleeting smiles, and soon-forgotten quarrels. These contracts, so indispensable to existence, leave no durable trace. As writers, as reformers, and as inspirations, Bronson and Louisa still exist for us. Yet this existence, on whatever terms we may experience it, is no more than a shadow when measured against the way they existed for each other. (page 428)

Turning to Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams,  I thought an autobiography would maybe include more personal recollections and descriptions of events. It starts off very well with her descriptions of her early childhood – her earliest memory from 1933 when she was three and fell on her head from a swing at the Chelsea Babies’ playground. I was very impressed by her memories of the time she spent in America as a young girl during the Second World War and her self-reliance and independence.

However, much of the book consists of her accounts of her political life, making it very much a political history of Britain, rather than a personal account of her life. There are some personal memories and I particularly liked her descriptions of her fellow politicians – Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Roy Jenkins and so one – very little about Margaret Thatcher and a few pertinent comments about Tony Blair. Having said that she comes over as a very honest, genuine person who cares deeply about being a good politician. And maybe it is more personal than I originally thought because in the last chapter she writes these words:

Being an MP is like being a member of an extended family. You learn to love your family with all its knobbliness, perversity, courage and complexity. You learn respect and build up trust. …

To be a good politician in a democracy you have to care for people and be fascinated by what makes them tick. … The politician whose eyes shift constantly to his watch, or to the apparently most important person in the room, feeds the distrust felt by the electorate. It is a distrust born of being manipulated, conned, even decieved and it is fed by a relentlessly cynical national press. (page 389)

A side effect of reading this book is that I’m going to read her mother’s book, a best seller published in 1933 – Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain. Shirley describes it as

… an autobiography of her wartime experience as a nurse and her personal agony in losing all the young men she most loved … (page 13)

In the preface to Testimony of Youth she wrote:

Testimony of Youth is, I think, the only book about the First World War written by a woman, and indeed a woman whose childhood had been a very sheltered one. It is an autobiography and also an elegy for a generation. For many men and women, it described movingly how they themselves felt.

This looks like a much more personal autobiography.